As internationally renowned founders and principals of AB Concept, Ed Ng and Terence Ngan have built their practice into an international luxury design powerhouse, whether it’s in hospitality, F&B, residential or commercial projects.
As natives of Hong Kong, a destination where East and West cross path, the duo have a unique understanding of the world enabling them to offer a refreshing feeling to every design. Through different types of projects, they tell a story and weave unique cultural backgrounds and concepts into the designs.
From grand lobby spaces to exquisite lighting design or from a refined villa at the Côte d’Azur to a traditional Chinese courtyard, Ed and Terence narrate each design into a unique journey of experience, with clients including Four Seasons, Rosewood, Mandarin Oriental, Waldorf Astoria, LALIQUE and Kohler, with projects across the world such as in London, New York, Milan, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.
On AB Concepts’ recent visit to Shanghai, presenting at Design Shanghai and speaking at design talks such as an event hosted by Designwire and Lalique, The Luxury Conversation caught up with Ed, to talk all things design. (in fact we ended up having more like 7 questions!)
Amongst the rapid development of Chinese cities and society, we often hear that China’s youth are keen to bring back design traditions of China. Aside representations of the Ming dynasty, what do you think these are?
I don’t think only in terms of individual dynasties or styles. Our designs have to meet the flair and uniqueness of each individual location. Therefore, we draw from a wide range of elements pertaining to different epochs and – as you say – dynasties. There are many decorative elements in Chinese culture that are repeated throughout history, such as the yin-yang, calligraphy, ink brush paintings, wood carvings, blue and white porcelain, traditional merchant ships, the flags and emblems of guilds and religious groups, jasmine flowers and temples, even coins serve as inspiration for our designs.
In creating designs that border history and heritage, such as the venue within the renovated HK police station, how do you balance sensitivity to the past with the need to still push the design boundaries forwards?
As you rightly say, one has to find a balance. I do, however, believe that such a balance is easily achieved if we take from the past what is worth keeping and take from the present what matches the spirit of the site. At AB Concept, our designs are never taken out of context, that is to say, we do not force a particular style onto a site; on the contrary, we absorb the vibes of the site and try to create something modern enough to be comfortable and inviting, and old enough to invoke the subtleties of tradition and heritage. If you look at the design we did for the Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur (Yun House Restaurant, Bar Trigona and The Lounge) you will find exactly that: inspiration from Malaysia’s colonial heritage, British high-tea, Chinese settlers, Malay traditions, as well as its vibrant multi-cultural present.
Some would say you have mastered hotel and F&B spaces – turning to other projects such as luxury retail, what kinds of considerations come into play, and how is that space distinct?
In F&B and hotels, everything revolves around the guest. The comfort and well-being of the guest is at the forefront of our considerations. In retail, on the other hand, it is about the brand and how it wants to present itself. In the design of the Lalique Flagship store in Shanghai, for example, we went back to the origins of the Lalique brand in rural France, with its lush forests, and from there drew inspiration that we converted into a modern, stylish – I believe – representation that meets the expectations of Chinese consumers visiting the store.
What are some of the most surprising inspirations that have gone on to lead the design narrative?
The most surprising inspirations come from the most surprising places and circumstances. Let me give you an example what I mean by that. I was just in Milan for Salone and gave an interview, after which I had an hour to kill before the next event. I happened to be at the Bagni Misteriosi and Teatro Franco Parenti, which together now form an art centre and workshop for young artists. I walked around there and found both the art on exhibit and the space themselves very inspiring. Kind of #accidentallywesanderson if you know what I mean. I took some pictures, and I am sure this will influence some of my designs later on.
As for concrete examples, I have to say that most of our designs are based on solid research into the history and traditions surrounding a place, so there isn’t really anything left field here. Luxury design must be invisible, I always say, but to make it invisible you have to do your homework and really understand a space and its cultural and historical connotations.
Who are some of the icons or emerging talents in design that you would love to collaborate with?
We are open to work with anyone talented and creative, but I have to say that we have a pretty awesome team already at AB Concept. Many of our designers have attended Salone del Mobile just now and came back with thousands of pictures and a lot of inspiration. We do try to stay away from celebrities and big names, because as I said I think the design has to speak for itself, not by virtue of a famous name behind it.
Where do you stand on the need for a commercial, customer-facing venue to present ‘Instagram moments’ in its design?
Ha! Funny you should ask that. I love Instagram and we try to create a very interesting feed on our account ab_concept. But I leave the photography to others. We don’t design for Instagram, we design for the people actually using the space. If they happen to find it worthy of an “Instagram moment” so be it. But our foremost concern is not celebrity looks, but the right feeling for the place.
Take Paper Moon Giardino for example. Yes, people take pictures of the interior and their food, and some have called it one of the most beautiful restaurants in the world. But our foremost concern in designing it was the dining experience. Do you feel at home there? Are you feeling relaxed in that space? Does the ambience contribute to the enjoyment of your lunch or dinner? Instagram is nice, but it’s not our foremost concern.
Does it matter if ‘we’, the guest/audience/user don’t even realise some of the relevant design touches and imagery?
Absolutely not, on the contrary. If you don’t notice the design then we’ve done a good job. True luxury design must be invisible. It merely contributes to the flair and feeling of a space, and how it makes you feel is the most important aspect of it. A hotel must make you feel at home, or give you a buzz if the design is meant to impress; a restaurant must make you enjoy the food, that is what counts. I want the audience to come back from a visit with the feeling that everything was alright, that the atmosphere was great, that the experience was awesome. I don’t need them to notice the details of the design at all. If they do, that’s nice, but it’s not the key to our design work.