The first thing visitors see upon entering your home for the first time should also be the first thing to go. So says Sean Niem, who cites that 'fun test' as the reason he and his wife now have a pull-down screen and hidden projector instead of a television in their living room. 'That's why I got rid of my TV,' he says, 'because it was usually what people noticed first.'
Niem, an architect and interior designer from Building Design Studio, and May, a fashion buyer, had other reasons for making the decision. Both are fans of minimalist interiors - a look that translates in their Mid-Levels apartment to the display of only that which gels (paintings, books, wine bottles) and the concealment of all that distracts. Which is why every room in the 1,166-square-foot flat contains ample, uniform storage areas set flush against walls to keep life's odds and ends from view. That includes a deep drawer by the entrance into which mail is deposited from the common hallway (see Tried & Tested). Apart from making it unnecessary to venture outdoors to collect letters and newspapers, the postbox is integrated with the design, says Niem.
Although the airy, open-plan two-bedroom flat boasts a simple, clean look, he says a well-executed minimalist design is often more difficult to achieve than a maximalist one. 'You have to get everything aligned, tucked in and straightened out,' he says.
That may explain why minimalist flats don't always perform for the camera and show 'how things work, how joints are connected and all the other details', he says.
The spare design has another advantage. When their baby daughter, Claire, begins to walk, she will have fewer obstacles to bump into. 'None of the cabinets has protruding corners because they go from wall to wall,' says Niem. And she won't have to worry about knocking over floor lamps because recessed lights provide illumination throughout the flat. The flat's size was another reason for being discreet with lighting. 'It feels very spacious now but once you start putting in lamps and things, they're going to take up room.'
Part of the appeal of the apartment was that, typical of old buildings in Hong Kong, it consisted mainly of beams and columns. That meant walls could come down, the flat could have an open living area and Niem could cook up a storm in his professional kitchen without having to miss the action or the seaview his flat enjoys. 'I like the interaction between dining and cooking place,' he says. Losing the kitchen enclosure was also a space saver. Where a wall once stood, Niem has installed an island/counter broad enough for kitchen work on one side and mingling on the other. A round dining table stands between the kitchen and the lounge.
The other half of the flat contains Claire's room, a small bathroom and the master bedroom. In the space the couple share, built-in wardrobes lead into an open-plan bathroom, work area and sleeping quarters, which can be partitioned with bifold doors. Unlike some, who prefer frosted-glass shower cubicles in open layouts, the couple chose clear glass. 'This really opens up the space visually,' says Niem.
Opposite the shower is a deep, Japanese-style soak tub, while beside it is Niem's walk-in wardrobe. Further along is a compact L-shaped work space complete with an inbuilt desk and exposed shelves to accommodate books. Underscoring his comments on minimalism, he points to the bathroom, study and dressing zone and acknowledges this area was the hardest to get right. 'I had about 10 layouts,' he says, reiterating the importance of alignment. 'I established this line [for the bathtub], then had to figure out how it could move into that area.'
In addition to the clean lines and his first chance to renovate a home for his wife and child, Niem is happy with that which remains unseen. 'I like the fact there are lots of hidden things in this apartment,' he says.
An open-plan layout allows Sean Niem to work in the kitchen while interacting with diners around the glass table he designed and had custom made by his contractor (Fame, tel: 2642 0996) for about $7,000. The Geoffrey Harcourt-designed bent plywood chair ($9,860), with natural oak veneer finish, came from Louvre Gallery (Ruttonjee Centre, 11 Duddell Street, Central, tel: 2762 2393; www.louvre.com.hk). The Eames Aluminium leather chair was picked up at a sale years ago. The custom-made wine fridge blends in with the appliances in the kitchen and the hairline-finish stainless-steel island countertop. Boen engineered hardwood flooring (Oak Nature Oiled Longstrip, about $500 a square metre, from Joyful Sky, flat 1405, CRE Building, 303 Henderson Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2152 0701) brightens and lends uniformity to the flat.
Niem sourced commercial equipment for his kitchen. The island countertop accommodates restaurant-grade cookers supplied by Flex Kitchen (tel: 3145 1466). The wok burner cost $7,500 and the twin burners cost $8,500 each. The Miele fridge, $24,800 from Sogo, Causeway Bay, stands beside a Technogas stainless-steel-finish oven ($5,600) from Towngas. The hanging rail and baskets came from Hong Kong Hardware Supplier (285 Lockhart Road, tel: 2507 4786).
Recessed Milux lights from Zodiac Lighting (29 Leighton Road, Causeway Bay, tel: 2882 9082) help to achieve a streamlined look and consistent illumination. Custom-made cabinetry stores entertainment appliances and paraphernalia, while the long counter under the pull-down Draper Baronet 65' electric projection screen ($5,200 through AV contractor Pav Technology, flat A2, 2F Tai Chi Factory Building, 25 Kok Cheung Street, Tai Kok Tsui, tel: 2320 0642) serves as a 'buffet table' when Niem has dinner parties. The four-piece sofa, including the two ottomans, covered with RUS (MF) fabric, cost $43,300 at Simply Sofas (8/F, Horizon Plaza, 2 Lee Wing Street, Ap Lei Chau, tel: 2525 2672). Niem painted the work by the windows, which are dressed with roller blinds (about $300 a square metre from Phoenix Curtains, 15/F, Horizon Plaza, tel: 2866 6691).
Although Claire now sleeps in a cot, she will graduate to a bed as soon as she can navigate the step ladder Niem custom made for about $1,500. Niem elevated the bed to provide storage underneath for toys. The curtains were made with Kvadrat pebble 710 fabric ($470 a metre from Fabricnation, room 1205, New Victory House, 93 Wing Lok Street, Sheung Wan, tel: 2180 8772). The Sheridan bedding came from Sogo. Niem's painting of his wife, May, hangs from a picture rail purchased from Kinming Glass & Frames (63 Wellington Street, Central, tel: 2525 3544).
The bed ($5,000), bed-side tables ($2,400 for the one shown) and bedhead ($5,000), covered with faux leather from Sankon (39 Wellington Street, tel: 2543 3880) were custom made by Fame. The magazine holder ($900) came from Lane Crawford. The Egyptian cotton bedding ($2,000 for sheets, duvet cover and pillow cases) came from Irony (43 Wyndham Street, Central, tel: 2234 9981).
The yellow of the feature wall behind the bed is continued in the study area. Niem and his daughter, Claire, take time out in a Pierre Paulin-designed tulip chair ($27,790) from Louvre Gallery.
With sliding and bifold doors, the master bedroom suite can be divided into spaces for slumber, ablutions and work. Textured chocolate-striped porcelain tiles (400mm by 600mm, about $700 a square metre from Score Pro, 272 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2117 1868) are a tactile feature of the bathroom. The Raindance shower head and bar, by Hansgrohe, and the Isy tap, by Zucchetti, came from Galaxy Bathroom Collection (283 Lockhart Road, tel: 2802 3008). Non-slip stone-look porcelain tiles (about $250 a square metre from Nice Tile, 181 Lockhart Road, tel: 2598 5909) were used on the floor and for the soak tub.
Tried & tested
Mail order Because mail in his building is delivered to the door, Sean Niem (tel: 9468 5373; firstname.lastname@example.org), an architect and interior designer from Building Design Studio, built a postbox and drawer, into which letters can be delivered then collected inside. The contractor (Fame, tel: 2642 0996) used stainless steel for the fascia outdoors and painted wood for the drawer inside (handle from Honest Hardware, tel: 2598 6600). Like the cabinetry throughout the house, the mailbox drawer is subtly integrated. 'It's not something we'd wish to display proudly in the entrance area,' says Niem. 'And I didn't want things to look like an afterthought.'