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Perhaps the most common response the architect André Fu gets from friends who have experienced his East-meets-West interior design for the ultra-luxe St. Regis Hong Kong, an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property which opened in the Wan Chai neighborhood last year, is that the hotel looks “very André.”
They say the same thing of the restaurant Louise, one of the city’s hottest new tables, where Fu created a two-story, colonial-style salon lined with tropical prints and Art Deco fixtures, a place he imagined a French woman who migrated to Hong Kong in the 1950s might make as her home—a look that is also “very André.” And nothing says “very André” quite so much as the cool, calming (and much copied) interiors of the Upper House hotel in nearby Admiralty, which put Fu on the design map only a decade ago with its innovative progression of scale, from intimate to dramatic—to even surreally dynamic in, say, the restroom mirrors, which are angled in such a way that guests appear to be floating in the sky.
“The Upper House in some ways elevated my career tremendously,” Fu says. Since then, Fu has been able to not just simply replicate the success of that project but also take on very different ones.
No other homegrown designer, in fact, has made such a substantial mark on the cityscape in recent times as Fu, whose signature can be found on four major hotels, multiple retail spaces, and occasional art installations. His growing portfolio, which includes projects around the world and a lifestyle brand of home products, has made him one of the most acclaimed talents of his generation. “I seem not to have met anyone in Hong Kong who doesn’t like his work,” says Adrian Cheng, the billionaire chief executive officer of New World Development Company, who redeveloped the city’s Victoria Dockside. It includes a hybrid hotel-and-serviced-residences concept called K11 Artus, which Fu designed with the idea of incorporating contemporary art alongside traditional Chinese handicrafts. “He completely gets my vision of creating the world’s first artisanal home,” Cheng says. Other recent hotel commissions include the Waldorf Astoria Bangkok, the Andaz Singapore, and the Pavilion Suites at the Berkeley London. In New York, Fu recently created a showcase apartment in Jean Nouvel’s 53 West 53 tower.
The level of projects would be remarkable for any designer, let alone one of his relatively young age—Fu is now 44. Besides hospitality and residential works, he is also in demand for product collaborations, such as an elegantly twisted couch for Louis Vuitton’s Objets Nomades collection, rugs with Tai Ping that reference the brushstrokes of Chinese calligraphy, and a Julian Bedel–formulated home fragrance that combines notes of Sichuan pepper, South American ginger, and citrus. His latest commission, outdoor furniture for Janus et Cie, consists of teak lounge chairs and tables painted pale shades of gray he calls “smoke” and “driftwood.” The pieces are so meditatively clean and minimal they practically whisper the collection’s name: Rock Garden. “Outdoor furniture is typically designed in such a way that it feels more robust, which is why I created something more like an indoor collection,” Fu says. “A lot of the design is in the details, such as interlocking joints where the seat and legs come together.” The furniture gives the illusion of taking up less physical space, a theme that is central to his work in hotels, where space is always at a premium. “It’s more like a human scale that’s suited to an urban environment,” he says. “Not smaller, but softer.”
For Fu, a dashing figure who comes from a prominent family, and yet is disarmingly discreet, the perception that his work is becoming recognizable seems somewhat at odds with his stated mission to blend in to the background. “For every project I take on, I’m still there to tell the client’s story, using my aesthetics,” Fu says. “I don’t think the endgame is to put me in the foreground, but instead it’s just me as a curator, to absorb, interpret, and express.” Nonetheless, Fu is taking stock of his accomplishments in a new book, André Fu: Crossing Cultures with Design, out in May from Thames & Hudson. Working with the Hong Kong–based writer Catherine Shaw, Fu explains how many of his ideas resulted from specific challenges he faced and how “everything links together in some subconscious or subliminal way.”
“I didn’t want it just to be a chronology of beautiful pictures showcasing what I have created,” Fu says. “I also want to take a step back and ask myself: What is my aesthetic in the first place? What are the reasons behind a project?”
Point of fact: The Upper House’s Escher-esque layouts and whimsical restrooms actually resulted from the hotel’s unfortunate past life as serviced apartments atop a shopping center, where a grand entrance or restaurant had not previously been needed and thus had to be crafted out of tight quarters. Fu also broke precedent by doubling the size of the typical rooms, resulting in a rare sense of space for such a densely populated city. At the St. Regis, his mission was to create a “curated mansion,” paying homage to the history of John Jacob Astor’s iconic New York hotel while adding touches that introduce visitors to the brand’s history: Wall panels are modeled on shopkeepers’ doors, and lighting fixtures are based on the old gas lamps of Duddell Street, which he recalled from his childhood.
For hotels abroad, he researches local crafts, working with a kimono artist, for example, to create fabrics for a new hotel, the Mitsui, that will open in Kyoto this summer. And to keep them distinct in his mind, whenever he begins something, he chooses a song to evoke a certain feeling. For the sensuality of the Upper House, it was Sade’s “Cherish the Day.” For the St. Regis, it was Nat King Cole’s version of “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás.”
While his influences may be local, his broader sensibility is very Western, something he attributes to his dual upbringing in Asia and Europe. Fu grew up in the Hong Kong enclave of MidLevels, not far from Central, where the office for his business, AFSO, is today. He was the youngest son of a lawyer father and an educator mother who encouraged their children to pursue professional careers. “As a kid, I always loved to draw mazes,” Fu says. “I was at primary school at the age of eight or nine, passing them to my friends to find their way out.” At 14, he went to boarding school at Malvern College in Worcestershire, England, and St. Paul’s in London. He then earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture at Cambridge. Rather than working for an established company, he began his own design studio while still in school, consulting on residential projects for family friends. (An apartment he did in Mid-Levels, featured in the South China Morning Press, brought him to the attention of Swire Properties, which owns the Upper House.) It was during his college years, in 1995, Fu recalls, that a trip to Japan crystallized his interest in hospitality design. There he first encountered John Morford’s interiors for the Park Hyatt Tokyo, which were made famous in the movie Lost in Translation.
“The sense of modernity within the place has a presence and power that I find mesmerizing,” Fu says, describing the awe he felt riding an elevator up to the hotel’s skyscraper-top entrance to discover not a lobby but a bamboo garden lounge beneath an enormous glass ceiling. “That imagery remains in my DNA—not to imitate, but in terms of the kinds of designs I want to create with modernity and a sense of storytelling.”
His André Fu Living lifestyle brand, launched in 2016 and sold at Lane Crawford, most clearly expresses his own story, at least in the sense of “crossing cultures.” He made porcelain plates and cups to address the dining habits of both Western and Chinese consumers: an oval platter, for instance, is sized to serve long vegetables or a whole fish. The smooth curves of oak furniture evoke the lines of mid-century furniture, but a round table inspired by his childhood memories has an inset lazy Susan for the family-style serving that is the custom in much of Asia.
Surprisingly, his own home, a glass-walled, loft-like space overlooking Deep Water Bay, appears not cluttered, exactly, but filled with curious artifacts from his career, prototypes, and pieces of furniture that were never quite completed, like the curved corner of a carved wooden bed frame. “A lot of the furniture I keep just to remind me of all the mistakes I’ve made,” he says. Most of the usable pieces are from his own collection, scattered among artworks from Ai Weiwei and Kaws, but some have more personal significance, such as an acrylic chair he inherited from his grandmother. Still, some would argue that living in Hong Kong today, during scenes of ongoing protests that have upended its economy, requires a certain detachment, particularly for those in the hospitality industry. But that’s not how Fu sees it. A hotel, he notes, is the first thing people see when they arrive in a city and often the last before they leave—so it should, in a sense, send a message of welcome.
“Hong Kong is a city that is close to my heart,” he says. “Design is all about authenticity, which is in fact the essence of any experience, be it a gallery, a hotel, or a piece of furniture. So what’s authentic about Hong Kong to me is the fact that it’s not curated. It’s just how things happened. It’s the chaos, and the beauty of how things coexist here together.”