For André Fu, the Hong Kong-based interior designer and founder of AFSO, this year has been full of changes to his planned launch schedule. Fu has used this as a chance to adapt his business, grow his digital communications and explore how the hospitality industry of the future might look.
HOW HAS HONG KONG AND YOUR STUDIO BEEN THIS YEAR?
Hong Kong has coped rather well with COVID, considering our proximity to Mainland China and considering the amount of transient visitors - it’s a global hubs in terms of air travel. My studio has been open the whole time, with just three days of working from home., but in key periods when we have meetings everybody is encouraged to wear masks,. The feeling of having a level of normality is very beneficial for our way of life as a whole. Yes, there are requests for distancing and certain things like gyms or bars have shut for a while, but just notionally, restaurants have been operating continuously throughout, though with restrictions at certain times, so that shows how life has been in general in the city.
IN A NORMAL YEAR YOU MUST TRAVEL A GREAT DEAL. HOW HAS IT BEEN STAYING PUT?
The last time I travelled was in February right after Chinese New Year when I went to Bangkok for a project meeting. To be honest the first two months were amazing, beautifully quiet, I could really focus on design. It sounds terrible, but previously it had been a rollercoaster of flights, coming into the studio to catch up and then getting ready for the next three trips. So this year has been a period when I didn’t have to think about schedule as such, but instead just focus on design work that we have to present digitally. I’ve appreciated the luxury of sitting in front of my desk, be it at home or at the studio, just to draw, think of the studio and think of how everything I do now will be built in the next few years. I’m thinking about how I can bring new experiences to customers, what are people actually looking for, how should I evolve the studio. I’ve also had a little more time to look after myself personally so it’s been rewarding in that sense too.
HOW HAS YOUR STUDIO COPED IN GENERAL?
In my case, our clients are pretty global: we have projects in London, France, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Mainland China, so it has been fine. One or two of our projects are now slightly slower in pace, but we’ve also picked up some new work. One hotel in Kyoto, The Hotel Mitsui, was originally meant to open this summer in time for the Olympics, but now it’s planned to open in November this year. We were lucky also in as much that we’ve been set up digitally for meetings and so on for a while now, but I hadn’t foreseen that it would become such a key part of the way we now work.
HAVE YOUR CLIENTS BEEN ACCEPTING OF YOU ATTENDING FEWER MEETINGS IN PERSON AND DO YOU THINK THEY WILL CONTINUE TO BE?
That’s hard for me to judge or predict, but I guess a lot of the meetings can be cut down. I still value the opportunity to meet face-to-face and to observe the reactions of the other party. I’ve also learned that because now we rely so much on things that are shown on screen, it becomes much more critical for an image to genuinely reflect our vision and be true to the colour palette. There can be so much variation especially on colours: a mild tweak of a timber colour and it could look natural or very reddish on some screens. So we test images from our desktop screens and put them on the meeting screens at the studio to check everything the day before. Everything is considered in terms of how it appears on a screen and since there’s a lack of personal interaction on a face-to-face basis, this means the theatre of a presentation is less apparent. Therefore the quality of what we produce becomes even more important. You can’t just bluff it. It’s a very honest, direct means.
A LOT OF YOUR WORK IS IN HOSPITALITY, WHICH HAS BEEN HIT QUITE HARD. HOW HAVE YOU FOUND THAT?
I guess you just have to respond accordingly. It’s been interesting. For example, with our lifestyle brand, Andre Fu Living, we had planned to present in Milan during Salone. Back in January, everything was ready, with stuff coming from Italy, from China and from Thailand. And then suddenly there was COVID in China, so we couldn’t get any of the pieces sent to Hong Kong - the gates were closed. Even the factories couldn’t open, so we were thinking, ok, what if we have things made in Italy or around Europe instead of China? But by the time that China was opening up in late March, Europe started shutting down. So we’d fixed one side of the equation and then suddenly the other side went wrong. And then there was the cancellation of Salone. We thought maybe we’d make a video about the collection to really show what it was about, which was planned originally as part of the Milan showcase, but in the end it became the tool that we used to transmit digitally. It’s something that we can share with distributors and partners of the brand, so that was a really productive and useful for us. This August, we are also planning a collaboration with a key media partner in China to create a unique pop-up house in Shanghai which will feature over 100 pieces from the Andre Fu Living collection.
ALL THE TRADESHOWS ARE OBVIOUSLY CANCELLED SO THIS YEAR IS ABOUT FINDING NEW WAYS IN WHICH TO COMMUNICATE. HAS THAT MADE YOU MORE ENTERPRISING?
Yes. Our first collection we launched through Moda Operandi and then this year’s collection is with 1st Dibs and already selling and we’ve just launched some new sales points in China. In fact, because of physically where we are in Hong Kong and having a multi-category brand being produced in all parts of the world, we have more flexibility to adjust our production and programming to ensure that we can start selling. I’m sure everyone is affected one way or another, but it’s interesting to find means to make the most out of it.
WILL THIS CHANGE THE TRADESHOW LANDSCAPE GENERALLY?
I think it’ll be a combination of everything. I’m sure Salone will come back, it’s still a very important platform, to be there, to celebrate design altogether and to interact. Equally, the digital platforms are not to be forgotten, they’re definitely very important. However that means that the quality of work being placed on digital platforms becomes even more critical. We did a live chat for one of the brands and obviously because Hong Kong wasn’t in lockdown there was a production crew in my studio setting up lighting and recording facilities just to ensure the quality was good.
WHAT ARE THE EXCHANGES YOU’RE HAVING WITH CLIENTS IN HOSPITALITY AND HAS THIS PERIOD ALTERED THE WAY YOU’RE THINKING ABOUT DESIGN?
I guess the value of my work hasn’t changed. I always talk about the essence of experience and the quality of comfort, not just design spectacles for social media. That quality becomes even more relevant surely. Staycations have become a really important means for the hospitality industry to survive, especially hotels. Often when a company or a hotelier develops a brand in a specific location it’s about retelling of that sense of place, but when you’re on a staycation perhaps you want to detach yourself from the place. So if you’re in London you want to go into a hotel and feel like you’re in London and it’s the quintessential British experience or you want to feel like you’re not in London at all – that’s the concept of escape. It’s been really interesting because in Hong Kong there are two properties that I’ve designed that have done tremendously well during COVID. Those are quite interesting. One is K-11 Artus, which was originally for long-staying guests with big balconies and on a site right at the forefront of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, which provokes the experience or feeling of a very aspirational apartment that becomes an escape, taking you out of your everyday into a home environment that’s beyond your everyday life. The other is Kerry Hotel, which was originally conceived as an urban resort, with expansive landscaped gardens, al fresco dining terraces and pool decks. With the openness of the project, in the centre of town, but still feeling remote at the same time, it has the quality of an urban escape.
SO MUCH ABOUT HOSPITALITY IS ABOUT BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER. WHICH IS DIFFICULT RIGHT NOW. HOW ARE YOU MANAGING THAT?
It’s always a balance, even with existing projects. Let’s not think of it in such a macro way though. Even in restaurants some people like to have a slight distance for a sense of privacy rather than being closer together for a greater buzz - this has always been an on-going question. It has to do with the methodology of how venue operates and the kind of vibe that the operator is striving for. As for the whole movement of co-working and co-living: if people think they’re part of the experience then they will naturally gravitate towards it. We’re seeing a lot of the doors in public areas now handle-less and sensor operated. Basins and taps sensors have been a growing trend in many luxury hotels anyway, it’s visually better designed and more luxurious. Because of the way the world has evolved people are more accustomed to the safety side of it more than the visual outlook. The perception of luxury has also evolved with these kinds of considerations in mind, a touch-free environment.
THE DESIGN INDUSTRY IS RESILIENT AND OFTEN SO GOOD AT FINDING OPPORTUNITY. DO YOU FEEL LIKE WE WILL COME OUT OF THIS STRONGER, MORE INNOVATIVE, MORE CONSIDERATE?
I hope so. I would imagine so. Just for another example. I’ve done this book with Thames & Hudson and we were meant to launch it in Hong Kong and then Art Basel Shanghai and then during Salone in Milan. Obviously a series of events have been cancelled, so we couldn’t launch it properly as planned. While thankfully we were able to have a launch in Hong Kong we also sent copies of the book to key journalists, friends of the studio and asked them to post on social media. We’ve asked participants in the book, like The Berkeley in London, Chateau Lacoste in France and so on – all of them agreed to post about the book on a specified day in early June. So what otherwise would’ve been a location specific launch in Hong Kong or London then become a community effort linked by my work. That was very touching for me personally. Sometimes you do projects and you’re offering a service, but when everyone is willing to take part in something not for obvious commercial reasons, but because of the relationship we’ve built up with the team and the brand, I find that really rewarding. At times like this when you get support from people all over the world that’s fascinating and wonderful.
IS THERE A SENSE OF COMMUNITY IN THE HONG KONG DESIGN SCENE? DO YOU FEEL A LEVEL OF SUPPORT?
Yes, of course. Everyone is figuring it out. Some people are more affected than others. There aren’t that many Hong Kong designers who have a global presence, that’s a small group of us, not like Italy. I think it’s also a balance of whether you feel like it’s an appropriate time to do certain things. And I think that’s the trickiest part. Aside from fun things is it appropriate to celebrate design, if that’s the word? Or whether it’s more about focusing on key things, such as a global pandemic. At some point it’s also about moving on and resuming things. The so-called ‘new normal’ won’t be an absolute world where things are absolutely fine. Situations change, by the way. It could be health and safety issue or other issues happening around the world. You cannot predict. You can only plan for the best hope for the best.
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