In Hong Kong you can buy just about anything - and what you can't find, can be easily custom made. Bespoke is something the city does well, and we're not just talking tailoring. Home furnishings hard and soft, decorator items, even lighting, can be made to order, if you dig around enough.
According to Mark Fraser, an expatriate craftsman who specialises in made-to-measure furniture for awkward-sized Hong Kong flats, just about any kind of furniture can be custom-made and built-in, saving space and maximising storage in smaller homes.
In one Sheung Wan project - a tiny flat of just 230 sq ft - Fraser, who runs Xpat Cabinets, designed a wall unit with cupboards, hanging space and a writing desk, which pulls down Murphy-style to reveal a double bed. He builds loft or platform beds where stair treads become drawers, and headboards shelving nooks. Even the mattress can be made to fit a narrow or odd-shaped space. Combination bookshelf/wine cabinets and customised fitted wardrobes and shoe cabinets have solved many a space problem for clients.
Commissioning bespoke furniture also allows ordinary folk to become involved in the design process, which can be fun, albeit fraught with possible cost blow-outs. While Fraser says he "keeps it affordable" by using plywood with real timber veneer or flexible MDF, one-off prototypes can be expensive, so set budget parameters.
In its guide to commissioning bespoke furniture, UK magazine Country Life also notes that the clearer you are about what you want (or what you don't want), the easier the design process will be. "A sketch, however poor, is useful as are images that express a style, colour or feel," it notes.
Other bespoke furniture outlets in Hong Kong include The Red Cabinet in Wong Chuk Hang, a specialist in lacquer furniture in Chinese and modern styles, and Di-mension Living in Quarry Bay, which custom-makes furniture from salvaged elm wood sourced from old buildings on the mainland and in Southeast Asia.
Di-mension cautions its customers to accept minor "blemishes" as part of the wood's characteristic, which is a timely reminder that buying anything bespoke does involve a certain leap of faith; you're required to lay down a hefty deposit, and in some cases the full price, before you've seen what you're getting. And if you're unhappy with the finished result, can you be bothered arguing the point?
Hong Kong resident Kimberly Chan couldn't. The Hong Kong professional had a desk made on the mainland to her own design. "It was very simple, a black steel frame and salvaged elm wood top, but the wood they gave me was rubbish: it had been repaired, and the holes were filled in with other wood." Adding insult to injury, the desk top has since contracted and split - a sign that the wood is either young or not properly dried.
Because the piece was cheap (2,500 yuan plus 300 yuan delivery) Chan didn't bother returning it.
Jennifer Archie, who runs tours of reproduction furniture factories in Zhuhai through her company, Home Redesign HK, concedes there's an element of the unknown. "These are small Chinese factories making furniture the old world way. You won't find huge compounds with assembly lines. You will find that not everything is perfect." Her view, though, is that the pursuit of furniture that will last, suit your budget and fulfil your needs is "well worth taking a risk on".
Other tips from those in the know include only buying only from reputable sources where there are guarantees of the provenance and age of the furniture being sold, and also to consider how much damage actually bothers you.
Notes one advice site: "A repair job well done (that is, a repair that you have to look for to notice, that maintains the integrity of the piece) can often increase the market appeal of a piece".
Susanna Valerio's experience as homeware buyer for luxury department stores Joyce and Lane Crawford led her to establish bespoke accessories business SV International Design. "Everybody has the same sofa, the same Baccarat glasses - we want individuality," she said.
Her collections, involving say an unusual sculpture or a pretty tray, some bespoke napkin rings or bathroom accessories, are made in the Philippines using materials including shell, resin, bronze, stainless steel and stone composites. The manufacturing process includes the use of lasers, so virtually any shape, materials fusion or colour combination is possible.
Can't find exactly the right artwork for your wall? The firm Artistic Intent turns photos and drawings into custom paintings, and hand paints canvases and murals in the colour scheme, style and size of your choice. The paintings are done in China by a team of artists. Prices range from HK$1,000 for a simple portrait to HK$8,000 to $10,000 for large wall paintings and murals.
And if you can imagine spending anywhere from HK$30,000 to HK$500,000 on a single light fitting, Mechtler (Far East) may have just the chandelier for you. Proprietor Georg Mechtler uses factories in Austria and Italy to produce bespoke chandeliers made of Swarovski and Scholer crystal and Murano glass to individual requirements. "Every piece is blown by mouth; all designs are handcrafted. We are like the tailors of light fittings," he said.
In the old days, everyone knew someone who went to Hong Kong and came back with five suits. Today, if you do your homework, a tailored home is yours for the commissioning.