Ernie Koh, executive director of Koda, says he was essentially ‘conscripted’ into the family business founded by his father in 1972. He recalls, “I believe that in those days, we did not have much of a choice. Dad put you through an education and so you are expected to come back to join the business.”
Today, Singapore-listed Koda is a leading Original Design Manufacturer that supplies to 150 customers including big international players like Crate and Barrel, Pottery Barn and Harvey Norman.
A turning point came for this family business in 2011. They ventured from being solely a manufacturer to starting furniture retail brand and concept store which they named Commune. Beyond selling furniture products, Commune aims to create a concept that invigorates not just all the sensorial touchpoints but also the emotions. It inspires and provides consumers with the knowledge and understanding of various elements that affect their comfort. To that end, their stores include a scent laboratory to customise scents for homes, a curated playlist, specially designed lighting and even a café to enhance the sense of cosiness.
Commune is spearheaded by Ernie’s nephews, or the third generation in the family business. Joshua Koh is the chief executive officer, his brother Julian Koh heads branding and design and their cousin Gan Shee Wen is chief operating and chief marketing officer.
In the case of the third generation, there was no expectation for them to join the family business. Julian said, “My dad never imposed but rather encouraged us to do whatever we liked and excelled in it, be the best at what we think we can achieve.” As they all grew up being exposed to the family business, the cousins naturally felt passionate to grow it further.
The Commune business grew from one outlet in Singapore in 2011 to over 70 outlets spanning China, Malaysia and the Philippines today. Proud uncle Ernie calls Commune “the next best thing since the invention of sliced bread”. He agrees that the third generation was the catalyst for the brand, but feels the synergy with parent company Koda was also a crucial success factor.
Throughout the years of growth, the company has had to adapt to changing consumer and market demands, while battling business-specific events like factory fires. Throughout, one thing has remained consistent: design has always been and will always be about the consumer.
Koda and Commune have always kept their ears to the ground, responding to changing consumer needs and demands in terms of design. Ernie admits it’s not always easy for a production-based business to adapt, “But it is necessary. Be it design, materials, techniques, we need to adapt to changes in the market in order to survive.” For example, even though dining room furniture has been a key fixture in each household, it has become more casual, with an increase in demand for indoor/outdoor dining furniture.
Julian feels the same way about their starting point with Commune, “We did extensive research into our consumers’ needs and wants, exploring all areas involving trends, prices and usability. Essentially, creating a process of understanding consumer needs before creating products. Design for us has always been about the end user and never about what we want.”
The group, perhaps because of the familial ties, are very aware of the importance of good communication. Ernie quipped, “Many people think of designs without looking into the manufacturing aspects of the designs. This will make the items uncompetitive in the market. It is crucial that designers and marketers work very closely with the factory to make sure that designs are able to be manufactured within the capabilities of the factory at a competitive price point.” Koda’s experience in keeping a close eye on manufacturing efficiency has had a positive impact on Commune, which is well-positioned to fill the gap at the mid-level, catering to consumers who are looking for high quality designer products that wouldn’t break the bank.
Over the years, one thing that appears to remain consistent is wood as a choice of material. Shee Wen explained, “Timber never goes out of style. It will remain as the major part of our product offerings. We do include other materials such as leather, metal, marble, terrazzo into the timber products if required to enhance functionality and aesthetics.”
Julian added his design perspective, “Most of our products have American hardwood incorporated in them. We feel that these timbers are timeless - they will never go out of style. The grains, texture and versatility of wood I feel tells a story of nature which also brings warmth to the designed environment.”
American hardwood, in particular white oak and walnut, are Koda and Commune’s material of choice. Not only are they sustainably and legally sourced, they are also consistently high quality and offer great value. Like Koda and Commune, most of the US forest has been owned by families for generations. It is termed by some a ‘legacy crop’.
Many Commune designs use American white oak, which accounts for about 33% of American hardwood resource, is mainly straight-grained with medium to coarse texture. The colour of white oak ranges from whitish to light brown (sapwood) to mid to dark brown (heartwood). It answers the enduring taste for a Scandinvian aesthetic and is the choice by many fine furniture designers seeking consistency of grain and colour.
American walnut exudes luxury. Surprisingly, the sapwood of American walnut is creamy white, whereas the heartwood is light brown to dark chocolate brown, making the colour difference quite distinct. The wood of walnut is generally straight grained, although sometimes with wavy or curly grain. It is favoured by all those with an eye for high end furnishings.
Koda through Commune has built a design legacy for future generations of the family. The group demonstrates how experience, innovation and creativity can combine to produce designs that are fresh and exciting with the confidence that there is heritage of quality at the core. Ernie Koh is a stickler for high standards in design and in business which is one reason he says “What will be consistent over the years to come is the usage of American timber. Wood is one material that humans appear to have an attachment to and that matters.”