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The Staying Power of designphase dba

designphase dba celebrated 30 years in Singapore in 2012. Here Managing Director Derek MacKenzie comments on his experience of practicing in Singapore over three decades.

The Staying Power of designphase dba


January 1st, 2013

When Derek MacKenzie first moved to Singapore from Sydney, there was no MRT; terminal 1 at Changi Airport was brand new; and there were conveyor belts transporting soil from the hills of Siglap and Tampines to barges that dumped it on reclamation areas.

Needless to say, today’s Singapore is a very different place to the one MacKenzie landed in during the 1980s. And the changes extend far beyond infrastructure and geography. The nature of interior design practice, he notes, has also changed significantly.

designphase dba

Toby’s Estate

“Today, the client base is quite different. Expectations are much higher, the scale of projects is larger, the variety of assignments is wider, and the methods of procurement are also more varied,” he says.

He adds, “Different types of venues are being used for retail and F&B. Historical considerations have come into the equation, whereas they were completely marginalised in years gone by. When I first came here you wouldn’t have dreamt of putting an international restaurant in a shophouse!”

designphase dba

Food Garden, Asia Square

designphase dba now has a staff of 33 and an office on the top floor of a tower in Cecil Street. “We’ve done a lot of work – close to 1,000 assignments. That’s a busy practice!” comments MacKenzie. “It also shows a response to a need.”

He joined designphase after leaving the Australian practice for which he originally came to Singapore. “That company needed someone here to open an office here. They were a big company in Australia at the time, and they were one of the first in our industry to branch overseas from Australia.”

He continues, “When I got here there were probably only half a dozen interior design competitors. Nobody employed anyone to do anything in HDB; you did everything yourself if you were an owner.” None of his competitors from that time exist today.

designphase dba

Freehills office

What has led to the longevity of designphase? “Tenacity, remaining focused and not being greedy,” suggests MacKenzie. “Maybe it’s also because I’ve been based here and could make decisions on the spot, without being tied to foreign shareholders or partners from overseas headquarters.”

When asked to name some of his most memorable projects, Borders (completed 2002) is the first that springs to MacKenzie’s mind.

“It was their first time outside the USA. It changed them and us,” he says. The project involved planning and operational strategies that Borders hadn’t previously considered, including a more exploratory layout and a connected bistro. “The idea was to make it Orchard Road’s meeting place.” It was a strategy that proved very successful.

designphase dba


“We used to be mainly focused on the corporate office sector,” he says, “but I had a broader experience in Australia and I kept seeing opportunities in the other sectors here. After 25 years of doing small jobs across sectors, I realised it was time to think about it in a broader context.” Hospitality work at the Republic Plaza basement and the Singapore Cricket Club, as well as retail work at Marina Bay Sands, are just part of the designphase dba portfolio.

“We also began working with the design-build model, which we had resisted for 2 decades. But increasingly, clients are looking for a single point of responsibility and one line of process. The design-build model has become very popular in Asia. Almost 50% of our work is design-build, and it covers all sectors.”

designphase dba

Marina Bay Sands gift shop

MacKenzie is quick to caution, “I wouldn’t suggest that design-build is the right way to go for big projects. I don’t think we could have successfully completed Hindustan Unilever headquarters in India without a good quality project manager.”

“I’m not sure that the design-build model is handled perfectly by everyone. It hasn’t always been popular, but that’s usually from the point of view of protecting the client from what might not always be the most transparent process. The design-build formula is very well known in the UK and in Japan.”

designphase dba

REDAS office

What does MacKenzie enjoy about practicing in Singapore? “Diversity – in just about everything! Here there’s diversity of client base, of nationalities, of industry sectors – in many areas.”

And what can we expect to see from designphase dba in the years ahead? “I think designphase will be doing more in the hospitality sector. I suspect that we’ll be doing much more international work.”

He adds, “I think the international community will reach into Singapore to draw the best out into the international arena, rather than the other way around. Singapore brands will rise and be sought after. They are now – but will be more comprehensively in years to come. We’d like to be part of that.”

designphase dba

Societe Generale office

designphase dba

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