He took on a furniture project that went on for four years and was, in his words, “all consuming”.
The mission was to design all the furniture for the Sydney home of Judith Neilson, an Australian billionaire art collector and philanthropist.
“We also designed all the rugs and had them made in Nepal.”
That’s furniture designer Khai Liew, Adelaide-based but proudly Malaysia-born.
The project ended with 196 pieces made. Even the lamps were designed by Liew.
“I was truly delighted and honoured to be charged with such a significant commission, the likes of which has never happened in Australian history,” he says in an e-mail interview. “This certainly was the single biggest project that I have had.”
Apparently, the only other commission that was as huge in quantity was when New York City governor Nelson Rockefeller sought out furniture designer George Nakashima in 1973 to craft all the furniture for a new house on his Hudson River estate.
One of the pieces that Liew crafted for Neilson is a 64-seat table. The designer is particularly pleased with this piece because, despite it measuring 16m, “the end result does not dominate the room, and the interior architecture remains the main focus”.
Neilson’s house itself was designed by Smart Design Studio. The house was named Indigo Slam, after the title of a 1997 crime novel by Robert Crais. Indigo Slam has since won a slew of accolades, such as the Residential Architecture award given out by the Australian Institute of Architects, and the Interior Design Excellence Award in the residential category.
Liew himself is no stranger to awards: last year, he was among nine people inducted into the Design Institute of Australia’s Hall of Fame for their outstanding contributions to Australian design. Throughout his career, he has won a number of accolades, besides being named South Australian of the Year for the arts in 2011.
It has been a remarkable journey for the 65-year-old born Liew Yew Khai in 1952. He grew up in Kuala Lumpur, the sixth of nine children; his father was an architectural draughtsman who later became a businessman and opera singer.
At St John’s Institution where he studied, Liew recalls being an “average student” who loved history. He writes of being raised under strict Confucian rule combined with Buddhist ideals “but at school, it was Catholic doctrine and Christian values. My grandmother, always suspicious of Catholic teachings, was however pragmatic enough to realise that Christian schools provided the best education in a newly independent country, and that their English language classes were the key to economic opportunity.”
When he was 18, Liew travelled to Adelaide, South Australia, to study at a boarding school by the sea. Then he was off to another Adelaide institution, Flinders University, to pursue economics.
“I was bored to tears with the course. The reason I chose economics was at that point in time, as Malaysia was a ‘developing nation’, I had to choose a course that was deemed useful when I returned. I would much rather have done something like Art History,” he says.
Two and a half years into the economics degree, Liew started an antiques shop.
“The antiques business became a complete passion and I deferred my course, thinking that I would finish the remaining six months of the three-year course. But I never looked back, as I immersed myself in this new life.”
Recalling his days as an impoverished student in the early 1970s when he shared a house, he says: “I soon became intimate with the Salvation Army thrift shops, second hand furniture stores, and auction clearance houses. For very little outlay, I quickly furnished my shared rented house, and it was soon overflowing with so-called junk until there were murmurings of dissent in the household.
“Some things just had to go and I didn’t want it to be me. It was then that I realised I could buy the unrestored furniture and, by presenting it in a new light, I could create an income and stop working as a waiter to pay my university fees.”
Fast forward to 1996, when Liew is commissioned by the Art Gallery of South Australia to design and make several benches as seating for its new extensions – “This really started my career as a designer,” he says.
Today, all his pieces are bespoke. Prices vary from A$1,000 to A$200,000 (RM3,000 to RM670,000).
“My designs are a distillation of all the ideas, forms and shapes, and cultural beliefs and experiences I have encountered throughout my life.
“I work with a multitude of materials, but for furniture, I work mostly with wood for its beauty, warmth and sustainability,” he says.
Optimistic about design in Malaysia
He observes that there is a growing demand for sophisticated work in this region.
“I am excited for Malaysians wanting to create and manufacture furniture. Singapore certainly has a thriving design culture and a sophisticated clientele, as does Malaysia.
“There are so many Malaysians who are very well travelled with discerning and elegant taste and I certainly am optimistic about the future of the industry.
“We live in a global environment these days and Malaysia is very fortunate to have incredible timber and other natural resources and skill sets combined with a proximity to the international market.”
Liew has another major project coming up.
The Art Gallery of South Australia has “very kindly honoured” him with a solo exhibition in 2019: “I have 1,200m of space to fill, so I guess I will be very busy.”
He is also finishing off a house in Adelaide that he designed for a client and that he is also partly furnishing.
“I have brought in the former editor of Vogue Australia, David Clark, to help decorate it. This has also been a very satisfying project.”
Liew’s visits to Malaysia these days have been “sporadic” as his work takes him elsewhere, he says.
“I miss many things about the country and feel so blessed to have had the experience of growing up in such a beautiful country with so much cultural diversity and rich heritage.
“I have wonderful memories of my childhood growing up in Kuala Lumpur.
“I left KL a very long time ago but a part of me will always be there.”
Home truths from an expert
Liew is also an adjunct professor at the University of South Australia’s School of Art, Architecture and Design – so it would seem a waste not to ask him for home improvement tips.
What’s his advice for new home owners?
“Save up and buy one meaningful piece at a time,” he says.
“There will always be a need for beautifully made things that speak of the mark of the hand, combined with a fine tradition and sophisticated thinking. I think more people now want the things they acquire to mean something.
“And the age of the disposable is being seriously questioned and challenged.”
Last year, he gave a presentation at a design conference in which he said: “I always feel that there is no right or wrong when displaying items in a house. The home is a sacred place that is yours to do with as you please. The most important thing is to please whoever lives there and not worry about what some one else may think.
“Things in my home tend to stay where they are, once placed. Many of the objects in my house have stayed where they are from the first day. I am usually very careful of what items I bring to my house and I usually have curated the space in my mind even before the item is acquired.”
Liew designed his house in Adelaide 16 years ago, furnishing it with his own creations and pieces he brought back from Denmark.
When crafting work for clients, he says: “Whether I am designing a piece of furniture, a house, a retail space or a set for a dance, what I want to achieve in the design is a spirit that will convey the right emotion. To connect the user with touch – how does it feel? – sound, smell, to engage the eye, to transform the material from the physical to the spiritual.
“There also has to be meaningful expression. It has to tell a story of why as well as how,” he says, emphasising that the piece of work must be beautiful and give life and happiness to a place.
He has also spoken of being influenced by British art critic and curator David Sylvester (1924-2001).
“I read something he said that resonates with me to this day. He said that he might have mounted great and historic exhibitions at the Tate Museum in London and championed the works of Francis Bacon and, later, Picasso, but his most rewarding work was ultimately creating his own home, and he had the most fun and joy moving things around his house – complete freedom of expression and opportunity to play.”
As for Liew himself, he says:
“I am happiest when I am outside in my courtyard cooking, eating or just doing nothing. That is my idea of home.”