Virginia Lung Wai-ki and Ajax Law Ling-kit, the husband-and-wife team behind Hong Kong-based interior design firm One Plus Partnership, will be celebrating their history making win tonight at the Andrew Martin International Interior Designer of The Year Award in Shanghai.
This year, One Plus Partnership beat out 90-odd global rivals to earn the title, making it the first interior designer from Asia to win the award. Founded in 1996, the "Oscars" of the interior design industry has a winners' list that includes Kelly Hoppen, Kit Kemp and Martyn Lawrence-Bullard.
"It still feels so unreal," Lung says in their office in North Point. "When I was on the phone with Martin [Waller, co-founder of Andrew Martin], I thought there must be some mistake. Not even in our dreams had we thought about winning." Adds Law: "It was a big surprise because we know the other firms shortlisted are all movers and shakers in the industry; some have been there much longer than us."
But the two certainly dare to dream big with their designs, and have done so since they opened for business in 2004. The three projects they submitted to the competition this year - Wuhan Moulding Show House, Wuhan Pixel Box Cinema and Parc Four Seasons Shanghai - are all ambitious projects. "When our contractors first looked at the blueprints and models for the Pixel Box Cinema, they felt it would be impossible to construct," says Law.
One Plus likes to develop designs from novel themes. The cinema was inspired by the movement of the pixels that make digital film images, while the Wuhan Moulding Show House is a playful take on traditional moulding techniques on ceilings and walls. Parc Four Seasons Shanghai highlights the owner's passion for cooking by borrowing the concept of "executive chef".
The Pixel Box Cinema spans more than 8,000 square metres. Clusters of steel tubes were used to materialise the pixel concept. More than 6,000 pieces of stainless steel were used to construct an oval sphere which allows passers-by to see their own reflection, echoing the theme "world of images".
"Before, people always thought that it was only the film that mattered when you went to the cinema, but we managed to prove that the design also helps to draw customers," says Law.
The duo recently completed the 1,300 square metre Chongqing Flower and City Sales Office project in Sichuan province. Working with the theme of flowers, the team decorated the interior using 7,000 plastic balls in nine shades adorning the walls in a kaleidoscopic pattern. Coloured marble flooring was assembled piece by piece to show floral prints across the grand hall.
"The design is so complicated that we couldn't express it properly on blueprints, so we had a proper model in three dimensions made and shipped to Chongqing so the contractors could recreate it pixel-by-pixel," says Lung.
They treat each and every project as if it's their last. "Working with a small team, we are able to be very hands-on with every project," says Lung. "Whenever we get a chance to meet a client who appreciates the way we do things, we give it all we have. If you don't try your hardest, you might not get a second chance."
They had a shaky start when they launched their own business after quitting their previous jobs. "We worked almost 24 hours a day," Lung recalls. "We'd camp out in the office, take a two-hour nap, and resume work. Design is not really all that glamorous; it's time-consuming and it takes a lot of effort."
"It was really frustrating," says Law. "We had developers telling us to our faces - without looking at our designs - that they'd never use designers nobody had heard of, and saying we couldn't be trusted because we wouldn't be able to afford the luxury apartments they'd be building." They were so angry after one client meeting that they hopped straight on to a plane for a getaway in Taipei.
Today, more than 80 per cent of their designs are realised on the mainland, with the rest in Hong Kong and Macau. The team have won almost 60 overseas and 70 Asian industry awards, and credit their success to their originality.
"We are troublesome designers," says Lung, laughing. "We always want to break boundaries. We've been lucky to have clients who will listen, but really it's down to us putting in a lot of extra work to make the models convincing."
"Being original is about hard work, too," says Law. "We hate copycats. Every time we finish a project, we ask our industry friends if they've seen anything similar. We have scrapped whole designs and started over again if we found there wasn't a significant level of newness in the design."