Mothering Nature

Tan Lay Koon, co-founder of Nature Squared, talks about the challenge working with natural resources like feathers, and egg and oyster shells, and finding artisans who are able to work with such delicate materials.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Tan Lay Koon, co-founder of Nature Squared, talks about the challenge working with natural resources like feathers, and egg and oyster shells, and finding artisans who are able to work with such delicate materials.

A dark-coloured surface created out of pink scallop shells.

It was in 2000 when Tan Lay Koon made the brave but risky decision to leave her cushy job in the finance industry at the height of the bubble. Paul Hoeve, her business partner at accounting and consulting giant Arthur Andersen, quit as well, and both thought about doing something radically different in their next career move. At the top of Lay Koon’s list of possibilities was establishing a company that would somehow benefit society, along with creating minimal environmental impact. 

“We were particularly concerned that insufficient attention was being paid to sustainability,” she explains. “We felt that most people were either apathetic or driven by a single issue (like climate change, social development or protecting endangered species). Few initiatives took a holistic multifaceted view of sustainability, balancing social, environmental and economic factors.” 

That was when they launched Nature Squared, a London-based company specialising in bespoke luxury surfaces made with sustainable materials such as bamboo, mother of pearl, tobacco leaves and reeds.

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Blue feathers are used in the creation of the Exploring Eden collection designed by Bethan Gray.

Can you tell us how you Came to foCus on turning natural materials into high-end surfaCes?

Given that our focus is the use of waste or fast-growing materials in the immediate environment of our source communities, the idea of transforming them into surfaces using superlative craftsmanship was a pretty obvious one to us. Perhaps less obviously, we chose to pitch it to the highest end of the market, targeting superyachts and private jets. We felt that our product should be uncompromising in its beauty and quality.

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The Exploring Eden collection also includes the use of jade abalone shells.

Did you have any form of Design training before embarking on this venture?

I had no formal training in design, but nearly two decades of working with leading designers on cutting-edge projects have been amazing on-the-job training. What drew me to this business is the fact that I find nature’s design endlessly fascinating. Having grown up in Malaysia, lived in Switzerland and the UK, and travelled extensively worldwide, I have been privileged to observe and appreciate nature’s diversity. I am also a keen diver, as is my business partner, Paul. Everyone who has watched Blue Planet II can appreciate the breathtaking beauty of the underwater world. But as a diver, you experience it with heightened sensory awareness. The structures, colours and textures are all magnified. The Fibonacci golden ratio manifested in a seashell is much more attractive than in a banana skin!

All this is reflected in the quality levels in what is visible, as well as in the high technical content that is invisible.

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The various surfaces made out of abalone shells, blue pheasant feathers, capiz and goose feathers.

How do you go about sourcing sustainable materials?

We usually start by identifying a by-product of another industry or activity that would otherwise be discarded as waste, or by finding a fast-growing and abundant material. Then we identify and assess our source(s) to ensure they meet our standards for both environmental and social welfare.

Our mussel and abalone shells come from community-based farms in South Africa (where they are discarded when the animals are canned); our eggshells from farms and hatcheries; sea urchin spines from local fishermen; tobacco leaves as the sub-standard (for smoking!) plantation produce.

We are currently working with one of the world’s oldest conservation agencies to identify communities where it has active projects, as we aim to create a virtuous circle where conservation efforts result in tangible financial gains.

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Tan Lay Koon also happens to be an avid diver.

What’s the most delicate/fragile material the company Had to work with so far?

Feathers - our latest development! My daughter, like most kids, was fascinated by them and would pick them up wherever she found them. So I had been staring at a motley collection for a couple of years.

I found their delicacy and subtlety 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. Thankfully, I discovered to my delight that my friends, Christina Tooley of Chevron Hackles and Andy Gray of specialist game butchers MC Kelly, were able to supply me with feathers. Both embraced the idea of hand-plucking pheasant feathers from local sources, before the meat went into the food chain. The feathers were otherwise destined for landfill.

Once we had the feathers sourced, I also wanted a way to preserve their colour and texture. And our first project with feathers, with Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, provided the perfect opportunity. We created the spectacular dashboard for its new Phantom in 2018 with a mesh of woven feathers.

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The company collaborated with Rolls-Royce to create a dashboard covered in feathers.

What is the main difficulty with training skilled craftsmen today?

The challenges of working with natural materials are myriad. Nothing is ever the same. So from a design perspective, it needs careful curation to ensure a harmonious whole. This is what distinguishes craftsmanship from handicraft. We are all familiar with charming but somewhat clumsy souvenir-quality products made from natural materials. Even our most rustic products contain an unsuspected level of selection and editing. So we need a superlative level of skill and judgment in our craftsmen.

We have no peers at our quality level, hence all our training is undertaken in-house. We control our production process from A to Z: We own our production facilities and have over 150 master craftspeople, supported by draftsmen, engineers, project managers, CGI capability, all fully employed by us. In addition, we have our own lab and invest significantly in R&D.

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A close-up look at the use of tobacco leaves in a wall application.

All this is reflected in the quality levels in what is visible, as well as in the high technical content that is invisible.

When we looked for a base for our business, one of our key prerequisites was a good level of craft skill. We originally found this in Colombia, before moving to the Philippines. One of the reasons for this move was the willingness of Filipino craftspeople to learn and to embrace the often giant steps we needed them to make. In many developing societies, manual work has become devalued. Office work preferably in an air-conditioned environment is seen as progress. Our aim is, in a small way, to redress that view, to demonstrate that enhancing heritage hand skills confers dignity and worth, as well as ensures cultural continuity and development.

We started with six craftsmen; we now have over 150 and our staff turnover is almost non-existent. So our model works for us.

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The tobacco leaf wall treatment makes for a perfect cigar-lounge setting.

Can you tell us how the Collab with Designer bethan gray Came about?

Bethan calls it our water cooler moment! Her studio and ours are two doors apart in London. She was filling her kettle in our corridor as we were entering our studio. Peeking through our open door, she became fascinated by what she saw. We then found common ground in our dedication to craft, and in valuing the material’s journey through the design process.

We were looking for new collaborations that would widen our market base. Since we worked primarily on bespoke ultra high net worth projects, we could showcase little of our work. We wanted our work to become more accessible and collaborating with furniture and other product designers was the obvious next step in our journey.

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Jade stone bookstands and an abalone shell pen tray from the Exploring Eden collection.

Can you name three other Designers you ’D be interesteD to Collaborate with?

Chi Wing Lo is a furniture designer whose work I have long admired. His architectural approach and clever use of materials resonate with me. He is inexorably identified with Italian design but I would love to explore efforts that would be a bridge between his spare yet rich design and our rich yet humble materials.

I would also love to work with Elaine Ng Yan Ling of The Fabrick Lab, based in Hong Kong. Elaine is a forward-thinking materiologist whose commitment to sustainability is very closely aligned with our own. She is as meticulous about detail, as she is visionary in concept.

I admire Jiang Qiong Er’s uncompromising pursuit of contemporary elegance based on traditional techniques and materials for Shang Xia. Its tagline “Heritage and Innovation” could be our own. And her French-Chinese associations resonate with me. After more than 20 years together with my French husband, I can attest to the synergies of French and Chinese aesthetic sensibilities! 

Visit to find out more about Nature Squared.