“It’s really about celebrating my relationship with the hotel,” says interior architect André Fu about the penthouse suite that bears his name, which occupies a privileged spot on the 48th floor of The Upper House hotel and is where we’re now comfortably ensconced.
Opened just three months ago, the 1,960-square-foot space exudes a characteristically restrained air of comfort and luxury, and is almost a self-contained residence, replete with a large dining room and spa suite, and tastefully bedecked with around 150 items of furniture, fabrics, lighting and other objets from Fu’s four series of Living collections, the latest of which will be unveiled next month.
There aren’t many working architects who are accorded such an honour, but then Fu and The Upper House enjoy something of a special relationship. When the Swire conglomerate, whose roots in Hong Kong go as far back to the 1870s, decided rather belatedly to establish a hospitality arm in the early years of the 21st century, it turned to Fu – who’d graduated with a Master’s degree from Cambridge University in the year 2000 and only opened a studio in his home city some three years later – to design the interiors of what would be its flagship property. Fu, who’d just turned 30 at the time and had never taken on a project of such magnitude before, now agrees that it was a bold step.
Dressed in the unassuming ensemble of open-neck shirt, chinos and loafers that seems to be a personal signature, Fu chooses his words carefully and deliberately. “It was a radical move by Swire,” he says. “I had a team of just three, with no hospitality experience. I’d imagine I was pretty much a blank canvas, though I was quite confident and felt I was ready for any challenge . . . but then again, the more you know, the less you know – it’s always like that. So I guess it was a steep learning curve at the time. But that said, I think the experience also allowed me to express my own belief in hospitality. And nobody could have imagined then how the Upper House has evolved. I mean, it was the antithesis to such a lot of things … and yet it’s become woven into the fabric of the city. And that’s what’s made the experience so much more rewarding.”
“One day, my mother said something like, ‘André, imagine in the future if you became an architect and you wouldn’t only be designing the building but you could also be designing super-micro details, such as the towels and even the plates.”André Fu
It was probably no accident that his first large-scale commission involved the hospitality industry, as Fu was fascinated by hotels even in childhood. “I always loved drawing,” he says, “and I’ve always loved hotels. That’s probably because, back in the day, hotels seemed to be such aspirational destinations, they were pretty much a world of their own. It was the experience of walking into a place with a persona, an aura all of its own – the whole idea of the grand hotel. Back in the ’80s when you went to Bangkok, for example, The Oriental defined the luxury destination at a certain level. It was the beginning of the Aman phase, and there were brands like the Regent in Hong Kong. I was probably about five or six years old at the time, but that mystical world of hospitality captured my imagination.
“One day, my mother and I were sitting in a hotel and she said something like, ‘André, imagine in the future if you became an architect and you wouldn’t only be designing the building but you could also be designing super-micro details, such as the towels and even the plates that were going into the hotel.’ I still vividly remember her saying that to me.” Although his family had no particular background in design, they evidently placed few obstacles in the way of him pursuing his creative passions. As a teenager he was sent off to school in England, where he quickly became exposed to history, culture and art. “Going to the South Bank in London and walking along to the Design Museum, and then down to Tate Modern and the Hayward gallery – all that became part of my life when I was growing up. The performance arts, the Royal Opera House, going to Wembley Arena – you know, all that stuff, this whole mixture of things that I was exposed to, which helped cultivate this whole idea of visual elements that transcend a way of life, a way of seeing things and a way of experiencing a certain way of living. All of that helped turn me into the person I am now.”
Fu says that by the time he’d reached the age of 14 he’d decided he wanted to go into architecture, a discipline that he admits would please his family. “My parents had a more traditional Chinese mentality in that they wanted their kids to pursue a profession. But I’m very pleased that I did, because the university that I went to is heavily rooted in the history of architecture and the theory of architecture, so I gained knowledge and exposure – an in-depth insight – into pretty much everything … that whole spectrum of understanding the cultural context and how architecture relates to the period. You know, the reasons for Brutalism, the reasons behind the rise of Post-Modernism, the reasons behind people like Jean Prouvé and why the social context created the backdrop for the architecture and the design language. And how materiality has radically changed the way architecture has evolved.”
“Context” is a word that crops up often when Fu talks about the way he approaches his work, in all of which he strives for relevance and authenticity. “It’s about understanding the notion of authenticity and the core of what it takes to create things that are relevant to the cultural context we’re living in,” he says. “And it’s only by knowing and understanding – or being rooted in – that notion of authenticity that we’ll be able to evolve and learn and respond.” When asked about influences, he cites “that sense of journey and discovery as you go up the ramp” at Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, outside of Paris; Alvar Aalto’s home, office and workshop near Helsinki; and the privilege of “being exposed to these types and this quality of architecture at first hand and at that age”.
If he was relatively unknown when he was approached by Swire to work on The Upper House, the hotel’s opening in 2009 as a subtly sophisticated urban escape – an hotel, indeed, that was unlike any other in Hong Kong – turned him into a star almost overnight, with commissions tumbling in to his by-now enlarged André Fu Studio not only from Hong Kong, but also from around the world. In this city alone he can count four key properties – The Upper House, K11 Artus, the Kerry Hotel and the St Regis – while hospitality projects overseas include the Fullerton Bay and Andaz hotels in Singapore, Bangkok’s Waldorf Astoria, the Shangri-La Tokyo, Villa La Coste in Aix-en-Provence, Southern France, and signature suites at the Berkeley in London. Other commissions include restaurants and residences, and he’s now working on Hotel The Mitsui Kyoto, Claridge’s in London and The Maybourne Riviera in Monaco, the latter two doubtless resulting from what’s turned out to be a lengthy and fruitful relationship with the Maybourne Group and its boss Patrick McKillen, a man whom Fu describes as inspirational.
Of his four Hong Kong properties, he says that “it would already be a rare opportunity to have one hotel here. But the fact that I’ve had four complete hotel creations, all within close proximity of the harbourfront, and each one offering a very different side of my aesthetic – and just being able to communicate what defines me, my take on
a certain persona, and that idea of storytelling and having a unique narrative for each project, even though they’re within the same city – I think that’s important.”
Although Fu’s aesthetic is clearly evolving – and he says he’d design a space in a Hong Kong luxury property quite differently from a similarly sized one in, say, London – what’s constant to both is an air of comfort. “And that’s easier said than done. Even now, even this morning, I was with my team and we were going through a new hotel project that we’re doing. And I was talking them through imagining that there’s a person walking in, and how they’d walk into the room. What would they do? Where would they place that bag? Where would they sit? What would they be looking at when they do that? Where would they hang that towel and what’s in proximity to that?
“It’s all about imagining the person who’s using the space. I mean, there’s no formula, it’s just having that intrinsic idea of the experience – I call it the essence of the experience, what quintessentially captures your feeling when you’re in a space. And the moment you feel that the designer has thought of all these things for you, then … I mean, the word wellbeing could be about going into a room that’s very tranquil and quiet. But actually it’s more than that, it’s about the feeling you’re being taken care of. So it could be a very richly designed space, but one where you feel that whatever you need, it’s reachable, it’s adaptable, it’s approachable, so there’s that notion of wellbeing, because you feel right. It seems so obvious, but perhaps because of social media, because of the pace of things, these are things that can easily be overlooked, because everyone’s striving for that image that’s so powerful and captivating. But for me, the joy of doing what I do is seeing someone sitting there, feeling good and having a good time. And I think that’s the soul of hospitality.”
Those same notions imbue his lifestyle brand, André Fu Living, whose first collection was released in 2016, as well as the pop-up apartment and objets he’s designed for Louis Vuitton. “It all spilled over into the world of lifestyle design with my Living collection,” he says. “Many people would have thought that it’s just an extension of what I do, because designers do these things – I mean, that’s perhaps what I thought, too, at the beginning. But because there’s been such a demand for all the bespoke items I’ve done in the hotels, then it was a natural progression to create a brand independent of my design studio.
“We came up with the idea of creating a multi-category collection that reaches beyond furniture, so there’s also lighting, there are carpets, there’s bedding, table accessories and portable LED lights – and everything built around the notion of living. That person needs to eat, so there’s a dining table and a chair to sit on, and tableware. And lots of people don’t have so much space, so shall we create a collection of tableware that can cater to both Asian and Western dining at the same time? It’s kind of taken from some things I’ve learned from hospitality, but also thinking about the modern way of living and then infusing all that into a lifestyle culture.
“There are three André Fu Living series and the fourth, which is coming in July, is more of a personal story. It’s about tapping into things that I admire, from my upbringing, it’s about a juxtaposition of Art Deco patterns and Japanese Zen gardens – it’s that cross-cultural aspect that I’m experimenting with. In hotels, it’s about looking at the context of the project, looking at the neighbourhood and the brand that we’re working with. And then coming up with a unique story that’s specific to that project.”
Fu evidently takes joy from what he does, not only from the end result but the entire process, and that’s partly to do with the people he works with. “I remember when I worked on Villa Lacoste, which was also for Paddy [McKillen]. The brief was modern Provençal and I’d never visited that region until I went there. And equally for the Mitsui project in Tokyo, I’m working with a Japanese client to celebrate the heritage of Japan, and being with a master of the Japanese garden and talking to him about how to define this garden together. And it’s just such a daunting experience. But that’s where my career has taken me, through all this engagement and involvement and interaction with people who are so wonderful with what they’re doing … I mean, it’s the same with chefs. Like, two months ago, when all the Michelin announcements came out, I realised I’d established a working relationship – and, to some extent, friendships – with some of the greatest chefs. It’s a very rich spectrum of people, who are so dedicated and so passionate. And that level of commitment and involvement opens my eyes.
“This is a people business,” says Fu, “with projects that are so rewarding and priceless, that I feel the process of creating them is almost as important as the outcome. And when you feel as if you’re in it together, there’s something so mesmerising about that. It’s something I value and I appreciate, because I know that not many people have that kind of opportunity. So if I sleep five minutes less and put in that extra five minutes of effort, then it’s worthwhile. I’ve been like that over the course of my career and I hope to always retain that passion.”
ANDRÉ FU COVER STORY
PHOTOGRAPHY RUBY LAW
ART DIRECTION AND STYLING JACKY TAM
HAIR JEAN TANG
MAKE-UP DEEP CHOI
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT WONG SIU LUNG
STYLING ASSISTANTS KAZ LAM AND MELODY CHAN
LOCATION ANDRÉ FU SUITE, THE UPPER HOUSE
This story first appeared in Prestige Hong Kong.