Lim Choon Hong, Founder of XTRA, is Living the Dream

By Luo Jingmei
Photography by Zulfadli bin Rahman, assisted by Tracey Nguyen
Grooming by Jace Ang using Chanel and Gatsby
Additional images courtesy of XTRA
05 Jul 2024

Lim Choon Hong, the founder of XTRA, on his memorable three-and-a-half decade journey in the design industry.

After Lim Choon Hong finished secondary school, he wanted to study painting at NAFA (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts) but his commercial artist father told him that he could not make a living from selling art. “So, the only option for me was architecture,” shares the founder of premium design store XTRA.

Lim describes his career journey as “wanting to be an artist, then being trained as an architect, and ending up as a businessman.” While he may not have ambitioned to be the latter, he certainly turned out to be an excellent one. XTRA celebrates its 35th anniversary this year and represents some of the most desired brands in the industry, such as MillerKnoll, Dedon, Poggenpohl, Muuto and Carl Hansen & Søn, among others.

It is no small feat in an industry that “has no [fixed] formula for success as it is not guaranteed that every brand you take on will work.” It did not help that three decades ago, furniture was not high on Singaporeans’ spending list compared to real estate and cars.

How Lim ended up where he is was a matter of serendipity and economics. After graduating from architecture school, he could not find a job due to the 1985 Pan-Electric Industries collapse that affected the local financial market. He ended up selling furniture. “I never imagined I could be a salesman. But that’s how I got involved with all these great products,” he says.

Subsequently, he was recruited to work for furniture company Abraxas, whose owner, Lincoln Cheng, was one of the founders of legendary dance club Zouk. “Lincoln was interested in design and needed someone to market several brands including Memphis. It was fun, although we didn’t sell a lot – mostly to Lincoln himself,” Lim chuckles on the Post-Modernist Italian brand.

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XTRA's first store in a shophouse at Tanjong Katong.
In 2008, XTRA expanded out of Park Mall into a 4,010-square-foot space in the nearby Winsland House.

In the same vein when he opened his own furniture shop in 1989, the idea was to be an alternative store for furniture design. “I say ‘alternative’ because at that point in time, we had no well-known brands. We pitched ourselves as a little shop in East Coast for people to discover. I was pretty happy about that because it was just so fun,” he laughs. “It was not so stressful; we used to entertain our clients at the kopi tiam next door.” Things were going fine until the landlord reclaimed the building.

When Park Mall then offered Lim a space, he wondered if he should go into a mall. “It would be so boring; we would be like anyone else,” he says. This was until Mark Tan, the founder of local bookstore Page One mentioned, “Do you know that I discovered I sold more design books as a mainstream bookstore than when I was a specialist bookstore?’ That got me thinking that maybe this was my opportunity to go mainstream,” shares Lim 

Thus, XTRA started a new chapter at Park Mall in 1991 in a 2,000-square-foot space on the ground floor fronting the main street. “In the first few months, we were surprised that people who were just shopping at the mall and came to buy from us never knew that we existed. We began to understand that as much as we wanted to, we could not always remain a boutique outfit. In 1999, when Herman Miller came under XTRA’s fold, it was very seamless,” says Lim.

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“Herman Miller is so well known. Suddenly, from an unconventional store that sold brands nobody had heard of then the likes of Magis and Noto, [we were the dealer for a famous brand]. But the timing was good as we were gaining traction in the market; we were selling well and going to Milan yearly where people now know about us,” says Lim. The company’s collection also now covers most sectors – from furniture and lighting to kitchens, wardrobes and surfaces. In 2016, when XTRA left Park Mall, it had expanded 10 times into a 20,000-square-feet store. It now has two stores in Marina Square, divided into retail and contract components.  

Being awarded the Herman Miller dealership was a key milestone. "We subsequently set up our sister company XTRA Office to specifically manage the brand under the leadership of one of my partners William Ang," shares Lim. Becoming a mainstream store was another milestone. "A third milestone was when XTRA reached its 20th year. "Many local furniture stores don't last more than 20 years, but there we were at 20. That showed how resilient we were and maybe, we had the right people and brands," Lim reflects.  

(Related: A kitchen revolution)

In 2016, XTRA moved into its current 13,000-square-foot location at Marina Square, with a plywood frame designed by Produce.

He counts XTRA's representation of MillerKnoll as yet another milestone. In 2021, Herman Miller acquired another luminary brand Knoll, meaning products like the Womb™ lounger by Eero Saarinen and Barcelona chair by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe are now marketed by XTRA Office in Singapore, alongside other brands like Muuto that MillerKnoll owns. 

“To be known as a dealer for Herman Miller for so long, and now the dealer for MillerKnoll, presents itself as a new opportunity, as well as challenge. Both Herman Miller and Knoll are very strong brands, so we must think of how to market them,” Lim contemplates.

Compared to celebrating its 20th anniversary, Lim is more wistful 15 years later. “Then, we thought ‘we’ve come so far; things are looking great!’ When you reach 35 years, there’s this consciousness that we may be perceived as a little old or dated, so there’s this need to keep pace, which is good as it makes us work harder. That is why launching MillerKnoll came at an opportune time, because suddenly, we have to start over again, to see how we can redefine the game. We can’t remain static because the market is always changing, so we are always looking for new ideas, new brands, new ways of presenting the products, new ways of marketing,” Lim enumerates.

"We can’t remain static because the market is always changing, so we are always looking for new ideas, new brands, new ways of presenting the products, new ways of marketing." - Lim Choon Hong

Having known Lim for more than 15 years, I am always struck by his humility and easy-going nature. In fact, during this interview, he is uncomfortable talking about his leadership style, summarising a description of himself as the "not a very domineering, autocratic kind of leader. Rather, I am like the glue, keeping people together and empowering them.” He credits XTRA’s longevity to his staff and partners who have worked alongside him for over 20, and even 30 years, “so there’s a lot of stability and reliability”.

Be it provenance or otherwise, the choice of brands to retail is also key to the company's success, "coupled with the good will that we have built up in the market with architects, interior designers, and end-users over the years,” Lim remarks. 

Despite the new challenges, it is palpable that he is still finds his job fun. When I ask if he misses doing architecture, he pauses and shares a conversation he had during the launch of MillerKnoll in April. “I ran into a young architect whose aunt used to be my junior in architecture school. I was impressed he was working for a prestigious architecture firm. He replied, “No, actually, my dream is to own a furniture store!” That got me thinking about how in my early days, I had wanted to own a furniture store, so I’m living my dream. I’m grateful I’ve come this far.”