Interview with Founder of Hong Kong listed Steve Leung Design Group

Steve Leung

February, 2021

Lauded as a prominent architect and designer in Asia, Steve Leung impresses as a multi-faceted creative whose works have garnered many international awards. He established his practice in 1987, before founding Steve Leung Design Group Limited (SLD), an internationally-renown and award-winning design firm headquartered and listed in Hong Kong. His passion for design serves as the impetus for his many roles in the industry – as the first Chinese President of the International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers (IFI), and Executive Director of Design Committee at China National Interior Decoration Association (CIDA). Together with like-minded interior designers, Steve co-established C Foundation to promote the education and development of the design industry.

This month, Asia Designers Directory interviews Steve Leung to find out more about his successful design journey and what inspires him.

You helm one of the largest interior design consultancies in Asia, and also one of the most accomplished designers in the world with numerous awards under your belt. What do you attribute your success to?

I have been very lucky in terms of my career: having the opportunity to create my own firm when I just turned 30 was an incredible feat. Being one of the first Hong Kong designers to pinpoint and believe in the tremendous potential of the Mainland Chinese market in the mid-90s was also another crucial moment in my career. I feel grateful to be trusted by so many clients there at the time, gaining a reputation of introducing a more minimalist and contemporary design; many of these clients are still collaborating with us today, playing an important role in our success in China and around the world.

Besides seizing the right opportunity at the right time, my success would have not been the same without the significant contribution of my talented design teams. Interior design projects are always the outcome of collective efforts in brainstorming the best ideas, planning a smart working strategy, and creating a design able to meet clients’ needs. The combined endeavours and contributions of my teams are unquestionably the backbone of SLD’s success.

You are a prominent interior designer, architect and product designer. How do you think these roles overlap? And is there a role that gives you greater satisfaction?

I established my own business (an architectural and urban planning consultancy) in 1987; after 10 years, when I turned 40, I restructured the Company into Steve Leung Architects Ltd. & Steve Leung Designers Ltd. The main objective of the restructure was to inform my clients that our Company was capable and interested in handling both architectural and interior design projects. I wanted to communicate that we would provide a professional interior design service, which is our core business, not a side-product. I have never perceived any overlapping by simultaneously being an architect, interior and product designer: on the contrary, since I am often intrigued by exciting challenges, embarking on new creative adventures has always stimulated my curiosity and inspiring me to push my boundaries and always strive to do better. I also think that these different roles complement each other quite well: for instance, the professional training as an architect has thought me to put a strong emphasis on spatial planning, differentiating my design from other interior designers. While for product design, the experience of architectural and spatial projects helped me to have a full grasp of users’ needs, which is an essential criterion for creating suitable and user-friendly products.

The feeling of being an all-round designer gives me great satisfaction the most.

How would you describe your design philosophy and work style?

“Enjoy life, enjoy design” is my motto. To me, the quality of life is not synonymous with extravagance: it is not necessarily associated with money or luxurious objects. Instead, it is a unique attitude towards life: it is a constant quest of improving yourself and enjoying the rational thinking that leads to solving daily life problems in a creative and original way. I would say my design approach is human-centered: to me, good design is a balanced mix of aesthetics and functionality, and also a powerful tool to tackle societal and environmental issues for the greatest good of our communities and well-being of humans.

Design is also a personal expression of my attitude towards life: I am inclined to prefer a design that is simple, elegant, and functional which integrates unique cultural and artistic elements; in other words, design is a neat reflection of my way of living, which is simple yet refined, practical yet with an artistic touch.

In terms of work style, a designer should not start drawing without logically understanding the project at large: it is crucial to be fully aware of what the client needs, and also what are the limitations and strengths of each project. I believe constant attention to detail is also the key attribute of good project management, and this is true for every stage of a job: from scheme design, development, production, material sourcing, furnishing to construction supervision.

Having worked with many celebrated international brands, what are some of your more interesting collaborations to date? Are there new areas of collaboration that you hope to explore? Where or what do you draw design inspirations from?

Daily life is a great source of inspiration to me: what I see, what I hear, whom I meet are all precious connections of life, art and design. I also treasure the travel experiences that allow me to reflect, discover and actually be content and grateful, giving me the chance to share with people the exquisite joy of creation. Creativity is my way of living: I feel creative in almost every aspect of my life, as I believe we can find a great source of inspiration even in the smallest detail, if you are keen to look at the ordinary from new perspectives.

As I think that design has the power to break boundaries, I wanted my portfolio to become more and more diversified by exploring new collaborations across different fields. For instance, in 2013 I was invited to join YOO – a global branded developer founded by property entrepreneur John Hitchcox and acclaimed designer Philippe Starck, as their first Asian Creative Director; this collaboration inspired me to create a new lifestyle experience in the Asian market by combining the DNA of YOO and SLD; YOO Residence in Hong Kong and YOO8 in Kuala Lumpur are the design outcomes of this effective co-branding synergy.

I also had the great pleasure to join hands with great overseas architects, such as Kelly Hoppen on One Shenzhen Bay show flat in Shenzhen, and Kengo Kuma on Ta-ke restaurant in Hong Kong. Last but not least, in the past few years, I have also dedicated more time focusing on product design by collaborating with several international brands, such as Bisazza, Flou, Fusital, Kohler Kitchen, Medea, Theodore Alexander, Visionnaire, Villeroy & Boch, etc. Another memorable endeavour was “Shades in Ascent” at Hong Kong Art Central in collaboration with Swarovski, marking my first light installation at such a renowned art event. Last year, we also expanded our long-term partnership with Sanlorenzo – the acclaimed Italian shipyard, presenting two design schemes for Sanlorenzo SX88 to bring a new take on the luxury yacht industry by illustrating the innovative concept of a deluxe floating villa especially tailored for the Asian market.

On top of these design adventures, I would also love to try my hands at technology-incorporated designs and smart technology products. I believe the future of interior design will be ingrained with eco and user-friendly technologies: thus, I would like to be part of the change by providing insights on user behaviors and patterns based on my over 30-year experience in creating homes for a wide range of clients.

As the founder of a listed company today, do you feel that your role as a creative has evolved and how?

When I was managing my company on a full-time basis, I was extremely busy. Following the continuous expansion of the firm, I surely had to delegate more tasks to my senior management and creative teams; whilst I am still involved in the initial stages of every project to set out the work strategy and the creating framework and, from time to time, I would still have a general review to ensure the progress is on the right direction; I do believe it is crucial to trust my associates on their freedom to decide, implement and execute a design that embodies SLD’s signature design DNA. By delegating more, I have been able to release myself and reserve more time to be directly engaged in a handful of selected projects I am interested in – these are more personal design adventures that arouse my curiosity and grant me complete creative freedom.

Your business is anchored in Hong Kong and China. With rising affluence in China, how have your clients’ expectations changed?

In the past, particularly in Mainland China and even in Hong Kong, there was a general tendency to prefer a Western classical design approach, as clients believed this specific aesthetics would portray better their affluence. As time passes, the perception of design in China has changed a lot: nowadays, Chinese clients are more open-minded and keen to accept a design that is contemporary or even minimalist.

Now more than ever, people also emphasize a lot on individual privacy and comfort: the home is regarded as an intimate space for the close family, and not necessarily a place to show off. The design is becoming more personalized to cater to the needs of every family member.

In the last few years, I have also witnessed a subtle shift from mere materialistic luxury to a more holistic approach, where indicators of quality of life such as fresh air, abundant natural light and green scenery are treasured and demanded. Especially under the strong impact of the global pandemic, design principles such as sustainability and well-being have become essential principles when carving a new design.

One of the objectives as one of the founders of the C Foundation and former president of the IFI is to promote the education and development of the design industry. How do you think the architecture and interior design scene has transformed in China and Hong Kong in recent years?

The architecture and interior design scenes have blossomed in China in the past ten, twenty years, with creative fields in general taking the centre stage in Chinese society, where the clients’ taste is becoming more sophisticated, emphasizing a quality lifestyle. With the market becoming more mature and adaptive to new design solutions, many designers are able to explore new design styles, injecting hints of creative excitement and diversification.

Over the past years, the global design community has witnessed many remarkable examples of Chinese and Hong Kong designers achieving their signature footmark in the industry. Some of them were even honoured with the most coveted international recognitions, such as Andrew Martin – the “Oscars of the Interior Design World”.

Another important change lies in a deeper awareness of the rich Chinese cultural heritage, which is being reimagined through new design styles and languages. I noticed that more and more creatives are developing their design lexicon by exploring their Chinese upbringing, with less heavy influence from the West.

Moving forward, what are some trends that will dominate the global interior design industry? Is sustainability in architecture and interior design becoming an increasingly important consideration? Will this pandemic impact the design of future residential and hospitality spaces and how?

These current unprecedented times are surely providing us with the extraordinary opportunity to re-think the mission of design and our role as designers. In the coming years, I believe that the interior design industry will be even more dedicated to fully embrace the rising trend of eco-friendly lifestyles, encouraging holistic and sustainable practices. Design will play a more defined, crucial role in tackling environmental challenges, with green building standards like LEED and WELL increasingly considered and adopted soon.

Smart technologies will also become more common, with IoT changing the way we conceive design by providing a higher degree of customization that deeply connects interior design and technology, allowing the creation of more personalized and functional spaces.

Lastly, increased space flexibility will also set a new trend in the industry. With WFH policies widely applied worldwide, in the post-COVID19 era, houses will rely on a space designed to be extra-flexible and multi-functional, blurring the lines of traditional dynamics between our homes and traditional workplaces.

Can you describe some interesting projects/collaborations that you are working on now?

Recently, we unveiled SLD+, SLD’s corporate culture centre in Shanghai, with a permanent retrospective exhibition “DESIGN RE: COLLECTIONS” showcasing my career journey and design legacy.

Other major highlights also include The Londoner hotel and The St. Regis Bar in Macao, whose design reimagines the unfading charm of British elegance reinterpreted through the most exquisite details.

In terms of product design, we just announced our debut collaboration with the legendary Italian interior door brand Lualdi. We are honored to be their first Asian designer; we created the refined Ying (迎) door collection, embodying the rich Chinese heritage and the superb Italian craftsmanship in a seamless symbiosis.

Currently, I am also involved in several thrilling projects overseas – such as luxury serviced apartments and hotel rooms for The Address Harbour Point in Dubai Creek, which is a major development area in Dubai; a refined Chinese restaurant for Mandarin Oriental in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam; and a visionary residential project in Cambodia.

I have also been engaged in a few private projects. Last year, for example, I personally designed OOAK Lamma and OOAK Niseko: the former being a private leisure space on Lamma island in Hong Kong, and the latter a private resort in my favourite Japanese skiing town. The designs of these two projects are very personal, and a clear reflection of my life philosophy and design approach. In the next few years, I am planning to further develop OOAK (which stands for One-Of-A-Kind) into a boutique lifestyle brand embodying my motto “Enjoy life, enjoy design”, to offer a quick glimpse of Steve Leung’s lifestyle to all design and art enthusiasts.

What would you most like to be remembered for in your lustrous career?

Throughout all these years, design has been continuously evolving and a crucial aspect of our daily life. This is why, at this point in my life, I am devoting more time and energy to give back to the design industry, such as co-founding C Foundation and chairing IFI, with the aim to nurture young talents and promote interior design in China and worldwide.

As interior designers, I believe it is our mission to improve the world we are living in and raise the living standards of our communities by creating spaces that are more inclusive and sustainable. I have a strong desire to give back to the design community as much as I can by sharing my own experience, knowledge and passion. I hope to inspire the future generations of designers, pass on the spirit and make the industry flourish.

Beyond my career achievements, I would like to be remembered for my contributions to the design community. It would truly be an honour if I could be remembered for advocating positive changes in the industry and the world as a whole.

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