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Generating Value: Saturday Indesign 2019 Ambassador Toh Yah Li

Lighting designer Toh Yah Li shares a little bit about keeping a design enterprise afloat in a challenging market ahead of her Design Conversation session on 12 October.

Generating Value: Saturday Indesign 2019 Ambassador Toh Yah Li

When a design practice decides to branch out overseas, it is usually to the parts of the world where the start-up cost is less burdensome to the company’s cash flow. 

That wasn’t the case with Singaporean lighting studio Light Collab. Founded in Singapore in 2010 by Singaporean lighting designer Toh Yah Li, the studio set up a base in Tokyo in 2012, which is helmed by Japanese lighting designer Teruhiko Kubota, Toh’s friend and former colleague.  

Now entering its tenth year in the business, the studio has garnered a growing list of accolades and an international portfolio that includes projects in Japan, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, China and other parts of Asia. 

Sometime one must seek a seal of approval overseas to convince people back home. This is true for many professionals, academics and entrepreneur who are starting a business from scratch. 

This is also the case with Light Collab. What is also interesting is the studio has created a whole ecosystem of collaboration in the process that keeps the studio lean and nimble, even with projects spread across the globe. 

Toh will be one of our Design Conversation speakers at Saturday Indesign on 12 October. Toh is a familiar face in our Design Conversation series. She was one of the speakers at 2017 Design Conversation series’ lighting panel. This year, she will be sharing her experience in navigating the challenging market as a designpreneur. 

Toh will be joined by Produce founder Pan Yi Cheng and Goy Architects founder Goy Zhenru for Designpreneurship in a Challenging Market at Vitra Showroom at Tan Boon Liat Building. We caught up with Toh ahead of Saturday Indesign to find out a little bit about what she has to say. 

Habitat at Honestbee. Interior design by Wynk Collaborative. Photo by ND Photography


How has the client’s expectation of lighting design changed?

Lighting design is no longer about just providing illumination for seeing, but also really changing the perceived value of the space, and the way people interact. Lighting can be a medium for interaction, even influenced the behaviour of the people in every sense.

Good lighting design can bring people together, especially in the age of social media, it can bring social value in addition to being aesthetically pleasing. 

So even in the so-called conventional projects, lighting becomes an exercise to challenge the norm. And I think it’s really fun to do a project typology that we haven’t done before. We start all projects by thinking, “What can be different in this project? How can we change the way people are doing this?”


Can you give some example of this in your projects?

The lighting at Habitat by Honestbee and Love Bonito, for example, are very Instagrammable and they compel people to post and share. It’s free publicity for the clients – everyone advertises their spaces. 

Habitat at Honestbee. Interior design by Wynk Collaborative. Photo by ND Photography

And they’ve changed how people look at retail spaces. Taking photos in a supermarket is cool now. Retail space may not be necessarily so bright from now. After these projects, we were approached to design the lighting for Fairprice Xtra at VivoCity, which we were very surprised about.   

Love Bonito. Interior design by Wynk Collaborative. Photo by John Scott 

Tower of Light in Dhaka, Bangladesh, also brings people together. It has changed people’s perception of a national monument. 

Tower of Light, Dhaka. Architecture by URBANA and Marina Tabassum. Photo by Light Collab


How has collaboration helped Light Collab as a business?

When we started Light Collab we didn’t have a very big ambition – we just wanted to deliver good work, and that’s about it.  But of course, even you have the genuine heart and the enthusiasm deliver good work, the clients may not want to open doors to you when you started something from zero with no big names backing you up.

In design school, we were never taught business aspects, as the focus is about design. Thus, it is a steep learning curve to balance the hours, resources fees and expenses. But since the beginning, embedded in the name Light Collab, is this vision to be able to collaborate more. The studio doesn’t have to be necessarily big in one place – it could be small practices in several locations, who operate more like a collective. The key to this is to have the right people on the ground on each location. 

In terms of helping the business. Singapore or Singaporeans is one of the hardest markets to convince so it helps to be able to show what you’ve been able to do somewhere else before initiating something similar here. In that sense, having a presence overseas has helped us, so too being certified and being part of an international association such as the International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD). 

Audi Minato Mirai. Architecture by Projects International Japan. Interior design by GT Design. Photo by Toshio Kaneko


What excites you the most from the world of lighting design today?

Very open-minded designers and clients who listen to your ideas and give you a larger room for exploration. And of course, there is also new technology. One of the recent developments is lighting from solar energy, which has made things smaller – miniature size.

That gives us a lot of opportunities to do more things that probably couldn’t do before. But it’s just a tool, like a pen. It’s up to you to use the pen to make something, whether it’s a scribble or an artwork. So still the one thing that keeps me excited is meeting more open-minded collaborators. 

Love Bonito. Interior design by Wynk Collaborative. Photo by John Scott 


What’s your hope for Light Collab in the future?

More meaningful collaboration. As lighting designers, often we’re placed on the lower hierarchy than architects and interior designers in a project because their visions get the priority, which we understand. But sometimes they may not aware of or miss out on some opportunities in term of what lighting can do for their vision.

So I hope for more collaborations that are on equal standing where we can have two-way conversations. And trust us a little bit more to let us experiment and bring additional value with light to the table. 

Audi Minato Mirai. Architecture by Projects International Japan. Interior design by GT Design. Photo by Toshio Kaneko  


What are you most looking forward to at Saturday Indesign?

I am looking forward to the exchange of ideas and aspirations with the design community at Saturday Indesign… I think the ambassadorship is a good opportunity to share my story to encourage people, that if you believe in something, don’t give it up. 
Although it is going to take some time, if you continue to follow the path, even when the steps are tiny, if you keep towards the same direction and continue to do your job well, you’ll get there somehow. Being an ambassador allows me to share this story and hopefully, it is to be a beacon of hope.


Catch Yah Li discussing designpreneurship with Pan Yi Cheng of Produce and Type0 Architects, and Goy Zhenru of Goy Architects at Saturday Indesign on 12 October, 2:00pm, Vitra showroom. 

Register to attend now!


All images courtesy of Light Collab

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