Text Catherine Shaw / Styling David Roden / Photography John Butlin
Renting a family home in Hong Kong often means sacrificing personal style and living with the landlord's "safe" interior design theme of white walls and dark parquet flooring.
Gordon and Mona Watson - who are from Scotland and Lebanon, respectively - are an exception to the rule.
The couple, who have three children, aged 20, 18 and 15, moved to Hong Kong in 2011, after two previous expatriate placements here.
The timing of their search for accommodation on Hong Kong Island's southside couldn't have been better. A friend - who happens to be an estate agent - had spotted the perfect home: a charming colonial building with just one apartment on each of its three floors, featuring unobstructed sea views, high ceilings and an elegant curved staircase. At 3,350 square feet, and with three spacious bedrooms, the apartment ticked all the right boxes.
The downside? It was in desperate need of renovation.
"It is so unusual in Hong Kong to find a landlord who will consider making relatively big changes," says Gordon Watson. "But as ours was planning on renovating anyway, and we had a very clear idea of what we wanted, he agreed to accommodate [the request]."
The couple worked with Hong Kong-based interior designer Amy Spiegel to deliver a design concept that balanced efficiency with comfort while retaining the apartment's future rental potential. The landlord agreed to pay for new flooring, windows and guest-bathroom changes. The Watsons covered the rest.
The most significant change involved replacing every window to create a clean, modern aesthetic and to maximise the views and natural light. Floor-to-ceiling sliding doors were installed on a downsized balcony in front of the living area; the apartment had originally featured a balcony along the full length of the sea-facing facade but an earlier renovation had partially enclosed it, extending the living and dining areas to accommodate a library-entertainment space.
"On a sunny day we open the doors completely and the space extends outwards," says Watson, who is regional chief executive at AIA Group.
Other transformative touches included installing oak flooring throughout and introducing a neutral dove grey-and-white colour palette.
"It's very serene and elegant and provides the perfect backdrop for the couple's collection of artworks," says Spiegel.
"Gordon had a very clear vision of what he wanted to achieve and how the spaces would work with each other," she says. "For instance, looking from the entrance doorway you immediately get a sense of the living, dining and casual library-entertainment areas working as a whole but with separate functions."
Spiegel added a dramatic chandelier over the dining table and custom-designed shelving to accommodate the family's eclectic collection of statues from Africa and the Middle East.
Elsewhere, enormous cupboards, with subtle detailing to reduce their perceived bulk, take advantage of tall ceilings and provide ample storage. The guest bathroom was reconfigured to allow access from the corridor, instead of via a bedroom.
"There were some things we couldn't touch," says Watson. "I'm not overly keen on the glass and metal grate around the front door but it is an original feature. We painted the door white and I'm used to it now."
The kitchen, which had already been updated, remained untouched other than the addition of a second, identical refrigerator, which, Watson says, was a simple solution to the landlord's wish to keep the single refrigerator. Side by side they combine to create the impression of a double-door fridge.
Throughout the apartment there are mementos of the couple's nine-year posting in Japan, where they collected a range of prints. Watson paints in his free time and the apartment showcases several of his dramatic canvases.
"All together it makes the space really feel like our home and less like a rental, or something temporary," he says.
"It's been a win-win situation for all of us. We feel at home and our landlord has a happy tenant. The property is also very likely to have increased in value."
Living area The 3.4-metre-long L-shaped sofa (HK$50,000) came from Attitude (7/F, Horizon Plaza, 2 Lee Wing Street, Ap Lei Chau, tel: 2375 4705) and the coffee table (HK$4,650) was from Tree (28/F, Horizon Plaza, tel: 2870 1582). Amy Spiegel of Spiegel Interiors (6/F, 104 MacDonnell Road, Mid-Levels, tel: 6489 9831) designed the rug, which was made for HK$17,825 by Yarns (1/F, 313 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2891 2221). The two storage chests double as side tables and were found at a small gallery in Kamakura, Japan. The woven basket was bought years ago and the teapot is from Mona Watson’s collection of Japanese pottery sourced from Mashiko Pottery Village in Tochigi prefecture. The ottoman was custom designed and made by Spiegel Interiors for HK$14,500. It’s covered in Andrew Martin’s Mondrian fabric (HK$1,537 per metre) from Kinsan (59 Wyndham Street, Central, tel: 2526 2309). The cushions on the sofa are from the family’s collection of Palestinian folk-art textiles. The red painting, by Vietnamese artist Hong Viet Dung, came from Green Palm Gallery (v2.greenpalmgallery.com) in Hanoi. A Japanese print on the opposite wall was found at Tokyo’s Kato Gallery (5-5-2 Hiroo, Shibuya, tel: 81 3 3446 5259). The statues flanking the entrance to the dining room were bought years ago in Nairobi, Kenya.
Entertainment room The enclosed balcony created the perfect setting for the table football (HK$39,000; from K11 Design Store, 18 Hanoi Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 3110 5898). The Tibetan sideboard (HK$35,000) came from Shambala (2/F, Horizon Plaza, tel: 2555 2997). The Buddha was bought in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The African statue was bought years ago when the family lived in Kenya. The oil painting is by Vietnamese artist Dang Xuan Hoa and came from Apricot Gallery (www.apricotgallery.com.vn) in Ho Chi Minh.
Dining room The eight-seat table (HK$16,450) and sideboard (also HK$16,450) came from Tree. The chandelier (HK$7,400) was from Timothy Oulton (15 St Francis Street, Wan Chai, tel: 2528 9011). Spiegel designed the dining chairs (HK$7,170 per chair), which were made by Choi Designs (4/F, Dominion Centre, 43 Queen’s Road East, Wan Chai, tel: 2866 0781). They are covered in Andrew Martin’s Fitzroy fabric (HK$1,624 per metre) from Kinsan. The photographic artwork is by Korean artist Kim Joon and was sourced from an art dealer in Seoul. The family bought the Buddha statue in Bali, Indonesia. The Laotian coiled necklace on the sideboard was bought in Chiang Mai. Mona Watson handcovered the eggs with Japanese washi (paper) while living in Tokyo.
Master bedroom The teak fourposter bed (HK$12,500) was from Tequila Kola (1/F, Horizon Plaza, tel: 2877 3295). The Chinese Acrobat lamps (HK$1,200 each) and cushion (HK$400) were from Shanghai Tang (1 Duddell Street, Central, tel: 2525 7333). The vase (HK$199.90) came from Ikea (various locations; www.ikea.com.hk).
Balcony The outdoor ceiling fan (HK$3,150) was found at Life’s A Breeze (16/F, Horizon Plaza, tel: 2572 4000).
The outdoor chairs (HK$10,200 each) and side table (HK$3,680) were sourced from Everything Under the Sun (9/F, Horizon Plaza, tel: 2554 9088). The vase and Japanese stone sculpture were bought years ago in Tokyo.
Kitchen The kitchen had been recently renovated. Spiegel added an oak table and bar stools from the family’s previous home. The table mats were from Shanghai Tang (HK$900 for a set of six).
Bathroom A silver mirror frame, from Lebanon, adds a touch of character to the small nondescript bathroom. The soapstone-carved head was bought in Kisii, in Kenya, years ago. The hand towels cost HK$250 each at Inside (Prince’s Building, Central, tel: 2873 1795).
Playing tricks Interior designer Amy Spiegel created an elegant 2.8-metre-high built-in cupboard next to the apartment's front door to house 60 pairs of shoes, jackets and bags. Creating an optical illusion with a pair of half-moon door handles helped solved the visual problem posed by the differing depth of the two doors.
"We couldn't move the walls and didn't want to block the light from the front-door glass frame," says Spiegel. "Instead, I created a cabinet with two depths, adding these beautiful satin-nickel-coated brass door pulls (HK$4,000, plus shipping and handling) sourced from Paris through GID (1/F, Chuang's Enterprises Building, 382 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2572 9800).
"The half-moon design is a contemporary nod to the Chinese design of the building and front-door grating. When viewed head-on the doors appear to be the same depth."