A conversation with André Fu

Hong Kong-based designer André Fu sits down with Design Anthology’s editor-in-chief to talk about his latest hotel opening, the Waldorf Astoria in Bangkok

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André Fu: So, how was your stay?

Suzy Annetta (D/A): It was good, I really enjoyed it. And it's in a really great location, it’s hard to beat. The hotel team told me that you had stayed at the original Waldorf Astoria in New York and that you drew inspiration from that. How old were you when you went over there?

André Fu: I was a teenager. I think it was my first visit to New York; I was studying in the UK at the time and hadn’t ever been to the States.

Did you go on your own or was it with family?

I had a cousin who was studying in New York at the time, so I went to stay with her. She was staying in Union Square at the time, so I wandered all the way up to 78th Street and walked back down, and I happened to just wander into the hotel. I later found out it was the Waldorf Astoria and so I had vague memories of that first visit.

So it left a bit of an impression on you then? 

Yes, it was very majestic and had that Art Deco feeling — it was very New York. For visitors it’s kind of a landmark, like seeing Tiffany’s.

Was that then something you had in mind when you started on this project? Was it something that the client wanted you to incorporate, or was it more you drawing on your memories?

André Fu: It was me drawing on my memories of the brand, and how the brand talks to me now.

So not the actual physical space?

No, not the physical space. It's just that feeling. I have worked with various brands that are very different in terms of aesthetics and even target audience. I actually enjoy working with a brand that has different aesthetics to what I’m known for, and I enjoy the challenge of marrying the two styles or getting them to talk to each other.

You told me about the building before I visited, and I know what you mean now, that obviously that it's not exactly what you would think of as a Waldorf Astoria. That’s interesting though; I've never been to the one in New York, but I have a mental image of what the Waldorf Astoria looks like.

Yeah, you think it's going to be like a Robert Stern building.

Right. Very American...sort of solid...

Very rectilinear, a facade of granite.

Yes, there's a certain image that comes to mind when you start to conjure the brand. But do you think they felt a freedom to do something quite different in Asia? Because clearly the brand is now starting to expand.

I don't know, I haven't really questioned it. I think back to when I started the project — there was just the one in Shanghai. I think that was probably one of the first Waldorf’s in Asia Pacific, including China. And for me, that's a very Waldorf building, with the colonial mansion in the front. I don't know exactly what the original building was made for, but it's very colonial, like an old bank building. And then they built a new tower right behind it. So, the notion is a bit like The Peninsula Hong Kong. It's that kind of connotation. 

Right. So there’s that history, right?

Yes. And it’s —  I don't know how to phrase it — but it's a very luxurious five-star hotel with a traditional part and then the new part. It wasn’t meant to be a dialogue between the new building and the old one. It's just a continuation of a very harmonious type of hotel environment. But it just feels right. It just makes sense. 

But the proposition in Bangkok was obviously quite different.

Yes, but I mean I wasn't thinking as much about how and what it should or could be. At the time I remember thinking that this is the beginning of a new generation (for the brand). I think Park Hyatt kind of started it, that evolution of Bangkok as a city, and then this (the Waldorf Astoria) kind of took it into a very different direction. And I'm sure there are many more that will open in the next year or so.

It seems like it, yes. 

There's quite a lot going on.

So, what I found interesting, having not been to the original Waldorf Astoria, was that there are elements that to me do seem quite ‘New York’ and Art Deco, but it also felt quite Thai at the same time. There is a sort of femininity to it but it doesn’t seem overly feminine. I think most men would still feel quite comfortable in that space and it wasn't just about ladies having high tea. I’m thinking particularly about the guest rooms. Was this a conscious decision, to try to incorporate Thai culture with an image of the original Waldorf Astoria? Or did that just kind of happen through the process?

The building was called Magnolia, and so right from the start we knew that it was inspired by the fluidity of the petals and all that. So, I was thinking about the curvature and the silhouettes and how to make the space flow. That was more of a design decision. 

We worked very closely with the local branding team called Be our friend (BOF) —  a very young talented graphic designer —  and when we thought about this fluidity we immediately thought of the Thai dancer because of how they move. Somehow, we came across an image of these dancers moving, and their hands were moving with the long nails, doing their thing. And that was how the concept began.

It's about this kind of dancing through the hotel and the petals of a magnolia flower that are translated into stone petals. So, in the space there's a lot of curved sculpted Carrara marble. We wanted it to be this kind of curated world where if you take all the screens and furniture out of the space, it’s very pure. It just kind of folds and unfolds, and it's like the marble and the curved facade are kind of talking. And then there are these moments when you turn a specific angle and you look at the three check-in desks and it’s perfectly symmetrical. But only when you're physically there do you realise that it's actually off-centre; it’s skew. There are quite a few moments like that in the hotel.

I'm remembering that now as you say it. So, the way you approached the architectural treatment of the walls and the internal space was your way of talking to the exterior?

Yes. And then when you are engaged visually with a specific moment, that's where the bronze screens come into play, which for us is characteristic of Waldorf Astoria, but we also gave them a  curve. So again, it's kind of like the Thai dancer’s hand in an embrace or a welcoming gesture. I actually learned quite a bit about what each posture represents because they have different meanings; it's quite interesting. So that’s the language that trickles down in the details. For example, the room numbering, with very intricate lettering and numbering in custom cast bronze, and then the lace pattern of the lift cars, and in the rooms the bedside screens also reflect that.

And what about the colour palette? Where did come from? It’s quite soft but I don't think it's overly feminine.

There are actually two main palettes. The standard rooms are more of a blonde wood and a peachy orange. The suite rooms are more of a mineral blue with mustard gold, dark wood and heavily textured floors.

Was there any inspiration or reason for these colour choices?

I guess the palette is still quite muted in general. There are moments when it kind of ramps up a bit, like in the lobby area. That turquoise-teal blue is something I've never used before, but for me that's a Thai colour. And then in The Front Room, the Nordic-Thai restaurant, we started off with Thai herbs as the inspiration. We were looking at the colours of the ingredients; you’ll notice lime and kefir green and galangal.

So you were trying to blend the two cultures together into that space but the colour palette came from the ingredients? 

For The Front Room, yes.

It must have been quite nice to have this separate space aside from the rest of the hotel.

Yes. I think The Brasserie and Peacock Alley (the lounge) are still very much an integral part of the overall story, whereas The Front Room is slightly more modern.

I guess there's an opportunity for it to have its own identity, especially for diners who aren’t necessarily hotel guests. But otherwise everything else felt consistently like a Waldorf Astoria. It felt very continuous and fluid. 

My favourite part is actually the spa corridor with all the fins. 

Yes, that's quite lovely. The pool is also amazing. Was the architectural feature above the pool already part of the building?

Yes, it was, it’s actually the helicopter pad. And that funnel-shaped structure is the staircase.

And you said your favourite part is the spa corridor...

Yes, I think there we have perhaps created a slightly new language. I mean, I started to ask myself whether there’s another hotel quite like this. I couldn't quite figure out if there is.

Not that I can think of. I did really like the corridor, it felt very organic, but it also felt a bit more architectural. I mean, the exterior is also sort of organic and architectural in a different language.

Yeah, and it's kind of like you can't tell whether it's very architectural or very.... well, there are certain parts that are quite decorative. But between the decorative elements there is quite a lot of space and room to breathe. There are a lot of what I call ‘empty spaces’: spaces where it's not so heavily designed, which gives it that sense of modernity as well.

I think you're right when you said that if you took all the furnishings out it would look very different. But I thought it was interesting that even though there’s a lot of marble, it doesn’t feel cold.  Is that something you thought about when you designed the space?

Well, there was also a conscious decision to use many pendant lights, so there are a lot of glowing pendants around the public area. Because there’s this glass facade, in a way we're limited in terms of what we can do. The few solid walls that we have are all around the core. They're not really around the surroundings, so it's kind of reversing a typical design scenography. But you know, obviously the view is the highlight. From a design perspective, however, if you have all that glass around you, then you're just left with furniture. So, what we did was install all these hanging pendants around to sort of guide you. I don’t think you really notice it because there's quite a lot to see otherwise, but when I mention it you notice. For example, when I point out the columns, you see all of the glowing hanging pendants. I think that softness actually ties everything together subconsciously.

So it’s the warmth of the light that makes the marble not feel so cold?

Yes, and it’s also because of the sculptural quality of the stone. It's all curved and flowing, so even within that very linear footprint, you feel like you're kind of gliding through different parts of the hotel.

Yes, you do. I did notice the pendants and I thought they were quite beautiful. And I also thought it was interesting to see how their design changed between each of the spaces; I felt like there was a language or a family of languages between some of the public spaces, aside from the restaurants with their own identity. Between the public spaces and the guest rooms, obviously the scale changes, but it seemed like there is a language that flows through. It seems like a lot of different lighting designs; how many are there?

There are many, and they were all customised. Some were made in Thailand, others made in Vietnam, and some are from China. There was a lot of customisation. I can’t imagine many others doing this kind of fit-out; it’s just quite different.

As told to / Suzy Annetta
Images / Courtesy of Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts

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