When Passion And Career Come Together

Artistic prodigy Keat Ong lives and breathes design

While most people continue to scramble in search of their hidden talents way into their 20s, Keat Ong, the President at Society of Interior Designers Singapore, started showing signs of artistic inclination at only 2 years old. 

With the knack to captivate audiences with his interior design, he has been awarded Asia’s Top Designers in Singapore Design Awards 2014 and also the Designer of the Year 2016/2017 by the famed Interior Design Magazine. 

He has also been appointed as chief judges and jury members for many well-known competitions and awards, including A'Design Awards & Competition (Italy) and Asia Pacific Interior Design Awards (Hong Kong). 

His prestige in the interior design industry intrigued our thirst for inspiring lessons. So we approached him for an interview to delve deeper into his story. 

First of all, when did you realize that designing is your cup of tea?

I have to bring you way back to my childhood period. According to my fashion designer/ tailor mom, I started scribbling on her super humongous drafting or layout table when I was 2.  I recalled one instance when one of her customers asked me to draw on a few pieces of papers for her collection when she saw my graffiti on the table. It was a good feeling when someone pays attention and enjoys what you have created. I was sent into children’s weekend art class and took part in countless children’s art competitions and won in many of them.

Throughout my earlier school days from primary to secondary schools, I was always the “designated” artist and illustrator when it comes to class newsletters and event posters, simply because I have been doodling practically non-stop, and sometimes too much.

Even when I was enlisted into the armed forces for my national service, I did up quite a bit of creative work for my unit including designing and making the larger than life statues for the unit and so on. 

The deciding point was of course university education. I was at a crossroads to decide what I want to do in life during my 2 years in the army.  Young and adventurous, professions like geologist, photo-journalist, teacher, archeologist, architect all crossed my mind and I was excited but at the same time, afraid of making the wrong choice. I chose Architecture eventually because of its comprehensive curriculum even though it has the longest duration and the highest tuition fees comparatively. 

My foundation in art helped me when I was at the architecture school but it took me a curriculum year to really grasp what true design is. 

Keat Ong on the cover of numerous design magazines

What was the path you took to get to where you are today?

I guess I have always been put off by normalcy and attracted by things that are a little different. From the objects I use, to the accessories I wear, I’ve always had a fancy on unique items.  Maybe that helps me to stay true to myself and actually allows me to be happy and remain excited about my job. Overtime, this developed into a passion. 

I recalled one of my clients, an established developer, once commented that she actually envied my life as she feels I’m getting paid well for doing things I love. 

Thus, I guess it could be the consistency in attitude that keeps me going strong in an ever changing world with ever-evolving demands. 

Lion’s Den Hotel (architecture & Interior Design) , Pingjiang, China

What is your epitome of success?

The general sentiment is that it’s good but never good enough. Every peak you reached, oftentimes, there’s always a higher one in view. Thus, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I try not to be complacent with what was achieved along the way and will create opportunities and targets for myself to continue on with the journey to do more. 

Do you have a personal design methodology?  

Every project I take on is unique and I will develop a new design concept for it. Having said that, I do have a design methodology that I applied to every of my spatial design project. These will be shared via my second book that will be published this year titled “INJARC : Injecting Architecture - An Interior Architecture Methodology”. 

Keat Ong conducting a lecture at Taiwan’s Chung Yuan Christian University

Is there anything that stresses you up that you try your best to avoid? 

Being a practitioner, an educator and an industry leader, any bad human relationship is the number one factor that could really stress me up. Unfortunately, in the line of work that I’m in, there’s many “battles” that require my involvement or leadership and many are emotionally-draining. 

What do you think about the role of awards and competitions in transforming the industry?

Design awards and competitions are only focusing very much on the aspect of professional excellence. To transform the industry into a better one, we also need professional competency and integrity. 

What do you think about the growth of the interior design field among Asians?

Asian Design has come a long way today. 2 decades ago, architecture and spatial design books covering Asian works were not given the same form of respect comparatively, especially among the bookshelves and even the publications on Japanese Design were segregated from them. 

With the rapid economic growth, political stability and social development improvements in Asia as a whole, many more construction projects are happening in the region than anywhere else in the world. These have set the main backdrop for many more Asian Design luminaries to emerge and initiatives to happen. However, there is still much work to be done in terms of design excellence, education as well as leadership from Asia to tilt the scale a little further.

Opening address for the inaugural Singapore Interior Design Festival in 2018

Design is never a constant. It keeps changing. In your point of view, what do you think about the future of design? 

Design is ever-evolving. The world we live in is also fast-moving. There are certainly a lot of industry disruptions that will change the way we live and the way we do design today. With Mother Earth deteriorating, today’s designers are taught to be environmentally conscious, not as a marketing gimmick, but as a form of duty.  

Both opportunities and challenges emerge with the fourth industrial revolution, designers may become the disrupters, thinking ahead and changing some of the fundamentals on how human engages spaces and services. 

What or who would you consider as an inspiration in your career?

My interest in design has spanned beyond architecture and interior design. I have always drawn a lot of inspiration from other design disciplines such as fashion, graphics, industrial design, art and so on.  

In fact, at this very moment, I am also collaborating with major brands to design luxury accessories, furniture, fashion items and food products. 

Longping Rice Museum (interior design) , Longping, China

In so many years of design, what are the challenges that almost forced you to give up?

I have been at the very low point of my life, but it has never made my mind to give up. One of the lowest points in my career life would be the betrayal from my first business partner that almost bankrupted the company. Local projects were siphoned away while I was busy expanding the oversea markets, leaving me to shoulder the bad debts. Well, thinking back about it, actually made me stronger and has motivated me to work harder and smarter.

How did you pick yourself up from those tragic moments and continue on?

It was tough but the support of family members and close friends actually helped a lot. The incident also taught me to be more prudent and cautious when I’m dealing with business partners. The silver lining of it is that I matured tremendously in business sense. 

Changsha City Museum (Interior design), Changsha, China

What do you think is your most undesirable trait? 

I’m not the most patient person in the world. 

You’re quite a personality in this field, but what are the lesser-known facts about you?

I’m an avid motor-biker. I used to love the great outdoors, do sports like trekking, mountain biking, paragliding and scuba diving and I still hate golf. I also collect knives and toys.

Keat on his Ducati

What helps you push through a challenging day?

Coffee breaks helped with painkillers only as a standby. Sometimes when work piles up and I have a choice, I’ll work from home with a nice brew at the patio.

What is the one issue that is bothering you in the design industry and if you are given a chance how you will change it?

The legitimacy of the interior designers. Most countries at this point still do not have a proper accreditation system in place to regulate the interior designers. I’m fortunate to be given the opportunity to initiate an accreditation system for interior designers in Singapore. 

Tell us something that you think the design industry lacks and what should be done to address the issue?

The Intellectual property rights of built environment design works has been an ongoing set of issues at a global level that cannot be resolved at the moment. Industry leaders around the world should come together to work out a collaborative set of guidelines to continue encouraging good works by protecting the creators.

Jewels Artisan Chocolate (Interior Design), Singapore

Tell us about the current project that you’re working on and your upcoming ones.

I’m completing two 10,000 sq metre museums and a dozen more commercial spaces in a few Chinese cities.  I’m also working on a new furniture series and collaborating on projects such as luxury watches, fashion lines and some food products.

If you are not an interior designer, what would you be right now?

Probably an explorer or an adventurer. 

Would you rather find your true love or a suitcase loaded with ten million dollars?

Of course the former. With love, you can create a fruitful and prosperous career. 

If you’re granted 3 wishes, what would they be?

Prosperity, Status, and Longevity (Fu Lu Shou).

What advice would you give to millennials out there to succeed in this interior design pathway?

Find something you can stay passionate, happy about and keep perfecting it. You can be a jack of all trades but be at least a master to one!


Keat Ong is the President of Society of Interior Designers Singapore, Founder & MD of Nota Design Group, Vice President of Asia Pacific Space Designers Association & visiting professor to many universities.

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