“Design is pretty much intangible,” says André Fu, a celebrated interior designer best known for The Upper House hotel in Hong Kong, The Berkeley hotel in London, Waldorf Astoria hotel in Bangkok, and recently The St. Regis hotel in Hong Kong.
Fu’s understated, elegant designs have earned him Designer of the Year for Maison & Objet Asia, Wallpaper*s list of Top 20 Interior Designers, and Interior Designer of the Year by Elle Décor China.
“A lot of the hospitality work that I do is about the journey. It’s about the layering of spaces and how everything can show up as a holistic experience,” he says.
As an example, Fu creates a narrative in his hotel designs that begins as a guest enters the reception area. As he or she moves through the space, the story plays out.
“It’s not about a single moment. It’s about creating a memory for people,” he says. “It’s about an unveiling of layers, like a cinematic viewpoint of whatever I’m trying to create.”
Innovation rooted in tradition
Fu grew up in Hong Kong, and at age 14, he moved to England, where he attended boarding school in the suburban countryside. He went on to earn both his Bachelor of Arts and Masters in Architecture from the University of Cambridge.
“Being exposed to very different cultures has helped me cultivate the versatility to be receptive to a very different environment,” he says.
Although it’s the age of social media, and you can see photos and videos from anywhere in the world, Fu says that physically being in a different environment is much more impactful.
There are significant—though sometimes subtle—differences in travelling to different places in the world, Fu says.
“The quality of daylight in Europe is very different from Asia,” he says. The light in England is “more crisp, and the sunlight tends to have a different sheen to it.”
At Cambridge, Fu learned about tradition as his education focused heavily on architectural history and theory, which are still the core of his approach to design today.
“Tradition is rooted in my heart,” he says. “I believe in authenticity, and architecture is derived from the way that society has evolved and the way people live. Without an appreciation and knowledge of the past, you will never be able to innovate. So it’s not just about creating the new, but to understand the past in order to create the new.”
Between terms at Cambridge, Fu travelled extensively throughout Europe, seeing the grandeur of his architectural predecessors still inspiring awe in visitors like him centuries, or even millenia, after they were built.
“My travel and very traditional English academic training cultivated me in a very different way, making me much more open-minded,” he says.
Now, when he takes on a new project in a part of the world he’s never been to, he’s fearless and just jumps in, conscientiously immersing himself for a week or two into the local culture.
“I start to communicate with people. I start to understand the way they think, the way they work, and what for them is culturally authentic and what isn’t. It’s a very interesting way to learn about a place. I think it all comes back to the way I was brought up and the way I was educated,” he says.
Coming home and branching out
The St. Regis Hong Kong, which opened last summer, exemplifies Fu’s ability to create a culturally authentic experience. By harmonizing the New York City roots of the brand with the local culture of his home town, Fu’s design exudes the same spirit as the original St. Regis that opened in New York back in 1904.
“Many people think that St. Regis is a classic, grand hotel, but, in fact, [John] Astor built it more as a venue to gather his friends; it’s more like a private mansion in many ways,” Fu says. “As you walk into the New York hotel, there isn’t a larger-than-life lobby. It was quite intimate.”
For the Hong Kong hotel, Fu employed a similar narrative of intimacy, with an entrance that brings guests past the drawing room towards a quaint bar tucked away at the end.
“A genuine and personal tribute to the brand’s legacy is extremely important and relevant,” says Fu. “The interpretation and the expression of the design needs to be relevant to the city and the time that we’re living in right now.”
For example, Wan Chai, the busy commercial area of Hong Kong where The St. Regis is located, includes many old colonial buildings. Fu used that same motif, mirroring the style of the old Hong Kong windows and their framework throughout the hotel.
“I infused the hotel with a Hong Kong narrative, adding another layer, depicting my memory of the city, the silhouette of the city’s architecture and cultural past,” he says.
Though Fu has the ability to harmonize different cultures and time periods in his designs, he doesn’t think in terms of Western or Eastern design; he just trusts himself and uses his intuition.
“I personally don’t think that we are living in a world that needs to categorize things,” he says. In the course of one day, for example, he’s working on projects all over the world—in Monte Carlo, Bangkok, Beijing, London, and Los Angeles. He doesn’t segment his creative designs by region or culture. “It’s just about creating good design and having intrinsic and intuitive design freedom.”
Given that a new hotel or large public space will take years from concept to opening, Fu faces a temporal challenge as well as cultural.
“You can never predict trends; you can never foresee how everything is going to evolve in a matter of four to six years. The ultimate goal is to be truthful to yourself, to believe in that original vision, and to try not to deviate,” he says.
Two core characteristics that have given Fu’s designs a timelessness and universality over the course of his career are comfort and tactility.
“Comfort is the essence of design,” he says. “Whether people are entering a gallery space, a museum, a hotel, a working environment, when it’s designed with a sense of comfort in mind, when they feel that there is a certain degree of thoughtfulness in the curation of their experience, then it will probably appeal.”
Fu also invites authenticity into his designed spaces by using various tactile and “genuine, honest materials that are natural,” he says.
“I love to use wood. I love to use stone. These are two of the main materials that I use extensively in all of my projects,” he says. “The way you treat and carve stone will create surprising effects. It’s not just about creating new materials with new technology; it’s about using these honest materials in a very simple manner. Through thoughtful detailing, you can cultivate a feeling of a very unique environment.”
When Fu steps back and looks at his life and career, he feels honoured to be entrusted to create his narrative-driven, experiential designs. One of his most exciting projects now is a brand new hotel called Mitsui that opens this summer in Kyoto, Japan.
“I am there to endure the process, to understand, to listen, to interpret and to translate everything that I have encountered and experienced. Then I come up with a design solution that hopefully will become the window through which a lot of travellers will experience that city,” he says.
“We’re living in a time where things evolve rapidly on an unpredictable basis. To have the opportunity to express myself through those challenges, I think that makes my life very rewarding.”