Describe your aesthetic. “My work is understated but memorable because I add something – art or a material – that gives it a special character. A lot of designers think about style, trends or what is beautiful but we design experiences.”
How does this work? “For Hotel Fusion, in San Francisco, we infused the art-deco setting with a quirky Oriental touch by wrapping a dramatic hand-carved wooden dragon around a column in the lobby. The twist is that it is a Western dragon’s head. For a Japanese restaurant project, I designed a bathroom sink that looks like it has been sliced into pieces by a samurai sword. A sense of humour is important for creating something that people have an emotional reaction to.”
Do you collaborate with local artists? “Yes, but I also enjoy designing and making the art myself – for an Indian restaurant in the Cayman Islands, we dyed tea bags to make a huge pixel artwork on a wall. We always study colour and pattern closely to create a mood through materials. We tell a story.”
Is working at different scales and budgets a deliberate strategy? “We do a wide range of work, from luxury to mass market, because I enjoy the different experiences. For instance, we’ve designed a food court in a public housing estate in Yau Tong, Kowloon, that makes it easier for the elderly using wheelchairs to sit at tables with everyone else.”
Tell us about your pay-per-use luxury lounge at Hong Kong International Airport. “It is a new lounge for the Plaza Premium Group. In 2008, they had 15 lounges. Now they have 170 around the world. We imagined this one as a luxurious oasis for travellers, with natural materials, soothing colours and artwork – including a large forest mural. It has a lounge, a restaurant and a bar.”
How does the design differ from a hotel, restaurant or bar elsewhere? “An airport lounge operates 24 hours a day, so it must work as well in the morning as late at night. Furniture must be comfortable but not too big, and we programme the lighting to create different scenarios.
We never use long sofas because travellers prefer stand-alone chairs. We think carefully about movement and materials, so, for instance, at Plaza Premium First we’ve matched wood and metal to not feel loud.”
You also design a lot of your own furniture. “My newest collection, launched in Shanghai recently, is called Layers. It is modern and memorable – and ergonomic. We use around 5,000 chairs a year in our projects and these are a mix of my own design and iconic pieces. Custom design means you can create something unusual, like my steam bun chair that is made up of layers that can be used as stools or trays.”