Neri & Hu

At Maison&Objet Paris, we had the opportunity to sit down with Asia’s hottest designers Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, the husband and wife team that are the founders and creative directors of Neri & Hu, to talk about their latest collection for De La Espada and more.

Design Anthology: You’re Taiwanese and Filipino, why did you chose to base yourselves in Shanghai, or China particularly? Was there a thought process behind that?

Lyndon Neri: That was never planned. We’re both Chinese, from the Chinese diaspora. We were born in different parts of Asia, educated in the US. I was brought back by Michael Graves for the Three on the Bund project eleven years ago, and we’ve always had this aspiration.

Rossana Hu: We always wanted to go to Asia to practise, but we didn’t know where, and back then — this was over ten years ago — China was still considered a hardship post for expats. And yet Lyndon and I were working on a lot of projects in Asia — Japan, Korea, Philippines, Singapore and China — for Michael Graves, so we were travelling over here.

Neri: So when the client for Three on the Bund was close to finishing the project, they requested that the Graves office send someone to China or Shanghai to oversee it, and at that time I was the Director of Projects in Asia, so when we were contemplating on who to send they said ‘It’s not about you contemplating, we want you’ and I was thinking ‘I’m running eight or nine projects, I can’t just leave to concentrate on one’, but they negotiated with the office and managed to have me concentrate on that one project. And so it started with a six-week assignment. The one condition for me to go was to bring Rossana and our three children. She’d just given birth to our last child, and Zachary was only four months old at that time and I knew she’d go crazy if I was to get posted outside of the US for six weeks. So that was easy to convince her and the client. So they extended it from six weeks to twelve weeks. And then SARS hit in 2003 and we were stuck for four or five months, and after that was over they had requested that we stay longer. So then it had extended to all together eleven months we stayed. And by the time the project was over we then left and I went back and I decided that we should stay. So I literally went back home to resign, and that was one of the most difficult resignations because I’d been with Michael Graves ten and a half years.

So it was quite an organic process then?

Neri: Yes

Hu: Yes. But in retrospect, at the time of us deciding, it was a turn of events that led to that point, but for me, my father left Shanghai to go to Taiwan, and in a way it’s like coming back full circle. So within two generations, my father left, and now I’ve moved back.

Neri: And it’s funny, because my grandmother, who’s from Xiamen down south — they emigrated to the Philippines — was quite happy when I said I was returning. She said ‘It’s about time you go home.’

Do you feel stifled creatively at all being in China? Does the freedom of expression ever become an issue?

Neri: It’s interesting you say that.

Hu: Something actually happened just last week that was quite huge.

Neri: Actually just last week Rossana had said something on Weibo about the fact that we were invited to tender on an historical building but our scheme was not selected. It was unfortunate, but Rossana didn’t even say anything about the scheme that was selected, but apparently the whole architectural community jumped on the bandwagon and were questioning ‘Why were Neri and Hu not selected?’ ‘Why was this building just given to another firm?’

Hu: It’s also a subject of preservation. Because it’s a significant post-modern building that was built in the eighties, early nineties and the client decided to ignore the building’s history and completely re-facade it.

Neri: And of course they’re partly government owned, because they’re the power company. And so they didn’t realise the power of the media.

Hu: And people really wanted to keep that history. So I just wrote something about what a shame it was that they chose not to keep it. They chose not to preserve history.

Neri: And they wanted us to delete it!

Hu: They got quite upset.

Neri: I’ve had other encounters early on when I was working on the Three on the Bund project — I was very vocal in my stance about preservation and about copying. And we’ve had either people related to government or in the community ask us to be calmer with our stance. They never tell us to stop, because we’re never being political.

Hu: No, it’s always purely about design.

Neri: There is actually a group of government officials who actually support us.

Do you feel that the public awareness of issues like historical preservation and design integrity is changing?

Neri: Oh yes.

Hu: Yes.

Neri: Big time. They are growing. You know the great thing about China, I believe, is when they move — they move fast. It’s a country that when they want to change they have the capability of changing quickly. Just as much as their size can be quite detrimental, but when they shift, they do shift fast.

What does it mean to you to be an Asian designer today?

Neri: That’s a very good question because we do see ourselves as Asian designers, as opposed to Chinese designers. It means a lot to us because in many ways we are who we are. People always ask us ‘Do you have a signature, do you specifically, in everything you do, have a touch of “Chineseness” or “Asianness”? Is that intentional?’ I don’t think it’s intentional, it’s just us. We are who we are. I am kind of spirited because I was born in the Philippines and I have the La Bamba Spanish attitude, my mother tongue is still very Chinese because I grew up in a Chinese family, Rossana grew up in Taiwan. So yes, there is Chinese-Asianness to it, yet we were trained in the US so there’s that rigorous academic logic to it, so eventually what comes out … some people call it East meets West, I think that’s a bit clichéd, a little overused, but to us it’s just who we are. Some people who are very critical say our work doesn’t really look Chinese, it doesn’t really represent East and West. To us, we’re trying to represent ourselves, and to us that’s about being authentic and we don’t even like to label ourselves as a particular designer, or a particular style. We would hope that what we do, the design we do, is authentic, and it has meaning. I have quoted this quote a bit in our practice, but it’s a French philosopher Antoine de Saint-Exupéry ‘We don’t ask to be eternal beings. We only ask that things do not lose all their meaning’. We’re going to die one day, it’s an eventuality. But hopefully what we leave for the next generation and the generation after is a set of work that will hopefully inspire a group of Asian designers to say that ‘If they did it, we too can do it. We’re not just manufacturers for the world, we’re not just copycatters, we can be Gen Y innovators’.

This happened with Ray and Charles Eames — not to compare us with them, it happened because during that time in America the economic situation was rising. Designers rise when the economic situation rises and there are opportunities for designers within that region to explore and experiment. So we’re not that much better than a lot of other designers around the world, we just happen to be in the right place at the right time and happen to be given this opportunity. We need to do it right because it’s our responsibility because it’s immensely important for the next generation and the generation after.

Your work is multidisciplinary — is there a particular type of work or project that you enjoy most, or is it the variety that keeps you inspired and wanting to work?

Hu: I think it’s both. Architecturally we have a big passion for public buildings and some typologies we haven’t yet had a chance to work on. For example, it would be great to do a school campus, much more public. I would say on the other hand it’s really nice to have the really scalable nature of design from graphics to magazine editorial to lighting, glasses and fabric. So we do enjoy the different facets of a multidisciplinary practice.

Neri: If there is one thing that we should do more of, we have done it in the past sporadically, it would be teaching. That is something within our DNA that is intrinsically very much part of how we approach design. We even treat our studio like a school, an atelier. There’s always dialogue. To me it’s not a hierarchical process we’re in, we do have very senior people, but we get all the junior people very involved in a discourse very early on and they get a chance to have a presentation and be reviewed.

We’re sitting an the De La Espada stand at Maison&Objet on some pieces you designed for your new collection with them. How did that collaboration come about?

Neri: They approached us. This was because of Luis de Oliveira.

Hu: They’d been asking us for years.

Neri: Yes, Luis is very aggressive. His tenacity is unparalleled.

Hu: Because it’s a new concept. It’s a new way of working with a brand. It’s kind of unprecedented, until he started doing this.

Neri: We met for the first time in Hong Kong. I knew the De La Espada brand quite well, because we have a store called Design Republic. So we thought initially he came because of Design Republic, that he wanted some of the De La Espada pieces to be sold in our store. Little did I know he didn’t know about Design Republic, which was surprising. It goes to show you how extremely focused he is and how he pursues things, and myopic — in a good sense, not a bad sense.

Hu: Focused.

Neri: Very focused. And secondly, he only knew about our architectural practice. And he knew of the pieces we’d designed for other brands — and at that stage we’d designed for almost twelve brands — Moooi, BD Barcelona, Stellar Works — 12 to 15 brands. Quite a lot of European brands. So when this model was presented to us it was a little strange. Luis made us very comfortable, because at the core of it we aren’t really business people. We love to draw, we love to think, we love to design. And so for a year, he kept coming back. And he kept saying ‘It’s not as intimidating as you think’ and it was a really slow process, but he made it very transparent. And we bought into the idea, even though it was so new to us.

Even with the Das Haus [a recent installation at IMM Cologne], we could have stuffed it all with our furniture, every piece could have been our design, but we were so uncomfortable with that process. We only have thirty to forty per cent of our products. The organisers insisted, this is a Neri&Hu showcase, but we didn’t feel very comfortable. So in the end we included designs by people we respect, or friends that we truly believe in like Konstantin Grcic and the Bouroullec brothers. So Luis made us quite comfortable with the partnership.

So what was the thought process behind the collection — was there a specific inspiration, were they items you wanted at home, or was it based on items you thought were missing from the market?

Hu: It’s sort of a combination of all of those. This particular year the main philosophy is the simplicity of Shaker design. That’s why these chairs [the 763 Shaker Dining Chair] are very ‘shakerish’. It’s never been a very fashionable style, but it’s always been highly respected by the design community. And we’ve always really loved the philosophy behind the designs because it’s not just a look, it’s about how you live. It’s the simplicity and purity of living spaces that we thought would be good this year as a theme. If you see the sofa [766 Frame Sofa] even has that structure in the back, the frame is very shakerish and the bed too. And then of course the chair and table.

Neri: Actually there are three series being launched — the Frame series which is the sofa and the bed, the Shaker series which is the table and chairs, and then there is a small stool and a table that can be inserted into the frames. So it’s not just about simplicity, and the expression of tectonics, but it’s also about flexibility. So for instance the dining chairs can be hung on the wall, as Shaker chairs would have been. There is a little stool and a little table that can be inserted into the bed frame, so if you want a side table you have the flexibility.

So are you selling the collection at Design Republic?

Hu: Of course!

What are you working on now that you’re able to tell us about?

Hu: There are a few things.

Neri: We’re working on a number of projects. In London we won an international competition to convert the oldest magistrates’ courthouse into a hotel and a police museum. Sixteen firms were shortlisted, and narrowed down to us. A big win for us. We’re doing something for Luis Vuitton and Craig Robins, the founder of Design Miami — a seven-storey architecture and interior in the design district as a hotel. We’re designing an extension to Selfridges. We’re doing a house in Brazil, we just won the Contemporary Arts Centre in Kuala Lumpur, that’s already started. We’re doing a radical residential tower also in Kuala Lumpur. All concrete panels. Not your typical all-glass. Every floor has a pool. We’re designing a bunch of cemeteries in the Philippines. We’re doing a number of projects with Ian Schrager in China — Edition Hotels in Shanghai, Xiamen and Wuhan.

Hu: Lots of new products.

Neri: We’ll be launching new products in Milan — nanimarquina...

Hu: A new lighting brand from Spain called Parachilna.

Neri: Stellarworks. Gandia Blasco flooring. BD Barcelona. These are the brands that will be showing our designs. Classicon will be launching the Sedan chair. We’ll also be mentors for the Lexus Design Award.