For one of the fastest-rising stars of modern hospitality design, architect and designer Andre Fu is surprisingly unassuming and reserved. He speaks slowly, softly and distinctly, and often takes a few moments to answer questions, making it difficult to gauge what he is thinking. We met before and after the completion of his new supersuite for London's sumptuous Berkeley hotel in Knightsbridge and, both times, he is friendly but inscrutable, yet clearly keen to make sure the ideas behind his latest project are understood.
"In a competitive market like London, high-end hospitality design is always about how embellished and luxurious it is; it's more about the decorative quality of it, the lushness of the materials," Fu says. "We've created an environment that envelops you and finished it in a very pure and architectural way. Then we embellished it with artwork and bespoke furnishings." At one point, he calls this a "more Asian approach", then corrects himself: "my Asian approach".
His new Opus suite at the Berkeley is less overtly opulent than some of the most expensive suites in the city, yet more choreographed and layered. Every room builds on the last one and adds to an atmosphere of refinement by using a blend of precious and unusual elements and materials. There are solid onyx marbletops in the kitchen and bedroom; brushed-brass pendant lights and lighting fixtures throughout the suite; flamed Turkish marble adorning the kitchens, bathrooms and living areas; and a marble-clad island bathtub with sculpted headrests in the master bath. Bamboo panelling is used throughout and is sculpted and curved to create niches with intimacy; the main bedroom features a cascading fabric waterfall, and most rooms feature a tactile and sculptural work of art. It's theatrical but warm, with space for private contemplation and social interaction.
Fu peppers his conversation with the word "intimate", and repeatedly stresses the importance of creating "intimate spaces" that provide privacy and refuge from the world. His design for the 52nd-floor Gong Bar in London's upcoming Shangri-La hotel involved "carefully crafting intimate pockets of spaces that make guests feel welcomed". The bar - which will be the highest in London and offer 360-degree views - shares the footprint with a swimming pool that Fu has incorporated into the space. He will not reveal much about the design other than that cinnabar red will be a recurring colour theme. "At the same time, the whole space will feel quite rustic because we've juxtaposed galvanised steel and hand-hammered stone with these slick, high-gloss lacquered panels," he says. He has "infused some ancient Chinese architectural elements" into the design with an international, contemporary twist.
It's because of his ability to meld East and West with such clarity that Fu is often called the purveyor of "New Asian" design, a term he accepts but doesn't feel particularly represents him. "Ultimately, every project is unique in its own way; I don't like to describe myself as one type of designer. It really depends on where we are doing the project," he says.
His studio completed two restaurant projects in Istanbul that reflect the locale and the richness of its culture. "The space planning, the architectural quality in a lot of the detailing - these are the core values of a lot of work that I do," he says. In the same way he believes the "New Asian" label is overused, Fu feels there's no need to reiterate his background - that he went to boarding school in Britain and studied architecture at Cambridge before returning to Hong Kong. "I've no problem sharing it with you; there's nothing to be ashamed of," he laughs. But later he adds: "I just worry because I don't want people to feel that I've been in the business for 12 years, and yet I'm still talking about how I started out, what my first project in Hong Kong was, what I think of the Upper House … it's been done."
Fu and his team are working on projects in London, Seoul, Bangkok, Phuket, Bali, Singapore, Tokyo and Guangzhou. They are offered more work than they can take on, and therefore can afford to be selective, he says. What sort of project might he turn down? "The most important thing is the client behind the project, whether they are there with the intention to innovate and with the aim to create something that's special. That's particularly the case in China, because there are so many empty buildings or new buildings going up that often clients are looking for the superficial association with a named designer without understanding what it takes to create something that becomes a destination in its own right."
Fu is anything but superficial - he appears rather serious and is a perfectionist. He says he has a good work/life balance but admits to popping into the studio on weekends. "I have a little patio in the office that's quite relaxing to spend time in and reflect on a project, step back and look at it, try to contemplate whether there are things that we can improve."
Still in his 30s, his love of sketching makes him stand out in an era of computer rendering. "When I present projects, I still present with my hand-sketches," he says. His passion for architecture started in his childhood, when he liked to draw mazes in his spare time. Did it give him a particular affinity with space and spatial awareness? "I'm not sure, but it certainly trained my hand in terms of drawing straight lines," he says.
Fu has been lauded for creating a new language of hospitality interior design. "Hospitality is not about style, it's not about the expense that's injected into the place - it's about places for people," he says. Many hotel designers excel at conceiving fantastic and opulent spaces, but the guest doesn't always feel at home and at ease. Fu believes a guest in a hotel or at a resort is on a holistic journey that starts at the entrance. So it follows that one of the projects he is working on, the Park Hyatt resort in Phuket, scheduled to open in 2016, will see him designing everything from the interiors of the villas, the spa and the restaurant to the communal spaces and the area around the swimming pool.
"You could describe what I do as [being] someone who is there to craft experiences," he says. "It's not about the whimsical wow factor as soon as you walk in. It's more a deeper sense of the experience, from within."
Graduated from Cambridge University with a master’s degree in architecture and established his firm, AFSO
Moved back to Hong Kong and worked on Opia at Philippe Starck’s Jia boutique hotel (now J Plus)
Designed interiors for The Upper House
Designed Singapore’s The Fullerton Bay Hotel
Launched his first book, A Bespoke Journey. Launched his first carpet collection with Tai Ping Carpets. He was the first Hong Kong designer to collaborate with the brand
Designed a suite at The Berkeley hotel in London
One of his projects, GONG, is scheduled to open this spring. The pool and bar, located on the 52nd floor of the Shard in London, is part of the Shangri-La hotel – and it is the highest bar in the city