Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu on Change, Balance and Humility

At Salone del Mobile last month, the founders of Neri&Hu gave us a candid insight into the workings of their distinguished design firm

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Suzy Annetta: What are some of the key changes that you’ve experienced in your studio, your practice and your life in general  since you founded Neri&Hu in 2004?

Rossana Hu: We’ve had to deal with many different transformations. There's been growth. There’s more of some things, and then a few other things we learned to juggle better so we can become more efficient, and I think those two balance each other out, in some ways. We’ve learned how to deal with things as they come, and now have the privilege of being able to select projects. And then there’s the family aspect. When our children were younger it was harder for us to be absent, so I didn't travel as much. Compared to Lyndon, I hardly made the international trips, except here to Milan every year,  which we would both travel for. But then two years ago all our kids left home; one is at university, one’s doing her gap year and actually she's here with us, which has been fun, and our youngest went to boarding school. So that period was like another phase; I realised on the first day that I was at work, after they all had left, that come six o'clock I no longer needed to go home. We now have busier schedules and actually longer working hours.  It’s interesting, because it’s not like we find it harder and harder to deal with the increasing work, we just find different ways of dealing with different things.

Do you do you find it a challenge to stay creative with all these things that you're juggling and the schedules that you have?

Lyndon Neri: Actually, Rosanna always says something interesting: if you give me only two or three projects it's going to be dreadful for the client, because I will always change my mind. 

Hu: Is that what I say or what you say?

Neri: It drives her crazy that I'm constantly changing the scheme. And so, she's always saying ‘Lyndon, why don't you do that for another project. The idea is already good, why don't you develop it instead of just throwing it away and being unhappy?’ I didn't think that could happen, but I think she's actually right. I think it allowed me to see ideas from a different perspective, rather than constantly changing one idea. When we started our practice, it was actually very frustrating, because I'm extremely prolific — I like to draw, I like to come up with ideas and I'm always thinking. So when we’re in Milan, I’ve already forgotten the projects that we've done, I don't pay attention to them anymore because I'm already thinking of the next year. It’s a good balance because Rossana is always trying to be on time, and be specific about the clarity of the project, but I’m already in another world, thinking about the future projects and what our next collaboration might be.

While Rossana is about refining the designs and thinking about what we can improve on, I'm like, ‘This is over, it's done’. It's an interesting question, and it’s made me think that at 12 people, our studio was too small, then at around 40 to 50 we were comfortable, but we weren’t getting the cultural projects we wanted — the  museums, the chapel. It was only when we hit around 85 team members that people started saying ‘Well maybe they're big enough. Now they can be shortlisted in competitions’. And I don't think we're going to get any bigger, I think this is where we're most comfortable, and if anything else the studio’s getting smaller.

But then we started to realise that our contemporaries, the generation older than us, people like Kengo Kuma, even Herzog and de Meuron, David Chipperfield and John Pawson, all have practices with close to 300 people, and with that many people you can actually get interesting work and grow your portfolio of projects. Obviously it’s about balance and attitude, and I think this is where we are most comfortable. It’s not just about being able to be creative. When we were a small studio, we were great. We drew every single line in the early days. But the problem is that sometimes the project is only one hundred square metres, so no matter how creative you are on a small room, that’s the extent of it. And that's another kind of frustration, that we’re not getting the type of projects we like to do.

Hu: If being creative is coming up with ideas, I don't think there's a shortage. But I do feel that we haven't been able to fine tune our direction as much as we'd like to because of the lack of time. It's about churning out projects. But sometimes I think that as a designer it may be more important to cut back on some things or decline some projects, as opposed to coming up with ideas. [SS1] 

Do you ever just dream up objects or structures out of your imagination, or does it always come from a process of thinking about a context and a brief?

Hu: I think we work differently. Lyndon’s creative process is more like pulling something out of a hat, whereas I almost always refer to something. I think the combination is interesting.

Neri: Rossana is very thoughtful. Very precise.

Hu: I start by thinking and he starts by drawing.

Neri: She loves a brief. I hate a brief.

That's an interesting balance.

Neri: Sometimes it's really frustrating because we get emotional, or at least I get emotional. I’ll be drawing a lot of things, and Rosanna will be like, ‘Quite frankly, that's bad, that's bad, that's bad,’ and I'm like ‘Are you saying I'm bad?’ And she'll explain that it’s a process of elimination. For instance, we just came from Paola C., for which we had created several glass pieces as a series of prototypes that we're working on. So, there were probably 12 objects, but that got narrowed down from 30 of my sketches. I just keep drawing and Rossana's like ‘This isn’t right, that's just not right’. And still, if it's up to her she’ll probably pare them down to two designs. But then we made an agreement with the brand, and with Jaime Hayon as well, that next year we’ll really bring this series of experimentation to the market next year.

It probably sounds like such a stereotype, but do you think that perhaps your cultural backgrounds or where you're from —  the Philippines versus Taiwan —  has anything to do with this difference between the cerebral and the emotional?

Hu: I'm not sure, maybe a little bit. But I also think it’s personality, and a lot of it is inborn. For example, you know we have three children, and they have the same parents and they’ve all grown up in the exact same environment, yet they are so different, and in many aspects different from each other. So, I think it's inborn rather than environmental.

Neri: But it's also interesting because even though we’ve been together all these years. Rossana still surprises me. Take the last five years, for instance, and what we’ve been doing with Design Republic. She really pushes on crazy ideas and makes me think ‘Is she alright?’. And I’ve become a bit more controlled, for lack of a better description, and a bit more risk-averse, which I wasn't before. I mean, when we first met, I couldn't care less about money. I really couldn't. And when she said to me, ‘Lyndon, if we're going to have children, then you know, being an architect, you're really not going to survive,’ I used to say ‘Look, if ever I'm going to leave architecture, I'm not going to go work for a corporate practice. I'm really going to leave, I'm going to completely close that book and make as much money as I can.’ I would have closed the book on it because it would just have been too painful to live a compromised life doing mediocre architecture and making mediocre money. Granted, that’s better than being a starving artist, but that's always been my mentality. And Rossana’s always been a bit more stable and considered in her decisions. But over the years being together I think we've kind of…

Hu: Balanced each other out.

You're influencing each other, clearly. You must both be proud, though, of what you've built over the last couple of decades. It’s kind of incredible, and unprecedented in a way. 

Neri: We're fortunate, and we’re very grateful. We don’t take it for granted. You know, I'm from the Philippines, and if we’re talking about stereotypes, I’m a man of faith. And I do believe that God has a purpose for each one of us; the most important thing is to understand our calling and to fulfil it with fervent determination. I think Rossana and I have been gifted with certain abilities, like thinking, writing, drawing and producing beautiful things. I think these are a gift from above, and they’re not for us to abuse. In fact, lately we've been thinking about creating a Chinese brand of accessories to appeal to the interests of the younger generations and empower them.  That’s always our dream, and that's the reason we're also teaching.

I met one of your former team members who was showing at Maison&Objet in Paris this year. That must make you feel quite proud.

Neri: We are proud, and we’re also extremely proud that several people who were from our product team are exhibiting at Salone Satellite this year.

Hu: I think that’s probably the thing that has changed the most: we’ve been practicing for about 16 years, and now there is this new generation of designers who are emerging and becoming independent themselves.

Going back to your first question about things have changed, I actually think in terms of the way we live and work, not much has changed. Maybe we have certain conveniences, certain things come easier, and we’re taken more seriously because we're not young, no-name designers. But I don't think we've…

Neri: …changed as people.

It's interesting. Yesterday I saw Tadao Ando at the airport, and I was in awe. I went up to him and before I could even same my name he said ‘Neri-san’. And I was just like, ‘You actually know our work?’ And we bumped into John Pawson, and I said ‘John, I've always respected what you do. I’m Lyndon from…’ And he says, ‘Of course, Neri and Hu.’  And Rossana and I both still have that sense of awe, and we’re so in awe of the opportunity we’ve been given. I will always remember what my dad says: Humility is the most important thing. And we're still very much in awe of people who do beautiful things, that's never left us. And you know, sometimes we look at each other...

Hu: And we forget how old we are.

Neri: We think that we're still in our twenties.

You must get such a thrill from meeting these people

Neri: Very much so, and I'm shocked that they even know what we do, because we're so obsessed and into our work that we don't really realise. My dad always says, ‘Don't let the media get into your head. Don't let it go to your head when the media praises you, and don't be so sad and depressed when they completely destroy you.’

You’ve got to be true to yourself. If you find that peace and that sense of satisfaction it doesn't really matter what anyone else thinks.

As told to / Suzy Annetta


Read the rest of this interview in the Design Anthology Fair Report: Milan Design Week 2019

From the editors of Design Anthology, this stitch-bound compendium captures the energy, events and encounters of the world’s most influential design event, combined with key insights and analysis unpacking the industry’s future

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