When Francesco Sacconi and his wife, Katherine, bought a 1960s-era flat on busy Wan Chai Road last year their new neighbours were surprised.
"They asked us why we'd bought it [when] it was ugly, dusty, dirty, packed," says Sacconi, a Milan-born designer. "But it had a lot of potential and was really adaptable, even if it was pretty small."
Small is right - the space barely measures 450 square feet. Luckily, Sacconi's training as an architect allowed him to see that it could accommodate his family of three, including the couple's newborn baby, and a burgeoning art collection.
"We let the space speak for itself," he says.
It told him to remove as many walls as possible, which revealed a simple, rectangular space bisected by a heavy ceiling beam. Sacconi used the beam to build what he calls a "suspended storage island", an L-shaped structure that floats above and around the open kitchen.
"It's so big, two people could sleep there," he says. "It's for winter clothes, artworks we don't use, and all that."
Sacconi, who has lived in Hong Kong since 2010, knew precisely what needed to be done.
"Everything was about finding the right balance," he says. "We wanted to find a way to make the kitchen big without killing the proportion of the space."
That was achieved by installing the suspended storage unit, which helps define the living area by creating a pseudo-corridor lined by cabinets. This passage leads to the sole, albeit spacious, bedroom with a baby nook on one side, the couple's bed on the other and a double-sided bookshelf in between.
Next to the bedroom is a bathroom, which Sacconi reduced in size, lowering the ceiling to provide room for a split air-conditioning unit. He kept the original ceiling height in the shower to create a sauna effect. "It fills up with steam at the top and it's very relaxing," he says.
The flat is full of subtle space-saving features, such as a cutting board that fits over the sink, and a shallow work desk that stands alongside a wall. And while the sofa is small, it has a stunning view.
"If you sit there you can look across at the window, which is so beautiful," says Sacconi, pointing across the room and out to lush podium gardens, traffic on Wan Chai Road and a row of elegantly restored shophouses on Mallory Street.
To maximise views and airflow, windows were enlarged as much as building codes would allow.
"In the bedroom, there are windows on both sides, so it creates a cross-ventilation effect," he says.
Because the couple have begun to assemble an art collection, they wanted the flat's décor to be as simple as possible, to allow the art to stand out. So far, works include small pieces by French and Italian artists, along with Gilbert & George, Tracey Emin and Anish Kapoor. Two replicas of Ju Ming's tai chi sculptures sit on a display shelf built into a living-room cabinet that Sacconi designed.
Despite the emphasis on simplicity, there are a few show-stopping design elements, many of which Sacconi bought while living in various cities in Europe. On the floor are a couple of cowhide rugs he bought in London, where he also found Eames dining chairs and a brushed-nickel pharmacy lamp that now illuminates the work desk.
"It's really the perfect place to live," he says. "Your mind feels at peace as soon as you come back home."
On Wan Chai Road, that's nothing to take for granted.
Styling: David Roden
Living room The sofa cost HK$8,000 at HMF (27/F, Horizon Plaza, 2 Lee Wing Street, Ap Lei Chau, tel: 2553 2888). The cabinet was designed by Francesco Sacconi and built by Joinwell Multiplex (6/F, Siu Fung Building, 9 Tin Lok Lane, Wan Chai, tel: 2832 9022) for HK$30,000. The Aeratron ceiling fan (HK$3,800) was from Metropolis (34 Morrison Hill Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2893 8686). The cowhide rug (£300/HK$3,375) was from Bashir & Sons (www.bashirandsons.co.uk), in London. The Witex wood floor cost HK$400 per square metre from Unique Flooring (18 Hong Lok Street, Mong Kok, tel: 2267 6171).
Dining area and kitchen The walnut dining table (HK$9,200) came from Ovo Studio (1Wan Chai Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2527 6088). The Herman Miller Eames chairs were bought at Brick Lane Market, in London; in Hong Kong, Aluminium (www.aluminiumfurniture.com) sells them for HK$4,800 each. The Penta Up&Down pendant lamp cost HK$5,300 from ViA (3 Wing Fung Street, Wan Chai, tel: 3102 3189). Sacconi designed the kitchen cabinets and had them built by Joinwell Multiplex for HK$58,000, not including the black granite countertop (HK$5,000), which came from Jes Stone (211 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2156 9980).
Living-room detail Sacconi bought the Artemide Tolomeo lamp (€240/HK$2,100) from Danese (www.danese.dk), in Milan, Italy. The ottoman came from the Marche aux Puces de St-Ouen flea market, in Paris, years ago. Beside the sofa, the Tracey Emin print on fabric, The Beginning of Me, came from White Cube (www.whitecube.com), in London. Above the sofa, the 1942 etching, by Italian artist Felice Casorati, came from Dellupi Arte (www.dellupiarte.com), in Milan.
Bedroom (above and below) Sacconi designed the bookshelf, which was built for HK$6,000 by Joinwell Multiplex. The cot was a gift; the pouf was from a previous home; and the coat rack (HK$299) came from Ikea.
Living-room detail The desk (HK$2,590) came from Ikea. The brushed nickel pharmacy lamp came from Brick Lane Market. The charcoal sketch is by Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas (www.fuksas.it).
Bathroom Sacconi designed the mirror and cabinet, which Joinwell Multiplex built for HK$15,000. The Hatria toilet cost HK$4,100 from Hop Lung Building Materials (300 Lockhart Road, tel: 2802 2274).
TRIED + TESTED
Split personality Francesco Sacconi had no choice but to keep the structural ceiling beam that bisects the apartment, so he used it to mask the split air-conditioning unit, which can't be seen unless you look at it from directly underneath. "It works because the space is so small," he says.