Text Jane Steer / Pictures Dickson Lee / Styling David Roden
Urban, contemporary and sophisticated, grey is a surprisingly versatile colour. Softer than white, easier to live with than black, grey-painted walls manage to “disappear” into the background while throwing the spotlight on brighter colours. It’s a quality that has been admired by artists since Rembrandt first used a grey background to emphasise the golden light on the faces of his portraits.
Far be it for us to compare a Hong Kong apartment to works by a 17th-century Dutch Old Master but, colour-wise, the same rules apply. In this recently renovated Conduit Road flat, swathes of grey on the walls and furniture provide a continuous tranquil backdrop while giving centre stage to brightly coloured pieces such as Vietnamese autumn-tree paintings and daffodil-yellow Eames Eiffel side chairs.
“We tried to keep the grey tone throughout the apartment so that the other colours pop – but not too much,” says owner Lisa Wong. “Grey is classic and sophisticated.
It takes on the hue of the colours you put with it, so it looks cooler next to the blue chairs, for example. It’s soothing.
Even my mother likes it – and grey is not a particularly good colour for Chinese.”
The 1,890 sq ft apartment was built in the 1970s and, like many buildings of the era, offers generous proportions, large windows and a dual-aspect living space. While Wong and her American husband, Steve, admired the basic bones of the property, there was a lot of work to be done.
“It hadn’t been touched since the 70s,” Steve says. “There were weird things, like old religious paintings on the ceiling in the master bedroom and doors in odd places that led nowhere.”
“One was behind a closet – like a door to Narnia,” Wong chips in. “There were old ancestor portraits left behind and it looked like the apartment my grandparents had when I was a child, so I immediately had a good feeling. It’s old-style Hong Kong; they don’t make buildings like this any more.”
The challenge was to update and maximise the space without losing the colonial ambience that had appealed to the couple in the first place. Time was not on their side, however: Wong was pregnant with their second child and wanted to complete the renovation before her due date. With less than four months to overhaul their new home, the couple called in the professionals: Le’ Zang Creative.
“We had lots of ideas about what we wanted to do, but we needed someone to come up with solutions to make it happen,” Wong says. “I wanted to keep it simple. I find so many places in Hong Kong are overdesigned. I like European and Scandinavian design: clean, simple and natural, but warm and homely. That’s important with a family. We didn’t want it to feel like a hotel.”
The apartment was gutted, with almost every wall ripped out. By moving the perimeters of former rooms, they were able to enlarge the living space.
And although a structural pillar was exposed in the process, the couple believe it adds character. Large, built-in cupboards were added to provide storage throughout, and instead of opting for what is fast becoming the standard openplan layout, the couple chose to have a separate kitchen. However, they did install a glass door and window between the kitchen and living room, to maximise the light and retain the apartment’s dual-aspect character. “It means we can keep the children safely out of the kitchen while we’re cooking, but we can still keep an eye on them,” Wong says.
While the restructuring was going on, she went shopping. The couple had previously lived in much smaller spaces and, though they were bringing a lot of furniture with them, Wong had a long shopping list. Pregnant, with one small child and a full-time job, she took the pragmatic option: instead of schlepping around furniture stores and art galleries, she went online. Photo-sharing website Pinterest was one source of inspiration.
“And Etsy.com was brilliant,” she says of the site where individual artists and craftspeople from all over the world sell their pieces. “You can build a relationship with up-and-coming artists, and the prices are so reasonable; it’s the middle ground between Shenzhen and Hollywood Road.
“I’d like to be able to say that we bought our pieces on our travels all over the world, but when we moved in together I made Steve sell a lot of the things he brought from America [because] we didn’t have space,” Wong says.
“Although I like some of his things – the hat stand and mirror in the hallway are great and they’re his from Chicago – often we don’t have the same taste.
He took a lot of convincing about the chandeliers. But he trusts me, and it’s all turned out exactly as we wanted.”
Study plan Le' Zang Creative took a practical approach when it came to the study doors. Representing a contemporary twist on the European aesthetic, the glass-panelled French doors (HK$11,500) are on a double sliding mechanism - pull one door and both slide shut to meet in the middle. "There's a latch so that if I'm on a business call I can keep the kids out of the study," Lisa Wong says. "But it rarely works because I feel bad about locking them out."