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By Christina Lai (@ChristinaLai1)     3 Jun 2016
André Fu is the founder of AFSO studio and Maison & Objet Asia’s 2016 Designer of the Year

Top hotels and restaurants are always the testing grounds for fascinating new architecture and design. What happens in hospitality often dictates trends in domestic design. Maison & Objet Asia’s 2016 Designer of the Year, the internationally acclaimed Andre Fu—talks about his ‘people-driven’ approach to luxury hotel and restaurant design

Whether it’s designing Michelle Yeoh’s private residence, Lane Crawford Store’s Shoe Library or the I by Inagiku Japanese restaurant at the W Hotel in Guangzhou (which he describes as ‘a dreamscape of the mythical kabuki memoir’), Hong Kong-born Andre Fu is in global demand and leaving his distinctive imprint on world design.

Fu left the Fragrant Harbor at 14 for boarding school in the UK. He completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture at Cambridge, and has gone on to become a highly successful, celebrated and awarded architect. He is listed as one of Wallpaper’s top 20 interior designers in the world.

Fu—known for his new-Asian sensitivity to space, attention to everyday detail and a fondness for lush, light materials—boasts a portfolio that spans sushi restaurants, bespoke handtufted rugs with carpet legends Tai Ping and an unconventional catwalk for the Swedish retailer Cos in 2015. Right now the designer is having a moment. He launched his lifestyle line Andre Fu Living last year, published a book with Assouline and in April unveiled an innovative lighting collection with Lasvit, the renowned Czech glass manufacturer.

I by Inagiku at the W Hotel in Guangzhou
I by Inagiku at the W Hotel in Guangzhou

Slightly intimidated and in an attempt to build up a rapport, I start our phone interview with a Cantonese greeting. He doesn’t recognize it. So I crack on with the questions—first and foremost, I want to discover more about his take on luxury in hospitality. He replies, ‘Today I think luxury means to be genuine and honest. There’s thoughtfulness to it that is not as superficial.’

The public gaze of luxury may have changed a lot in the 16 years since he started his career—Fu founded AFSO in 2000, the same year he graduated from Cambridge—but a sense of comfort and place have always been non-negotiable in his work. Despite admitting to being pretty hands-on with two Instagram accounts—both AFSO and Andre Fu Living—he is cautious about social media’s tendency to focus on powerful images when it comes to understanding design. For Fu, luxury in hospitality is about providing a thoughtful, total experience that’s more than meets the eye: educational, comfortable and indulgent are a few adjectives that come up. ‘It’s definitely not about designing places that look good through Instagram filters,’ he says.

AFSO’s clients fall into two categories: The first are the niche-innovative hoteliers that don’t come with a strong brand image, with which he can have a much more direct and holistic relationship. The second are the high-end hotel corporations with a distinct identity, where to date he’s been working on things from brand values to guidebooks. ‘But equally, I am getting a lot more requests from big hotel brands such as Starwood, entrusting me to—hopefully!—come up with something new.’

I wonder if he thinks the perception of luxury changes in different countries, having designed hotels all over Asia. He admits creating a unique sense of place that’s true to his signature aesthetic while fused with local culture is important, especially as now there is a ‘growing community of extremely well-traveled guests. There needs to be more than a design experience, so that they become tourist destinations in their own right.’ Different contexts and different people every time are challenges Fu seems to enjoy, having once been quoted as saying: ‘Each project takes forever. Imagine yourself dating someone for four years—but it’s not dating one person. You’re dating 15 people at the same time and you have to give them personal attention. You can’t tell them what the other person is about.’

So far, so coy—the man behind the designs is still a mystery. Trying to tease more details out of him, I ask if there is a piece of architecture in Asia that inspires him the most. He surprises me by mentioning Kadoorie Estate, an upmarket residential area near the school I went to in Kowloon as a child. It’s a rare example of prewar modernist housing preserved against lush layered landscapes, so it’s not difficult to make the connection to his signature style: luscious resort design integrated in purist, modernist, technology-inspired architecture.

Historical and spiritual concepts within Asia, as well as a sense of theater, are also recurring themes in Fu’s work. For example, the bamboo torii tunnel at a Kyoto shrine and the Suzhou Rock Garden in China inspired two recent restaurant commissions in Korea.

I push further and ask an open-ended question: What gets his creative juices flowing? Fu brings up the notion of ‘people-driven creativity’ as the constant in all his projects, which start out as organic ‘mental collages.’ He explains that ‘a lot of it comes from purely talking to the staff—hoteliers who understand the venue well. Getting their feedback really helps the vision form and develop organically.’

I ask him how, with such diverse teams and stakeholders, he manages to harmonize and resolve the potential conflict within people-driven creativity: ‘I always try to keep in mind that my ultimate role as a designer is to deliver the vision rather than be seen as ‘imposed’ on the project. There’s a self-perpetuating energy that can be enjoyed and felt by everyone when the team is working collaboratively,’ he says.

Fu’s enthusiasm for teaming up with different disciplines is evident. Besides hotels, he has collaborated on art spaces (Ben Brown Fine Arts and Galerie Perrotin in Hong Kong), property (33 Bridges Street, an AFSO-conceptualized 1950s Bauhaus building in Hong Kong’s Soho district) and numerous fashion and retail pop-ups (Lane Crawford, Louis Vuitton, Agnes B). He’s now turning his attention to products, including an eau de toilette—the Fargesia scent in collaboration with Buenos Aires perfumer Julian Bedeland—and bathroom fixtures with Cooper & Graham in Singapore.

Unsurprisingly, Fu admits that he gets asked a lot about what his dream project would be. ‘I’d love to design a theater or performance art venue,’ he says. ‘There’s a poetry to how the nature of modes changes according to the type of performance—like the way the hotel ballroom can be a backdrop for different happenings.’

Having achieved success in so many different fields, I wonder what lessons stood out for him. ‘There is a big difference between designing spaces and objects. The former is all encompassing because you have to consider every element, every piece of furniture as part of the experience. Whereas with objects, you’re designing in the hope of projecting qualities of the brand beyond the product itself.’

As our interview draws to a close, Fu unnecessarily apologizes for a lack of eloquence in his answers. He’s soft-spoken, polite and humble—but I am most struck by his quiet stubbornness, both in his commitment to design values and his honest enthusiasm for people-driven creativity.

To experience Andre Fu’s new aesthetic, visit I by Inagiku, at the W Hotel in Guangzhou.


Photos: AFSO

Christina Lai
Christina Lai

Christina Lai is a British-born Hong Konger—a freelance digital-marketing consultant and blogger living in the UK with an eye for trends in innovation and Asian culture.

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