Q&A with One Plus Partnership
Ajax Law and Virginia Lung are known for creating innovative and original designs that transform typical spaces into intriguing experiences. They spoke with Design Anthology about their process and some of their most memorable projects to date
Founders and design directors of One Plus Partnership in Hong Kong, Law and Lung were among a host of acclaimed international speakers at the 2018 Business of Design Week in Hong Kong. Since its establishment in 2004, and with projects spanning entertainment, retail and product design, the studio has won over 540 international interior design awards and has been invited to exhibit in renowned exhibitions around the world, including the Venice Architecture Biennale.
Design Anthology: You tend to work on big-scale projects in China as well as in Hong Kong. What are some of the key differences or similarities you encounter working between these two regions?
One Plus Partnership: The most notable difference is space: there’s so much more of it in China, it’s incomparable to Hong Kong, where property is so expensive. Hong Kong can be difficult for interior designers, because we’ve found that clients tend to limit their briefs to ‘elegant’. But in China, the design briefs tend to be more in-depth and focus on the culture of the specific place. The vast history of China gives us many options for more culture-related design, and clients are more accepting of various design styles; they allow us a lot more creative freedom, and fewer boundaries.
Speaking about concepts, one of your principles is to base your projects around a specific theme and then extract design elements from there. Can you talk us through the process of finding that theme?
We consider the location of the project, the nature of the business, or perhaps the historical background of the brand or client. In China, another interesting thing is that there are many different historical contexts in each of the different cities. That’s also the case in Hong Kong, but it’s just too small we think. There’s so much in Chinese culture and Chinese history that we can draw on and develop from, and that’s helpful for designers. We enjoy it when clients are engaged and interested in the process and the story as opposed to just commercial concerns and the finished product.
Hong Kong tends to favour the Western style, while in China clients lean toward celebrating Chinese style, there may be Western influences, but they don’t make a point of veering away from the former. I think it may be because of the historical background that in Hong Kong we prefer more British or American styles.
You also spoke about the availability of space in China, and you've won several international awards for many of your large-scale projects there. What are some of the key factors that you take into consideration when you design such an expansive space?
First and foremost, the space must meet functional needs. Then we think about how to maximise the space and make it look expansive and impressive. As we said, we define a theme for the project and that means that even in a large space, everything is unified and the project is a cohesive whole.
And what projects stand out for you as representative of these principles and your practice in general?
When we established One Plus Partnership 15 years ago, it was because we couldn’t identify a company or studio where we could do the kind of work we wanted to do, especially in Hong Kong. Many of the studios weren’t doing work of the international standard we saw in foreign media. At that time, we were doing projects for developers, and that was even more difficult because they were show flats, or sales offices — projects that naturally came with a string of constraints.
There are three key projects that come to mind, since then. Twelve years ago, we designed the Shenzhen Mellon Town Bamboo Lobby in China. The brief was that it should be a contemporary take on Chinese traditions. There were twelve lobbies in total, and to link them together by one theme, we landed on bamboo as the concept. In Chinese culture, bamboo represent many things: wisdom, finesse and so on. So instead of inserting any actual bamboo into the space, we interpreted the colour, the feeling and the meaning. And the colours ended up being bright green and red. Some of our contemporaries thought it was a childish project and that we wouldn’t succeed – they didn’t see that we were trying to do something creative.
It made us doubt ourselves and doubt the feasibility of our work in the market. We decided to enter the project into an international competition, and it won. That really encouraged us and made us trust our vision and abilities. We continued to enter international competitions – overseas, they don’t know who we are or what our backgrounds are. We’re judged based on the project submitted and it’s really encouraging to see how our work is received internationally.
The second project that comes to mind is Pixel Box. After a couple of years, we began to do cinema provides (we’ve done about four or five). Here the client gave us a lot of creative freedom, and the project ended up being a breakthrough for us, people came to know our cinema design work after that one. From there we were given even more creative freedom by the client.
The last one is the established jewellery brand Chow Tai Fook. About a year ago they asked us to design their first experience store. Our design was a big change for the brand, and we didn’t know that they’d accept something so different, so contemporary. Even the store layout is different from anything they’ve done before. In fact, the open-plan style is different to any other Chinese jewellery shop, and the sales structure is different – the salesperson can engage directly with the customer, there’s no barrier. We’ve done several shops in Hong Kong, and we’re now busy with a number of stores in China. For each, they want to infuse the local elements specific to that city. We’ve decided on the concept of ‘gift boxes’ because jewellery is usually a gift, for yourself or for your friends, or to celebrate an occasion. The colour schemes and materials differ, but the structure is the same across the stores. We’ve also created another concept for them: Hong Kong’s Festival Walk store is based on a bank’s safe room, where there are many small, numbered boxes. We took that and created our own version, with fabric instead of metal, and embroidered numbers. The numbers are actually dates, and they all have special meaning; you could find your birth date on a box, or for example, in Chinese 1-3-1-4 means ‘I love you forever.’ When customers come in, they love to search for their birthday or numbers associated with love.
For another of their stores we drew inspiration from the structure of DNA, so we created what looks like a sushi belt, but instead of sushi there’s jewellery displayed under the glass dome. Right now, the first of these shops is in Shenzhen but we’re working on the second one in Xi’an. We’re trying to introduce new and innovative concepts for the brand.
As told to / Simone Schultz
Images / Courtesy of One Plus Partnership