With over two decades of experience in the interior design business, Selina Tay, founder and principal designer of Collective Designs, is a stalwart in her own right. Here, she shares insights gained on her journey.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

“I want my clients to feel inspired and invite friends home for a meal, instead of dining out.”

"hair and makeup JENNIFER XIE LISI"

Making a difference. That’s what Selina Tay of Collective Designs keeps in mind when designing her clients’ living spaces. “I want them to feel the desire to be at home and to spend time with family, to enjoy cooking and eating together more often,” she opines. “It’s about creating opportunities for more interaction. I want my clients to feel inspired and invite friends home for a meal, instead of dining out. I would also like them to feel that their home is their refuge from the outside world!”

Collective Designs was founded in 1991 and has come a long way, but not without Selina going through the proverbial school of hard knocks. She put herself through a year of interior design school, while working at a construction and home materials supplier company for three years. “It was with this company that I learnt about materials and their limitations, both in construction and usage,” she recalls. “I did that for a year but was given minimal room for creativity. I left soon after for a carpentry and construction company to start up its interior design department where I was given free rein. I also pursued my diploma in fine arts at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts concurrently. For additional income at the company, I did its invoicing, administration, accounts and other miscellaneous paperwork. I learnt to run a company from my ex-boss whom I regard as my mentor.”

Today Collective Designs is a boutique-size firm with a staff of 18, comprising designers, CAD designers, soft furnishing/ decor and project/site teams, along with a back-end support team.

How did you start out?

I started out as a consultancy. I already had a number of clients wanting me to design their homes. I was able to see projects through from start to end as I had a lot of industry contacts and I was able to run multiple projects at the same time, with the best contractors and carpenters at the time.

You were perhaps one of the few women in this male dominated industry over 20 years ago. What was it like?

I was a 22-year-old woman visiting sites and liaising with contractors who had been in the business for 30 years. They’d tell me what I designed was impossible to execute. And I’d explain to them exactly how it was to be done, and that it was possible. There was grudging respect. Eventually, they knew me to be thorough with my construction designs and finishes. Once, on a project, there was a wall that could not be painted properly; the final coat was always patchy. I took out sandpaper, sanded the wall down, and showed the painters how to apply smooth paint strokes, thanks to my fine arts training!

How has the interior design industry evolved?

In the past, homeowners didn’t understand or appreciate what an interior designer (ID) could do. Most homeowners would buy loose furniture and move in within the week and live with the space they created. Now, they understand that an ID helps create living, useable space in a house, based on how the family lives. They are also now aware that an architect designs the house from the outside in, and an ID designs the house from the inside out.

What are some of the things that homeowners should consider when looking for an interior designer?

Go for an ID who is versatile, who listens to what you’re trying to communicate about your ideal home. An ID’s portfolio should be varied, with clear evidence that he or she can follow projects through from start to end. A good ID has to translate your thoughts and be able to execute it through design proportions, space planning, colour and details. It’s fine to work with an ID with less than 10 years’ industry experience, as long as the firm has been around for a while, and the ID has good mentors.

Where do you see the ID industry in the next five years?

There will be a wider variety of more durable and beautiful man-made materials, more readily available, although not necessarily cheaper. It’s also the age of technology with better 3D know-how, and virtual reality walk-throughs are going to be more common! However, at the end of the day, the basic technical knowledge is still essential. There’s no point looking at beautiful mock-ups if the ID is unable to envision how the material will work in a certain space. There may also be more IDs in the market, but there probably will be a lack of good, experienced ones.

How did you first break into the overseas market? What are some of your more prominent projects?

All my overseas projects are through word-of-mouth. Some of my clients own multiple homes overseas, and they invite me to design those properties. My more prominent project was quite recent, in 2017. I was appointed by a group of owners to design four luxury apartments in a building in a Chinese metropolis. Another is a mansion in Brunei.

You are known for your ability to “cut space in a way that enables efficient flow of light and air”. Could you elaborate on that?

Every house is different and special. I spend time at the site, even before I plan the home, observing the surroundings because that impacts the way the light comes in, and how the air flows into a space. In most homes, the kitchen is the darkest space, along with corridors. I prioritise these two areas to allow more light and air (and energy flow) into the house.

Energy flow is essential for a good home. Space is structured with walls and windows, but it must still allow the energy to move around. Planning for that is essential. I’m able to picture how the final house structure and walls should be, to maximise light and air to make a wonderfully liveable home.

My Reading Room


Go for design influences that are more suitable for Singapore’s light and climate conditions. Some colours look too garish in our light. Selina prefers cooler shades such as white, off-white and ivory, because they make a home feel “breezier”, even amid heat and humidity. She also gravitates towards clean lines and contrasts, similar to the Japanese and Scandinavian styles.

Use a mixture of textures such as raw wood textures and cool marble. “A good mix and balance allows the eye to wander and discover depth, even in a plain, square room.”

For a luxurious bathroom, include metallic accents and accessories. Take into account your collection of appliances when planning the kitchen space. Too often, the kitchen is almost fully built, before homeowners realise there’s no space for appliances, such as a rice cooker, toaster and coffee machine, to be used simultaneously or stored properly.

Consider also who cooks and how often, and if one entertains. These factors determine how much storage is required for heavy pots and pans), glassware and party essentials.

For an ornate, plush interior: Keep the look sophisticated and elegant with the right colours, textures and layers. “It also depends on the clients at the end of the day; they have to use the ornate space in a way that is relevant to them.” 
My Reading Room

“An ID’s portfolio should be varied, with clear evidence that he or she can follow projects through from start to end.”


A modern look and stylish fittings are hallmarks of Selina’s designs.


Selina takes the spatial layout of a room into consideration in every project she undertakes.


Selina’s eye for detail means homeowners can be sure that every aspect of their interior design is executed with precision.