3 Dining Commons

Yale NUS, Singapore

Long-lasting dining commons furniture

Education & Research

Yale University takes a partner in Singapore

Much more than designing furniture as product, this is a story of rigorous dining commons space planning and a furniture design process driven by intelligent understanding of how people behave in buildings, and how furniture can optimise those buildings to support that behaviour.

Yale University’s first–ever joint collegiate collaboration, with the National University of Singapore, is the first liberal arts college in Singapore and one of very few across Asia.

It makes Yale the first Ivy League university to establish a college bearing its name in that part of the world. But the start of the project, at least, was troubled. Singapore restricts freedom of assembly and association, and homosexual acts are illegal there. The response to this political environment - and to Yale’s perceived subscription to it ­­ (from Yale alumni and a good few other commentators and organisations), was heated to say the least.


The two presidents (Rick Levin, of Yale University, and Pericles Lewis, of Yale-NUS) countered, predictably, with the argument that one of America’s most distinguished institutions of learning would expect to have a hand in influencing such a social and political context – by engaging, not remaining aloof.

Lewis turned to the architecture to disarm the critics: ‘The design of Yale-NUS College seeks to find an architecture which balances Eastern and Western contexts and traditions, but it has, in truth, created something new, something greater than the sum of its parts,’ he said at the Groundbreaking Ceremony on 6 July 2012. ‘Courtyards punctuated by towers set in lush landscapes, a close community of learning and social spaces, and a clear and inviting set of processional entrances, match the openness, energy, and optimism of the curriculum we are designing.

The brief

The architecture of the new campus complex is logical and straightforward, without idiosyncratic or controversial elements. The design is by Pelli Clarke Pelli, César Pelli’s practice, based in New Haven next to Yale University and also with a Singapore office, and responsible for, among other massive corporate buildings, the ‘mother ship’ of Canary Wharf in London, One Canada Square. The Singaporean architects of record were Forum.

The contract encompassed 500 chairs for each of three dining halls plus both round and long rectangular dining tables. The basic Luke Hughes ‘Newnham’ chair design, originally developed for Newnham College Cambridge in 1994, was updated, sections and angles modified, and given three different backs, one for each of the halls, which are all roofed and detailed in different architectural styles.


The stacking version is specified throughout, while different stains – teak, cherry and beech – also signify a particular hall.

Individually, the chair is comparatively unassuming, designed to be inconspicuous rather than shout its presence, but when every little detail is multiplied by 500, it becomes highly memorable. Chairs in such quantities are seen not as individual pieces, but as a group. They “read” together and create a visual identify greater than the sum of their parts.

The design team worked closely with the architects to understand the general rhythm of the spaces and make the dining halls and the dining tables work more effectively. Flexibility in the ways the furniture could be used was the main thing; the spaces had to be cleared quickly and easily by stacking the chairs on custom-made storage and transport dollies, another Luke Hughes signature.

Space Planning for efficient operations

Pelli Clarke Pelli had a clear idea of what they wanted to do with the joinery and how it served the overall concept; the windows, the roofscape, the flooring and the associated buildings.

We brought our domain expertise in the design and setting out of dining commons to the project, undertaking the space planning of the three Commons and their dining tables and chairs to maximise both capacity and operational efficiency.

We realigned the architect’s preliminary layouts to align the position and scale of the dining table runs with the architectural structure and detailing of each Commons.

The design team at Luke Hughes tidied up a number of anomalies for the architectural teams, and also raised the hall capacity by suggesting multiple configurations. Everything now aligned with the columns and architectural features, so the feel of the space became calmer, and the precise leg positions were engineered down to the last millimetre, so no one had to sit against a leg.

This systematic application of our expertise in the design of dining commons made an enormous difference to a very busy space. The client was thrilled and so are the students.

Yale newsroom

Take a peek inside the new Yale NUS college campus


Enjoy the article? Delve deeper into Luke Hughes & Company’s place in the Arts and Crafts tradition with the fascinating new book 'Furniture in Architecture' . Available through Thames & Hudson

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