Humble show flat comes a long way
London-based interior designer Kamini Ezralow had just put the finishing touches on a 7,500 squarefoot triplex apartment in Mayfair that was being kitted out as a show home. As one of six units in an exclusive new development designed for ambassadors, tycoons and other assorted dignitaries, the home was fully furnished to give prospective buyers an idea of how the spaces could ultimately look.
Twenty minutes before the official launch party, James Packer - son of the late media baron Kerry Packer - walked in. He wanted the flat - with everything in it, down to the last cushion - and paid GBP12.5 million (about HK$180 million at the time) - GBP2.5 million more than a slightly smaller but completely empty flat in the same development. Two days later, another buyer offered GBP17 million for the same space. (Packer did not sell until some years later.)
This was in 2006, when show flats - also called model homes, or spec homes - were gaining new prominence in the world of residential interior design. Traditionally, the norm has been to equip a flat or house in generic and often unimaginative ways, the primary purpose being to give a sense of where the furniture might go.
Beyond that, however, show flats also had a bit of a dubious reputation, with cases reported of developers using misleading show homes - raising ceilings and removing structural walls to make the spaces look bigger than the actual units.
But in recent years, these show homes - both in the West and Asia - have come into their own as self-contained entities, conveying sophistication and highbrow taste; in short, the kind of design the new buyer would opt for anyway.
As a result of the new focus put on show homes, designers and developers say a growing number of people are buying them outright.
'I see it in about 50 per cent of cases, where people now walk into a show flat we've finished and ask what the price is; they want it today,' says Robert Bilkey, whose Hong Kong-based design firm Bilkey Llinas Design has worked on leading apartments and hotels in China and elsewhere.
'That is different from five years ago, when you almost never saw it.' The key change: in the past, people wanted to keep their original furniture and take it with them to a new home. 'There's more wealth now in this region,' he says. 'Buyers can afford to walk in and buy everything down to the last detail if they think it's magnificent.'
Pal Pang, founder of Another Design International in Hong Kong, was recently assigned to create three show flats for Wonderland Villas, a residential development in North Point. Each 1,000 sq ft space was approached differently, but all incorporated high-end touches such as flat-screen televisions in the bathrooms, blonde-wood flooring and dramatic wall paintings. Pang had everything custom made, even the bedding.
All three flats were sold in a week, going for HK$20,000 per square foot, compared to HK$12,000 for an empty flat.
'Show flats used to be very ordinary,' Pang says. 'You'd see a typical kitchen, a typical bathroom. But the market has changed so much, and developers want to make something that is almost a limited-edition space, to show what a designer could do with it. My approach was to make everything high quality, because I thought of them not just as show flats, but something a buyer might live in.'
Things have become so much more design-focused in the field of show flats worldwide that, in an unusual move, acclaimed interior designers are being brought in to carve out appealing spaces.
'We've hired top interior designers and given them free rein to outfit and decorate the model residences, and to target potential buyers in these markets,' says Loretta Shanahan-Bradbury, sales director of Manhattan House, a 541-unit condominium in New York.
The building's show homes have been designed by the likes of Alexa Hampton and James Huniford, both of whom consistently make Architectural Digest's list of the world's top 100 interior designers, as well as designer-author Celerie Kemble, who designs homes for New York's most prominent families.
Such has been the response to the spaces that they have been replicated in other flats in the building, which cost from US$1.3 million to US$7.2 million.
'People want the model homes themselves, and then add their own touches, so they are delivered almost turnkey,' Shanahan-Bradbury says. 'In other cases, our buyers have requested the names of the designers, and then call them to do a place from scratch. The show homes give them a reference from which to work.'
Certainly, designers commissioned to create show homes that may ultimately sell as they are face another challenge: designing a home for a mythical consumer that will appeal to as many people as possible while still retaining an exclusive sensibility.
Even though a developer's bottom line may be increased through the outright sale of a show unit, it's not just about that: done right, a model flat can serve as an example to prospective buyers of just how much potential there is.
At The Altitude, a new apartment building in Happy Valley, a show flat was the focal point of a recent media event, with a view not just to selling it, but also encouraging buyers to fashion their own spaces in a similar way. Semy Ng, general marketing manager of Kerry Real Estate, one of the building's developers, says the show flat was 'for residence, not just for demonstration'. Design elements include a light-filled breakfast nook replacing the maid's room, oak floor finishes and panels that can be shifted around to change the layout of the flats, all just under 2,000 sq ft with the exception of two that are double that size.
Designers concede that moving into a show flat is a considerably more expensive way to do things; more cost-conscious buyers would do better to buy a space empty, and then hire their own designer.
It's well worth the investment, says Ezralow, who was formerly based in Hong Kong and whose show homes in London and Bangkok have always sold quickly.
'For busy, high-net-worth people who have houses everywhere, the attraction is that they don't have to do anything,' she says. 'But this is not rented furniture. It's not a veneer or a skin. It's real furniture, real design and it looks like it was done for them.'
Designers who create these spaces say it's all about proportioning the budget correctly - and working with developers who have the same priorities.
'It's important to hire good designers for these projects,' Ezralow says. 'Developers are beginning to see that they are adding value to their properties.
'Buyers come in and see a lifestyle they can aspire to, and a good show flat is a way to speak to that. It's about creating a lifestyle that is attainable.'