In 2012, partners Caroline Chou (design director/partner) and Kevin Lim (managing director/founding partner) decided it was time for a (big) change—so just one year after opening its doors, they moved their award-winning interdisciplinary design studio OPENUU from Boston to Hong Kong. We sat down with them to see how their firm has evolved since then and where their hearts and minds are focused now-a-days to elevate our industry in the Asian market.
BD: Why the move half-way across the world?
KL: We saw an opportunity in Asia, as the U.S. was still recovering from the financial crisis. We wanted to deliver unique design aesthetics as U.S.-educated designers for the Hong Kong market. As we settled in there in 2012, we operated out of an industrial building, immersing ourselves in the local environment. This contributed to the eventual design palette we developed—starting with industrial warehouse spaces. The rest is history.
BD: Where are most of your projects located?
CC: Currently, the majority of our projects are located in Hong Kong and China, along with consultancy projects from Taiwan, Malaysia, and the U.S.
BD: Any advice for your fellow designers on working in the Asian market?
KL: Every person you meet can turn into a potential lead in the long run. We obviously don’t try to network all the time, but sometimes we receive referrals by surprise.
CC: Provide the best client/customer service and care for efficient turnaround times. Happy clients give great testimonials. Be open to collaboration with fellow designers in your industry too.
BD: What are clients looking for now-a-days in a restaurant brand? How do you help tell their story?
KL: Clients like to find niches they can fill, and people are willing to try unique or exotic cuisines. Exotic cuisines create interesting interiors, as many have a rich cultural history. Stories always help with the image the restaurant is trying to portray. A well-crafted story also provides many design cues for the interior, allowing it to resonate with the branding. So one feeds the other.
BD: Tell us about the IIDA Will Ching Design award you received last year.
KL: The Will Ching Design award is given to a studio that has five employees or less, and you need to select one project to represent your studio. We’ve always had about 4-5 employees, including the two of us, given the project sizes.
CC: We submitted Mean Noodles, which won that award in addition to others. We felt it really represented us as a design studio, the owner/operator and the chef behind the brand.
BD: Kevin, how have you applied your degree from Le Cordon Bleu to your design work?
When we work on restaurants, I try to apply the knowledge I know for operations to provide efficient design solutions for the front of house. I’ve always had a passion for cooking and wanted to gain a deeper understanding of culinary arts.
BD: Would you say cooking is your second, or first passion? What did you learn and swear to always do as a designer after actually working as a chef at Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Massachusetts?
I would say cooking is a second passion. After working at Blue Ginger, I think it is extremely important for chef owners to communicate with your designers and consultants about what you want. Customization is possible, but we recommend knowing in advance to minimize cost implications. As a designer and a chef, I like to learn about the operations from the clients’ wants and their operations team needs.
BD: Tell me about your role as the President of the AIA Hong Kong Chapter.
As President of AIA Hong Kong Chapter, I served our members of the organization that have relocated to Hong Kong, providing programs for them to meet each other and fulfill their continuing education requirements. I oversaw the execution of the programs we organized, including building tours, technical seminars, symposiums, the annual awards exhibition and year-end dinner.
BD: What made you take the leap over to hotel work? How are you applying your wealth of experience in restaurants?
KL: When we first moved back, we always worked in commercial and warehouse spaces. Then we transitioned into offices and restaurants. From the restaurant clients, it led us into hotel restaurants—a natural transition to tackle the hotel as a whole from the guestrooms to their all-day dining facilities.
CC: We’ve also done some co-living spaces and a smaller 80-key hotel, while working on our restaurant projects. So we are able to handle projects increasing in scale. This allowed us to understand working with multiple consultants and balancing the hotel owner wish list with operator wants and needs. We look forward to working on co-living spaces, and different types of hotels in this segment.
BD: Caroline, what does your role as the Young Architects Chair for AIA Hong Kong entail?
Typically we run study groups and pair up study buddies at the AIA chapter office, and help young members get through the exams to become licensed. I’m currently going through the licensure process, so I understand the struggles of finding time to study while balancing working full time, personal and family life.
BD: What are some trends you are ready to tackle?
CC: We are interested in working in different scales, so this year we’ve been developing different product lines. It’s great to work on a smaller scale and focus on different details and touches to elevate a space. We just launched our Crescent Light, which works as a wall mount or pendant light. Lighting is important and can elevate a whole room and change the whole mood. Another aspect is home goods, as we recently launched a collection in collaboration with RIL CREED, ranging from leather cushions to beanbags, coasters and trays. We have more ideas in the works, and hope to have more items out in the future.
KL: We’d be interested in continued work on coworking and co-living spaces, as this will be a great addition with our experience in office design and hotel design.