These days, it seems every entrepreneur profile features the term Covid-19. Business tanked? Covid-19. Stagnant demand? Covid-19. Made a windfall? You know why.
For Terence Neo, it’s a mix of all three. Demand for renovations dropped, and the pandemic forced him to postpone the long-awaited expansion of his Singapore-based interior design studio, EightyTwo, to Southeast Asian cities including Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, and Kuala Lumpur.
At the same time, it caused a spike in interior design interest, with Singaporeans splashing out on new gadgets and ergonomic furniture.
“People were spending a lot more time at home, so they started looking at workspaces, at growing plants and landscaping, and at fixing up their kitchens to be home cooks and home bakers,” he says. “They were looking to upgrade their space to improve their life.”
This realisation led him to curate a “home kit” for clients, comprising all sorts of lovely things – a fragrance diffuser from Culti Milano, quirky speakers from Bang & Olufsen, toiletries from Aesop, and more.
This has since developed into an upcoming lifestyle programme, involving collaborations with partners across furniture, fittings, art, scents, florals, and hospitality. Clients will, for example, enjoy perks like a limousine ride and meals at fine dining restaurants.
But EightyTwo’s evolution isn’t limited to onboarding new partners. It might even go bigger: to encompass architecture. In the future, Neo says, he hopes the studio will be recognised as a lifestyle brand, one that’s famous enough to be a household name. “I think the dream is to achieve multidisciplinary status at some point, to allow us to speak for all things creative.”
A leaf from dad’s book
Neo, 38, is perhaps best known for the minimalist, award-winning interiors that have gussied up the rooms of condominiums like Hilltops and Wallich Residence, and landed properties including a Swettenham Road GCB and Frankel Street bungalow.
But the fresh grad chose to work in an architecture firm instead, later joining an interior design company. “I didn’t want to fall back on my dad,” he says. “I wanted to go out and get a few life experiences.”
It was during a break between jobs that a former colleague approached him to start a firm together – that was how EightyTwo was born – and then subsequently departed, leaving Neo to grow the business from a two-man show into a team of 20, a decade on.
And what about dad? “We still talk with each other about the industry,” Neo says. “He inspired me through my early exposure to construction and architecture and materials, and now he’s supporting me from afar.”
‘Afar’ may soon mean more than having separate companies, as EightyTwo’s plans for regional expansion take off. It is building presences in Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand to further its nature-inspired ethos.
“In these countries we can truly tap on the surrounding nature for design inspiration, and there are larger spaces where we can be really adventurous,” says Neo.
“Having nature inspire us is something that’s big for us. Sometimes you don’t find that in a city like Singapore, with all its hustle and bustle.”
But overseas expansion means travel, and even though borders have loosened, Neo can’t help but bring up Covid-19 one last time. “Things are uncertain – but we’re ready,” he says. “We want to grow and expand and immerse ourselves in another culture. The business will be greater. We need to look beyond the horizon.”