Words Henrietta Thompson
Photographs Jake Curtis
Styling Hana Al-Sayed
Nature Squared makes luxurious surface materials that are a natural phenomenon, using luxurious waste products that might otherwise end up in landfill. By elevating the skills of artisans in developing countries, this is a company on a mission to create positive change in everything they do.
‘Do you shoot?’ It’s an unexpected opener, not least because it comes from Lay Koon Tan, the co-founder of sustainable luxury materials producer Nature Squared. But she’s holding up what looks very much like a flattened pheasant, so…
‘Well, a lot of shooting goes on in this country. And other than a small percentage of birds that go into the butchery train, the rest get thrown away. It goes to landfill because the economics just won’t work.’ Lay Koon is incredulous. ‘Now, I don’t shoot, and we’ve always been big on conservation, but I can’t bear the thought of all this being thrown away. I can’t bear it.’
It was understanding this grim lifecycle that set in motion, a couple of years ago, a project with Rolls-Royce, in which Nature Squared began harvesting unused feathers and immortalising them in artworks for dashboards and other surfaces. Would it not be much easier just to oppose shooting altogether? ‘Yes, fine, it would be ideal if you didn’t have to have a real economic measure that allows the calibration, but the fact is, there are many people in the Southwest or up in the Highlands who have no alternative work. They need something to live on, and this is what there is. There isn’t a lot of employment there, and there is social deprivation. When the grouse season was really bad, and it’s so easy to condemn it and say, “Oh my goodness, it’s catering to whatever, rich folk who can pay for it.” The reality is, I was talking to a beater who told me that because the grouse season was so bad this year he lost his income.’
One-dimensional thinking is a big part of what’s wrong with the world today, says Lay Koon. ‘The whole idea of balance goes out the window. People get so hung up on a position these days, so quick to condemn, without having any idea of what goes on in people’s lives and the economics of what they have to contend with.’
We’re only five minutes into our meeting but Lay Koon, one imagines, is someone who doesn’t waste time getting straight to the heart of the matter on a regular basis. Having founded Nature Squared in 2000 with the express purpose of creating meaningful, sustainable employment in developing countries, she has been on a mission to reaffirm the value of artisanal skills and the ‘inextricable links between nature and human endeavour’ for the best part of two decades.
Nature Squared is well known for producing astonishing surfaces from natural phenomena – feathers, tropical shells, exotic leathers, leaves, precious stones, nuts and seeds and so on – used in large-scale luxury projects from yacht interiors to private members’ clubs, fivestar hospitality projects and the homes, penthouses and swimming pools of UHNWIs worldwide.
The social and sustainable roots of the business, however, have been less widely communicated. This is unusual in an age where huge corporates are falling over themselves to demonstrate – however authentically – some degree of responsibility towards the planet and the people on it, often building enormous campaigns around relatively tiny greenand- meaningful initiatives. In Nature Squared’s case we’re not talking lip-service projects here, but entire systems.
‘In Colombia we tried to set up as a co-operative,and we had people kidnapped… our flight got hijacked. It was like Indiana Jones, but not funny’
The millionaire jet set that have become Nature Squared’s end customers are not the only people that Lay Koon and her cofounder Paul Hoeve originally set out to serve when they conceived Nature Squared at the height of the dot com bubble. Combating the backward-looking view that developing countries are a source of cheap labour and low quality, Nature Squared invests in heritage skills and, where necessary, will reestablish dying skills, such as hand loom weaving, to build artisan heritage businesses for the future. The main sources for its surfaces are farmed or waste materials that can be harvested in a way that will support local economies.
So why would they not shout about that? Because it’s complicated, says Lay Koon, and until recently people simply didn’t want to know. ‘But I will say this: we’ve been going 20 years. And compared to when we started, at least there are some people who are interested now. Back then, this was such a non-subject. Even though it was clear there are issues: coral bleaching, all that kind of stuff , which made the headlines then. But I get really frustrated (as you can tell) because people either want to get on a soapbox and rant about something, a “cause”, and package it up with a simple solution that doesn’t really exist, or they’re going to ignore the whole issue. Neither is healthy. We need to look at it holistically.’
Although the issues they address through their production lines are complex and rarely explainable in bite-sized nuggets, Nature Squared is now finally shifting its approach. ‘If you don’t talk about it – and we have had a policy of not talking about it for 18 years, because they’re our private values, and that’s it – but if you don’t talk about it, you just propagate ignorance.’
Once upon a time, says Lay Koon, she was a high flyer in the city, with ambitions to join the UN or the World Bank, and friends at both. ‘It would have been the perfect profile, it ticked so many boxes…’ On reflection, however, she realised the bureaucracy would drive her mad. ‘Or I would drive them mad, or both.’ Plotting an alternative future, she spoke to her then boss, now business partner, Paul Hoeve, and to cut a long story short, about a year later, they decided to start something together. Their first stop? Colombia.
‘This was 2001, this was the height of FARC nightmare in Colombia. We tried to set it up as a cooperative and we had people kidnapped… we were constantly having to move around. With armed guards. Our flight got hijacked. It was like Indiana Jones, but not funny.’ Three years later they gave up. ‘We finally realised this was beyond us.’
Next, they went to the Philippines, to Vietnam and Africa. ‘Vietnam was super interesting because this is before it really opened up, but it was clear that they were going to get it together. Africa was tough: the level of hand skills, the heritage skills that we were looking for with the materials, didn’t exist there. In the Philippines on the other hand: their main export is their people. The dream is massive and there’s the multiplier effect, but they’re in this vicious circle where their best option is to simply leave.’
Today at Nature Squared’s production facilities, they have more than 180 people. ‘The fact is that our management team, our managers, our engineers, our chemists, our draftsman, these are all people who have tried to work abroad and then decided to come back. They’re well qualified, super well motivated, but they’re actually an anomaly.’
Their artisans, too, have been trained to high standards. ‘They all had that innate experience, they could have gone to something producing souvenirs, whatever, ashtray bits, but this is exactly what we didn’t want. Their sense of worth is determined by how people – outsiders – perceive them.’ Nature Squared gives them the chance to produce things of an extremely high standard: marrying centuries-old techniques with today’s ingenuity and invention. Yes, labour costs are much cheaper, but, says Lay Koon: ‘That’s why we couldn’t do any of these things in Switzerland, and we can still do them in the Philippines. The fact is that they have the skills, we’ve been able to build those skills, so that it can be done, which doesn’t make it cheap, it just makes it something that is possible.’
In terms of the materials themselves, these are sourced from all over the world. ‘We start at the source, and almost all our materials can be traced back to a specific farm or community. We try to go as deep as we can,’ explains Lay Koon. For example, the mussel shells come from a farm in South Africa and we like them because they are part of SASSI – the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative. We know exactly how they work. We are the only people who are going to take the shells because they’re actually incredibly difficult to work with, but it means we monetise it for them and we then produce something that is really unique.’
‘Almost all our materials can be traced back to a specific farm or community. We try to go as deep as we can. When we’re in doubt, we talk to the people on the ground, the experts.’
With an annual review of suppliers, it’s important to Nature Squared that they stay on top of the sustainability agenda behind their procurement. ‘We visit them. I won’t say it’s easy but certainly it is easier for us because we were always set up that way. For us, it’s not trying to turn a container ship in mid-course, which I think is what a lot of businesses are struggling with – they have to retool or retrain, all this kind of big stuff . Whereas we always have to constantly tweak. Where we’re in doubt, we will talk to fishermen, rangers, people on the ground, the experts.’
Given the exceptional quality and fine detailing, Nature Squared’s capability for projects of scale is surprising. It goes well beyond the bespoke dashboard or cigar humidor. ‘Basically, the bottom line is we’re in this to create jobs and use these materials, and the only way you can do that in an economically viable way is to use it in sufficient quantity,’ says Lay Koon. ‘I’m not talking about cladding the entire outside of the largest palace in Riyadh but there is a difference between making one door handle and a whole set of doors.’ Aesthetically these materials are beautiful as either accents or on a grand scale. ‘It takes designers who also want to understand the economics of it. We’re essentially in a hearts-and-minds exercise. Not just vis-a-vis the owners, but also our supplier base. They need to know there is a point in them cleaning the mussel shells, and that we’re not just going to buy one kilo, which is not interesting for anyone.’
Today the company’s work is divided into three sectors: interiors (superyachts, cruise ships, private jets, hospitality and ultra-high end residential); luxury brands (such as Rolls-Royce, where their materials are integrated into product ranges); and solutions (developing technical solutions where necessary). They are also beginning to produce their own product and furniture collections, with a new range now launching designed by Bethan Gray.
And a growing group of enlightened customers are also starting to see and appreciate the bigger picture. ‘In the past two years, what we’ve accepted is that since we keep talking about stewardship and since we know with the passing of time we want the business model to be propagated, the only way you’re going to get like-minded people in a growing community to buy into that is to talk about it. Now is probably the right time.’ The aim is in sight.