Don’t let his age fool you – 28-year old Matthew already has 9 design awards under his belt.
The founder of Matthew Lim Associates knows a thing or two about transforming spaces through functional design. Over the past 4 years, he and his design consultancy team have garnered an impressive client portfolio of local and international F&B outlets including Dal.komm coffee, Madame Waffle, Tealive (Vietnam), Platform M Food Hall (Singapore) and The Beer Factory (Yangon); bespoke residential properties, retail outlets and a boutique hotel.
Here, Matthew talks about his humble beginnings, the importance of pairing functionality with aesthetics and why he values passion above all else.
What inspired you to pursue a career in ID?
I was born and raised in Malacca and my childhood was pretty ordinary. My dad was a lorry driver while my mum was a tailor. I fancied myself an artist – sketching and drawing were my favourite pastimes. It was my art teacher who encouraged me to venture down the ID path; he mentioned that interior designers make boatloads of money and well I fell for it – hook, line and sinker.
I discovered soon enough that it isn’t quite that simple; many youngsters are attracted to the ‘glamorous’ field of ID but realize too late that they are not cut out for the amount of work and discipline required. Among my batch of course mates at First City University College, only 30% stuck to an interior design career upon graduating.
What made it tougher for me was that I had to chip in to cover my university tuition fees as my parents did not have the means to do so. When I was not attending classes or completing assignments at university, I took on quite a few freelancing jobs outsourced by local ID companies. I’m not one to blow my own trumpet but despite the crazy work and study schedule, I graduated with first-class honors.
The side hustle turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it provided me with the opportunity to hone my skills and sharpen my focus. Before, as a naïve and inexperienced student, my design work was done purely via an artistic approach and lacked a bigger picture perspective.
Tell me about the turning point in your career.
It was during the final year of my degree in 2012 that my lecturer suggested that I submit my Final Year Project for the Asian Young Designer Awards (AYDA) 2012. To my absolute surprise, I emerged as the winner!
As the country champion, I was supposed to go on and compete at the regional level. It wasn’t a bed of roses, though – I developed pneumothorax, a condition where air leaks into the space between your lung and chest wall, causing the lung to collapse. As I was suffering from chest pains and undergoing numerous surgeries in a span of 2 months, my family members suggested that I drop out as the competition required months long of preparation and presentations. I persevered as I did not come this far just to give up.
Lo and behold, I managed to bag the ASEAN crown; my grapple with health challenges made success even sweeter. The win really opened up doors for me as AYDA not only offered me mentorship sessions but it also served as a platform for me to network with industry experts and various successful designers. The whole experience enabled me to gain the right skillsets and exposure required to start off my own business, besides putting my name out there.
I’ve continued to remain an active AYDA alumni – participating in coaching/ mentoring sessions and serving as a design judge. It is only fair that I give back to emerging interior designers by helping prepare them for the real-world beyond the classroom’s four walls.
When you think about designing a space for a client, what’s most important?
It was during my first official stint as an interior design at Young Blood Creations, where I learnt very quickly the ropes of the ID trade. I’ve just turned 23 and even having won AYDA, I was still wet behind the ears. Nevertheless, a few months into the job, my superior, BK Loh gave me a break by putting me in charge of a huge project, where I was tasked to furbish a corporate space measuring 16,000 sq ft!
This particular task was an eye-opener – I discovered that ID transcends beyond making a place look beautiful, rather a good design amalgamates both form and function. Besides creating pleasing aesthetics, one of my challenges included figuring out how a certain design will add value to the client’s business while addressing the health, safety and welfare of the end user.
I learnt the hard way that design is never about you or what catches your fancy, instead, you must place myself in the client’s shoes and question everything from Which style and colour schemes will help enhance worker productivity? to How can the layout of this space encourage collaboration?
Being an interior designer demands more than creative juices, one has to be agile in project and people management too; as you will have to deal with numerous stakeholders such as contractors, consultants, architects and material suppliers.
My experience at Young Blood made me realise that I had an affinity for commercial and hospitality design and the learnings there served as a stepping stone for me to venture out on my own and set up Matthew Lim Associates in 2014.
We offer a full range of ID services including interior space planning, conceptual design, schematic design and development, branding, detailed ID documentation, cost and schedule control, construction, installation, site supervision as well as design communication.
I have fond memories of our first ID project, where my team and I went all out to refurbish a bakery in Pavillion called Kurtos Spiroll. We spent hours at the drawing board coming up with ID solutions and poring over seemingly small details like furniture placement, material types, counter size and positioning as these factors go a long way in cutting down manpower, reducing the need for maintenance and saves electricity.
Our client loved how we use design to kill two birds with one stone, where it helped:
1) Create a strong brand which will attract a loyal clientele
2) Enhance the business operations.
Matthew Lim Associates’ portfolio just snowballed after that as it was through referrals and word of mouth where we secured commercial clients including Tealive, Madame Waffle, Dal.komm coffee, New Chapter by The Owls Cafe, Singapore’s Ministry of Food, Diamond & Platinum and even high-end residential projects commissioned by private owners in Setia Eco Park, Sentral Residences and Seputeh Heights.
Our client reach expanded extensively from the Klang Valley to Penang, Johor Bahru, Malacca and Kota Kinabalu. We have also spread our wings to Singapore, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia as well as China.
It is no wonder why Matthew picks up awards like they are low-hanging fruit. His numerous accolades include International A’ Design Award 2016, Italy; Asia Young Designer Award (Asia) 2016 and IDA Award International, Los Angeles (Honorary Mention).
And as the author was writing this story, he won yet another award – Go, Matthew!
Do you have any advice for up and coming interior designers?
Passion is very important as interior designing is very demanding especially when you are in the commercial and hospitality field. When you are driven by passion it won’t feel like work. Additionally, having a strong team is crucial; in design development, two minds are always better than one. I am fortunate to have a group of creative and like-minded people for colleagues.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you’d like to add?
One should be careful when hiring an interior designer – I have heard numerous stories of customers being short-changed by individuals touting themselves as professional interior designers. For instance, it is common practice for contractors to bundle in ID into their services even though these parties have no formal training in design. Hence, please ensure that you conduct your own due diligence beforehand by requesting for testimonials, a client portfolio and a budget proposal.