Design duo work well together, but their clients don't know they are married

Foreign Policy Design Group’s husband-and-wife team Arthur Chin and Yah-Leng Yu switch off when they are done at work.
Foreign Policy Design Group’s husband-and-wife team Arthur Chin and Yah-Leng Yu switch off when they are done at work. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Foreign Policy's duo complement each other in personality and working style

Foreign Policy Design Group's founders Yah-Leng Yu and Arthur Chin are catching their breaths, now that the year is drawing to a close.

Their design agency's 2015 work calendar is chock-full of deadlines for brand launches, overseas engagements and new ventures.

In March, they launched the branding and direction signs for The Working Capitol, a co-working space in Keong Saik Road.

In June, they released Brand Guide: Singapore Edition, a dossier on home-grown labels such as lifestyle store Supermama. The book, which costs $50, is re-stocked frequently at local stockists such as Basheer Graphic Books in Bras Basah Complex. It is also sold overseas.

In August, they put the finishing touches on Park Bench Deli, a hip sandwich shop in Telok Ayer Street, which they did branding and interiors for.

Ms Yu and Mr Chin's heady year culminates late next month when they complete their biggest venture to date: Gallery & Co., an F&B-retail concept housed in the National Gallery Singapore.

The couple are also co-owners of Gallery & Co together with hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng of the Unlisted Collection group and Mr Alwyn Chong, managing director of cosmetics and fragrance distributor Luxasia.

Ms Yu, 43, and Mr Chin, 45, were responsible for all the design components of the 8,800 sq ft Gallery & Co. She also worked with Mr Chong on curating the museum store products and merchandise for the whole project.

In between, the husband-and- wife team was constantly on the move, giving talks and workshops in design-hungry cities such as Taiwan, Dubai and Barcelona.

Ms Yu, who is the creative director, says the agency gets its ideas from the stories behind the brand: "It is not just about making something pretty. We don't have a specific style, we want to be sure our design is for the brand and for its audience."

The creative think-tank and design studio does everything from interior design to product and experience design.

Ms Yu and Mr Chin surprised Park Bench Deli's F&B director Tan Huang Ming, 29, with their down-to-earth manner of doing business.

Calling them the "don and doyenne of local design" who are edgy, Mr Tan says: "When we first met, Arthur didn't say a word about money or how we could do business. He talked about our food and the essence of a sandwich.

"Their attention to detail is fantastic, almost compulsive. If they had to wait a few weeks to get a particular material or tile, they would."

In Foreign Policy's early days, the couple worked out of a windowless 200 sq ft office.

In 2006, they had just returned from New York, where they ran DoubleYolks, a digital agency with clients such as American Express and fashion label Oscar de la Renta.

Mr Chin's teacher father and retail supervisor mother were sick and he wanted to be home to take care of them. He has an older sister.

Having run their own companies in the Big Apple, Ms Yu and Mr Chin ruled out joining creative or advertising agencies ("With our experience, it's harder to work for someone else," she says.)

So they started Foreign Policy Design Group in 2007, with a $40,000 start-up fund from their own savings and relied on their New York contacts. Their first client was Ms Judith Ripka, a celebrity jewellery designer based in New York.

Looking back, Mr Chin, the brand and business strategist who doubles up as creative director when Ms Yu is not around, says: "Initially it was tough because we didn't know anyone in this field here. Yah-Leng was educated in Boston and did not have a network to call on."

But local creatives such as Asylum's Chris Lee and Kinetic's Pann Lim helped them manoeuvre the business landscape.

Mr Chin says: "We've never done any form of marketing to get jobs, and have had positive cash flow since day one. People found us through word-of-mouth."

And people were talking.

In 2009, the agency expanded and moved into a shophouse in South Bridge Road and were introduced to Mr Loh through a mutual friend. Their first job for him was to brand his Shanghai property, The Waterhouse At South Bund, a crumbling 1930s army headquarters turned into a boutique hotel.

The project sparked off a long-time collaboration with Mr Loh and they have now done work on more than 10 of his concepts, including his restaurants Esquina, and hotel Wanderlust.

On first look at their portfolio, Mr Loh saw "work that I had not seen in Singapore yet".

Working with them, he realised that while Ms Yu and Mr Chin listened well to the client, they also knew their own design ethos.

Mr Loh says: "It's a great combination. It means they won't do rubbish work for a pay cheque. I have noticed that they actually turn down a lot of the work, especially if they feel it doesn't work for them."

That confident, fierce streak seems to be in their DNA.

The artsy, fashionable Ms Yu had thought that studying computer engineering at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) would lead her to designing computer games or animation. But after attending her first class working with transistors, she wanted out.

A serious bicycle accident had her re-evaluating her choices. She decided to go to Brenau University, a small institution in America, to do foundation courses first.

Afraid to tell her parents that she had lost interest in school here, she failed her first-year examinations on purpose and had no choice but to leave.

Says the Temasek Junior College alumnus, who is the oldest of three children of a housewife and a businessman who sold joss sticks and prayer material: "It was my first real failure, but I was just going to do it. My parents place much emphasis on education so it shocked them that I was a dropout."

She took a gap year, giving tuition daily and making about $3,000 a month to fund her American Dream - at least for the first year. Later while visiting schools around the country during her spring break, she fell in love with the city of Boston and took up a spot at the Art Institute of Boston.

She also set up a freelance studio with a schoolmate to earn extra cash as well as build up her portfolio.

Her parents supported her financially from her second year.

After graduation, she cut her teeth working in Los Angeles for an education company designing multimedia CDs and a Korean-owned advertising firm. She then moved to New York City where she worked for Digital Form as a graphic designer.

Across town, Mr Chin was having his own moment. After completing his Master of Business Administration at Melbourne Business School, he moved to New York ("I thought, why not, as it was the place to be") to start his corporate life at Citigroup in Connecticut.

The cut-throat industry worried him as he watched head honchos come and go fast.

The former Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road) student says: "I thought, 'Did I want to work so hard to reach the top, only to be gone the next moment?' It convinced me to leave that world."

He started his consulting firm Blueprint NYC in 2002, taking on two clients: a wholesale home accessories brand and DoubleYolks, a digital agency Ms Yu started a year earlier with a co-worker after she was retrenched from Digital Form.

By then, Ms Yu and Mr Chin were reacquainted - they lived in the same dormitory as undergraduates at NTU - after a mutual friend brought them together at a Thanksgiving dinner in New York in 2000.

Love blossomed when they hit the slopes as snow-boarding buddies. The couple, who are planning to start a family, got married here in 2009.

While they are in each other's spaces a lot, the easy-going couple, who live in a five-room HDB flat in Balestier, switch off when they are done for the day.

Mr Chin says: "Sometimes we do talk about work at home but I'd say probably only 5 per cent of the time."

They work seamlessly as colleagues, professional to a T, that sometimes even clients take a while to find out that they are married.

Ms Yu says: "We don't let work affect our personal life, even if we have different opinions on things. So we don't bring squabbles into the workplace."

Adds Mr Chin: "The workplace for us is a professional space. We want to make sure that we're marketed as two creative directors, rather than a husband-and-wife team."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2015, with the headline 'Yin and yang designers'. Print Edition | Subscribe