Cover Recent projects by AB Concept include Mei Ume, a Modern Chinese restaurant at Four Seasons Hotel London

AB Concept co-founder Ed Ng discusses the art of creating focal points and the growing influence of Asia in the world of design

What does a great designer and a talented chef have in common? If you asked interior designer Ed Ng of AB Concept, it’s their creative spirit. “I feel like I’m a chef; whenever I travel for a new project, instead of bringing all of my ‘ingredients’ in my suitcase, I combine my know-how with local elements for a new invention,” quips the itinerant designer. “That’s why we are able to come up with something new each time.”

Co-founded by Ng and architect Terence Ngan in 1999, Hong Kong-based practice AB Concept has built their name on their timeless, multicultural approach to hospitality design, which ranges from luxury properties for W Hotels and Shangri-La in the region as well as residential projects around the world.

“We consider ourselves as storytellers of spaces. It’s not just about designing the hardware and selecting the materials used—it’s more about the experience that you can create,” explains Ng. Over a leisurely lunch in Singapore, he tells us more about the secret to crafting spaces that inspire and how the affluent in Asia are now shaping the global aesthetic.

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Could you share more about your creative process?
Ed Ng (EN) I like to joke that all architects are control freaks, although that is the nature of their job; they have to control and predict how people are going to behave in each space. That’s why the planning and scaling are done by Terence, who makes sure that the skeleton of a space—the floor plan and logistics—is precise and particular.

I’m in charge of bringing the soul to the project. I think that makes us a very good combination. I also make sure to meet clients for face-to-face discussions, which I use as the starting point of any project. From the moment that we start talking, I begin to compose the kind of emotion of the space and the effect we’re trying to achieve—whether it’s fun and dynamic, or monumental and classical.

How has the concept of luxury changed within Asia in the recent years? 
EN I think Asia has been very influential to global taste because the spending power now comes from our part of the world. Our clients travel everywhere and the sophistication of their taste has changed dramatically over the last five to 10 years. It’s good for us and also a big challenge because we have to stay one step ahead; in everything we do, we must plan five to seven years ahead. 

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What are some of the trends you’ve noticed developing in the hospitality industry?
EN We’re now looking into creating an experience that you’re going to remember. Before the age of social media, we would invite our friends to our homes to look at our travel photos. Instead of doing it the analogue way, sharing is now instantaneous with social media. I think the core motivation has never been changed; it’s still about the joy of sharing the experience and the happiness of the moment. 

People are also looking for a bespoke experience. The clients that approach us appreciate our portfolio and know that we’ll create a design that’s a tailor-made product. They know what I can do, but they don’t expect that I will copy a past work. They know that I will create something new for them that will be amazing. I like this mix of the known and unknown, and this kind of anticipation makes our profession really joyful. 

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How do you go about creating spaces that inspire?
EN I often tell my designers to look at the design from a visitor’s perspective. If you walk into a space, what will you remember in 10 days, or two years later? If you can create something that you will remember even years later, that’s it—it’s all about what would really leave an imprint on your memory. We’re bombarded with hundreds and thousands of images every day, and there will be less than one per cent that will be memorable. There is no formula, but this is what a designer should be able to visualise and understand. 

We typically start the design process by laying out the focal points of the space. These focal points are essentially the same as the ‘Instagram moments’ of today, so the way we design has never changed. The older term might be the ‘money shot’ instead of the ‘Instagram moment’; it’s just an older term being replaced.

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Could you share more about a recent project you had worked on? 
EN The Mei Ume restaurant, which we had designed for Four Seasons Hotel London, is memorable for us because we needed to design an Asian restaurant within classical Western architecture; it’s housed in a listed heritage building. It’s been a challenge to restore this grand dame, but we realised this learning path also stimulates a lot of creative ideas—you become more creative when there are more constraints. 

What’s the next step for AB Concept?
EN We’ve been doing fewer projects, with exclusive clients. It’s important for designers to have a good work-life balance. What we are creating is the dream life for a lot of people—you have to live life beautifully before you can create a beautiful life for your clients.

"What we are creating is the dream life for a lot of people—you have to live life beautifully before you can create a beautiful life for your clients."

I see creativity as a lifelong journey. As long as I have a pencil and a piece of paper, am able to see and move my hand, I am still able to create and design. I think that’s the privilege of being a designer; you can have a pretty long career for your creative life. Luxury retail could also be a fun new project for us. We still believe in face-to-face contact; you can touch the merchandise, interact with the salesperson, and see how the shop interior represents the brand philosophy.

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Tell us more about upcoming projects.
EN Xi’an is very interesting for us because W Hotels has been a long-term partner of ours; we feel very privileged to have worked on a hotel in Beijing, the capital of China, as well as in its ancient capital Xi’an. When you hear Xi’an, most people will think of terracotta soldiers and the Tang dynasty. But the building that W Xian is in is surprisingly modern because the hotel owner wants to create a property for the next generation. The concept is that of a time labyrinth, based on a journey through time—a look that is mysterious, high-tech and dynamic. 

We’re also in the middle of working with Rosewood for their new brand Khos, which caters to the younger generation with an Asian sensibility; the first will launch in Tianjin in an ultra-modern, futuristic building. We’ve seen how Asia is now defining the new aesthetic and lifestyle on an international level. It’s a very fun project for us and I’m excited to see what we’re going to create.  

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This story was adapted from the June-July 2018 issue of Singapore Tatler Homes.

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