Hong Kong-based Ed Ng, co-founder of the award-winning design studio AB Concept, has been holed up in Karuizawa, an hour from Tokyo, for months, working remotely with his teams in Hong Kong and Taiwan. This time has afforded him a newfound appreciation of nature and art, he says, which feels like a purification.
YOU’RE USUALLY BASED IN HONG KONG, BUT HAVE BEEN STAYING IN KARUIZAWA IN JAPAN. HOW HAS THAT BEEN?
My main home is in Hong Kong where the office is, but we have built a place here. We have been here for around six months, the longest we’ve ever stayed. It’s usually a week – two weeks is a real luxury. Like all the Hong Kong people, we have a fascination with Japanese culture: the food, the art – and we want to be so close to nature. My whole life has been in a concrete jungle and now I take a photo of the view from my bedroom every morning, watching how it changes from autumn to winter to spring it’s like nature’s orchestra outside as the snow melts and the green begins to appear, which tree’s leaves grow first, then the flowers. For me, this is the first time ever in my whole life I can understand why artists say that nature is the source of inspiration. You can say it, but not until you’re here and seeing it. How the light changes – from the shortest day and we’re soon to be at the summer solstice. And this half year of being here I’m seeing the change of the seasons, the light, the sky – all of it.
IS THIS GENERATING NEW DESIGN IDEAS? ARE YOU THINKING DIFFERENTLY?
I think definitely. The culture in Japan is very refined. Karuizawa has a population of only 20,000 people, but has more than 12 art museums. It’s a very Japanese thing: when the chairman has a collection of art they will build a museum and show it to the community. I’m immersed in this art and nature; it’s like a purification. Before the pandemic I travelled a lot more – maybe three or four cities in a week. For the coming six months ahead I’ll just be at home. And all of this extra time I’m using to be with my design team – probably even more time than usual. I find the Zoom annotation is super-intuitive and I can share my drawing using the iPencil. I draw, everyone is drawing –it’s great. My mind has become so clear and when I’m looking at a design issue, perhaps a floorplan or a colour scheme, now I think faster.
YOUR MAIN OFFICE IS IN HONG KONG AND YOU HAVE ONE IN TAIPEI. ARE YOU ALREADY USED TO WORKING REMOTELY AND USING VIDEO PLATFORMS?
Yes, we started a while ago. Last year Hong Kong had some hurdles, so we had weeks when we couldn’t go to the office and because we’ve always been using laptops we’ve been used to working from home. Every morning people would just get online and start our daily meetings. And then this pandemic instead of being in the office, people are home and I’m in Japan and it has all felt quite natural. We’re also setting up a Milan office too.
HAVE YOU BEEN ESPECIALLY BUSY DURING THIS TIME?
A few years ago we put so much focus into hospitality, which has been the biggest hit, but then made a conscious choice to diversify. We have plenty of residential projects, which, for the level of clients we’re working with, is bulletproof. And then we have some property developments – these are more long-term, so we’ve been able to keep almost all of our projects up and running.
HOW HAVE YOUR STUDIO TEAMS COPED WITH WORKING FROM HOME?
We feel the positive things: that nothing can be taken for granted. Even going to meetings. Even to go to your neighbourhood restaurant for dinner – we can’t take those things for granted anymore. People are looking at the positive aspect of being busy. In Hong Kong we didn’t have a mandatory lockdown like the UK. It was advisory that we should work from home. We kept the studio open in case anyone needed to access our sample library, but we advised everyone not to come back until it seems safe to do so.
THERE IS SO LITTLE INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS TRAVEL RIGHT NOW. ARE WE REALISING HOW MUCH TIME WE WASTE ON PLANES AS WELL AS THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT?
I think most travel will be for pleasure, for more important things. Business travel can be less and I don’t really miss it. I don’t think a Zoom meeting compared to a face-to-face meeting misses that much. It’s been part of culture to have face-to-face presentations for so long. I agree it’s necessary, but I think we’ll have a balance after this. The face-to-face is about relationship building, but when you’re presenting and you’ve already made that bond, you don’t need to be physically there. When I go to The Algarve for our W project I need to travel for 26 hours – from the time I leave home and arrive on site. Imagine if I spent that time on the drawing board with my team to really resolve design issues. That’s surely more beneficial.
ASIA IS AHEAD OF EUROPE AND THE US COMING OUT OF THE PANDEMIC. WHAT WORDS OF WISDOM DO YOU HAVE?
In Asia we all consider being responsible, wearing masks not to get infected, but to not infect others. I think this mentality has been setting us a bit ahead to protect everyone around us. It’s the willingness to sacrifice a bit, to compromise and then we can jump out of the constraints sooner. All of my team, people around me, I can see this kind of mentality. And I’ve seen my team feeling thankful for being busy. I think this is the biggest realisation.
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