From humble Hong Kong boy to world-renowned lighting designer—Tino Kwan looks back on his 40 years in business, and the short film that’s been released to mark this milestone
Think about one of your favourite spaces in the world—it could be your favourite room at home, it could be a restaurant or bar, perhaps a hotel. Now recognise the light that you’ve envisioned in this space. Involuntarily, purely from instinct, you’ve chosen a level of light that you love. A warmth or coolness that brings joy and comfort.
Hong Kong-based lighting designer Tino Kwan has been bringing that light into people’s lives for 40 years. “Lighting is a very emotional element. I think emotion is what makes the difference between good lighting and exceptional lighting,” says Kwan, dressed in a silk suit and thick-framed glasses. We’re at the St. Regis, Hong Kong—one of his most recent projects. Opened in April last year, Kwan designed the hotel’s lighting from top to bottom, evoking different moods as guests move from the welcoming glow of the lobby to the romantic, soft light that illuminates its suites.
I ask Kwan how he would describe the vibe of the St. Regis Hong Kong. He looks around the room, pausing to take stock of his lighting fixtures. Then, visibly satisfied, he says, “I would say it’s very gracious and cosy.”
Designed to Last
Despite the calibre of his projects—he’s the man behind the lighting at such icons as Raffles Singapore, Grand Hyatt Hotel in Shanghai, IFC Mall in Hong Kong, and Four Seasons Hotel in Seoul, to name a few—it’s rare that Kwan revisits them. One exception, though, is the Peninsula Tokyo.
“I go to Tokyo every six weeks, so the Peninsula there is my home away from home. I know everyone there—even the doorman,” he says. The hotel was designed to resemble a Japanese lantern, so the lighting had to be perfect. This was tasked to Kwan, who designed and curated the interior, exterior and landscape lighting for the hotel. When the property opened in 2007, it received numerous design awards and, in 2019, it was named a Forbes Travel Guide five-star hotel for the fourth consecutive year in a row.
“In 2017, I went to the Peninsula Tokyo for its 10th anniversary. I remember standing there with Sir Michael Kadoorie, and in that moment, I realised that my lighting had kept its glory from all those years ago,” recalls Kwan. “It wasn’t dated. We had created something truly timeless.”
See also: 48 Hours In Tokyo, Japan
Elaborating on that thought, he adds that there’s no such thing as “trends” when it comes to lighting. “My lighting design becomes a part of the interior. Lighting is a marriage between technology, which is science, and art. The technology is what drives the trends—it’s what creates new possibilities,” he says, adding that many still don’t understand what a lighting designer does. “Many people think that lighting designers simply design lighting products. But it’s more than that. It’s creating the mood in a space, curating lighting to complement interior design. It’s playing with light and shadows. It enhances the features of the room.”
Let There Be Light
Kwan admits that he didn’t know what it meant to be a lighting designer until he entered the industry in 1974, working as a product designer for a US lighting company in Hong Kong. At the time, he had dreams of becoming a Philippe Stark-esque figure whose products would be revered and sold all over the world.
“When I joined the company, they told me, ‘We aren’t just doing desk lamps, table lamps and floor lamps; we do overall planning.’ I said, ‘Sure, I can do both.’ I didn’t really know what they meant at the time, but I went for it. I fell in love with the job and never looked back.”
His role eventually took him to Athens, where the company opened an office. For two years, Kwan was designing by day and learning Greek in the evenings. “I don’t speak it any more, though. It’s been a very long time,” he says with a laugh. Kwan’s years in Europe opened his eyes to a whole new world of possibilities and transformed his design sensibility. “After Greece, I joined an international interior-design company that was setting up its lighting department,” Kwan recalls. “They opened a branch in London, where I lived for four or five years.”
It was in London that he founded his own company in 1979 and flourished as a lighting designer. “I was so inspired by the design scene, the galleries, the fashion. I was very happy with the lifestyle in London and it hadn’t really crossed my mind to go back to Hong Kong,” he says.
Returning to His Roots
Kwan’s homecoming is a classic Hong Kong story. It started with one project—“a very minimalist designer was working on a private club. It was a very modern space and he was looking for a lighting designer,” he remembers. He had intended to go back to London after the private club was a wrap, but the projects kept rolling in and Kwan found himself surrounded by opportunities.
Equal parts sad and excited, he sold his house in Wimbledon—he “wanted to be close to the tennis”—and returned to his hometown. In his first years back in Asia, Kwan worked on countless hospitality projects, admitting it took some time for the region to fully embrace the concept of lighting design.
It wasn’t until he was tapped by Fendi that he knew the market was finally opening up. Since then, he has designed the lighting for 17 Fendi and 19 Louis Vuitton stores throughout Asia, among countless other luxury projects that include hotels, private residences, commercial spaces, retail and private members’ clubs. To say it has been a productive 40 years for Kwan would be an understatement.
To commemorate his four-decade milestone, Kwan held an exhibition of custom-made neon sculptures—a homage to Hong Kong—featuring the names of past and present clients and collaborators.
At the same time, a short film was released, Hong Kong Boy, which tells the story of Kwan’s journey to becoming a world-renowned lighting designer. “I’m very proud that I’m a Hong Kong boy who was born, raised and educated here. The film is about a Hong Kong boy who has done well in the world of design—I work hard, and I’m fortunate to be able to work on so many beautiful projects. That’s the message I want to deliver to the Hong Kong people. You don’t have to be a lawyer or a doctor; you can be a lighting designer and do well.”
See also: Tino Kwan's Unity of Light Exhibition