Luxury with a conscience
Luxury and sustainability haven’t always been the most comfortable bedfellows; sadly, scarcity often increases price and therefore desirability. However, Lay Koon Tan, Founder of Nature Squared, believes it is possible to create luxurious materials in a sustainable way, while preserving artisan skills and quality. She speaks to Tamsin Kingswell.
Together with her business partner, Paul Hoeve, Lay Koon Tan founded Nature Squared in 2000. Both founders had had successful careers in finance, but were ready to find a career with more meaning and value. “When we founded Nature Squared, it was with the express purpose of using natural materials that are sustainable; waste, by-products of other industries or fast-growing natural materials, transforming them by master craftsmanship and cutting edge technical and chemical know-how into beautiful surfaces,” explains Tan.
Tan points out that there is no shortage of natural products that aren’t endangering species or damaging the environment. “We work with a wide variety of materials, ranging from the mundane to the unusual. From leaves, seeds and barks; sea shells and eggshells; to bones and feathers, we aim to fashion objects of outstanding beauty and quality,” she explains.
All the materials Tan sources have a rich story to tell, and this is very much part of the essence of the brand. “Everything we produce is the culmination of a journey that starts with the natural material, continues with its transformation at the hands of our craftsmen, and ends as an object of both beauty and function,” says Koon. She cites many stages in this journey: the natural environment in which the plant or animal grows is nurtured and harvested; the various incarnations through which it gets transformed; the choice of working techniques; and how to highlight a texture, or a colour, without compromising the essence of the material. “In my experience, people are usually fascinated to know how the mussel shell they have often discarded without thought has been transformed into a sublime smoky blue surface; or their breakfast eggshell into an abstract pattern reminiscent of fine Japanese raku glaze.”
When selecting materials, Tan always considers tactility; a sense she believes is highly underrated. “I look with my hands. What I love about the surfaces we produce is their multi-facetted appeal: the fact that no two shells, no two feathers, no two leaves are ever alike; this makes for a deeper and continuing interest. And the interplay between light and texture is very important, not only with iridescent materials like shell,” she explains. Because all of Nature Squared surfaces are hand-inlaid, subtle irregularities that speak to craftsmanship and individuality are inherent, as opposed to the perfection of machine production. “I believe that our fingers and our unconscious detect these qualities even when our eyes and our conscious minds do not,” she adds.
Until about three years ago, much of Nature Squared’s interior work focused on super yachts and private jets. These projects have very long lead times and challenging design and technical aspects. One super yacht project took two years to complete and included shell veneers and 60 tons of jade, not commercially available, whose ownership was with native tribesmen. “Given our strong stance on stewardship, we were anxious to ensure that our use of this jade was sustainable. This meant working directly with the tribesmen, circumventing political and military interests opposed to those of the tribe, while simultaneously dealing with a complete lack of transportation routes, altitude, virgin rainforest and flash-flooding rivers,” says Tan.
More recently, luxury car brands have discovered Nature Squared’s materials. “I love what we have done with Rolls Royce for the Phantom 8. To me, the dashboard in feathers is quintessential Nature Squared; feathers from the common cockerel, applied feather by feather to a technically-engineered and cleverly-contrived substrate. The finished product showcases the beauty of nature and the ingenuity of man,” says Tan.
On a technical level, natural materials are tricky; nature doesn’t provide a specification sheet. As Tan points out, this is fine if you are only producing attractive decorative items; a seashell soap dish, a framed sea fan. But a bath inlaid in eggshell is a different story, as it needs to withstand the weight, heat and chemical requirements of use. “That takes the deep material knowledge and innovative technical solutions we have developed,” she says. “A case in point; Nature Squared is the only producer of natural material surfaces that meets International Maritime Organisation flammability requirements for cruise ships and larger private yachts, and the equivalent for aircraft.
Each product also needs to be assessed for environmental sustainability. This usually starts with the identification of a by-product of another industry or activity thatwould otherwise be discarded as waste, or by finding a fast-growing and abundant material. For example, mussels or well-known botanicals like thatching reed or tobacco leaves. “Our first question is always are the populations safe and sustainable?
If necessary, we will consult with subject-matter experts (conservation experts, conchologists, rangers) as well as local experts (fishermen and farmers) to ensure that there are no global or local environmental concerns on supply.”
Tan’s current passion is for feathers. “I find them sublimely beautiful but couldn’t think of a way to work with them that would meet our sustainability and traceability criteria. I felt very strongly that they needed to be from birds that were eaten, but almost all such birds are mechanically plucked. On the other hand, picking up moult feathers would not provide the quantities we would practically need,” she explains. Koon turned to Christina Tooley of Chevron Hackles. She agreed to help Tan harvest pheasant feathers from two local sources. Both these sources enthusiastically agreed to support the use of these feathers, otherwise destined for landfill.
Feathers now feature in the brand’s new Signature Furniture Collection that will launch at Salone de Mobile in Milan this April. “We are working with Bethan Gray, who has designed the collection. She has very cleverly embodied the essence of our materials into every piece. The collection is targeted at people who value the importance of sustainable materials, along with the dedication required when applying century-old skills and artisanal techniques which have only been enhanced by the ingenuity and innovation of today’s technology,” says Tan.
As far as sustainability issues are concerned, Tan believes we are heading in the right direction. “There is a groundswell of desire for change. The ordinary consumer is much more aware of the power of their spending patterns to drive such change,” she says. However, she also notes that much lip service is paid to the idea of sustainability without any real commitment to the entire manufacturing process from start to finish. “It is tough because sustainability calls for debate, balance and ultimately action. At Nature Squared, we take a holistic view of sustainability. We are very conscious that we deal with a world that seeks absolutes. We believe sustainability is a mindset that requires the conscious balancing of relevant environmental, social and economic factors.”
Tan is well aware that there are monumental environmental issues out there; plastics, species conservation, recycling. “We just want to play our small part in the sustainability awakening, by illustrating how luxury and rarity can be served with humble, commonplace materials,” she says.
Interview with Mix Magazine appeared in print only.