Cover The wooden calligraphy plaque was purchased from a London vintage market

Chinese philosophy and Western elements come together beautifully in this London apartment designed by Holloway Li

When interior architecture studio Holloway Li was tasked to turn a 1,500sqft Edwardian-style apartment into a home for an accomplished Chinese calligrapher and art collector, the firm’s co-founders Alex Holloway and Na Li unexpectedly found themselves musing about the art of living. Their client, a polymath who is a scholar in politics and history, is an ardent believer of ancient Chinese principles.

Having amassed an eclectic mix of furniture and antiques, he had wanted his home in Westminster to showcase these pieces while embodying the values of Chinese culture: the beliefs of philosopher and politician Confucius, the ethos of Yuan ye—a fabled monograph by Ming dynasty garden designer Ji Cheng published in 1631—as well as the Four Arts, the quartet of academic and artistic accomplishments deemed essential for noble Chinese scholars of the past.

It soon became obvious that the design process would require much research to embrace this complex fusion of historical and cultural influences. And so, the designers embarked on a journey of learning in China. “We went to visit the Forbidden City in Beijing and saw how the trompe-l’œil technique and European perspectives influenced the style of design that was used in the Palace of Tranquil Longevity’s Juanqinzhai hall,” says Li.

The jie jing philosophy espouses the understanding that the designer would need to be at one with the environment in order to create a harmonious landscape. In a similar vein, this school of thought reflects the teachings of Confucius, who believed that the form and matter of objects and people are of equal importance, as one cannot exist without the other.

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This melding of principles is evident in the study, a space carved out from the existing dining area and the reception room. With reference to Confucian philosophy, the reception room represents the aesthetic elements of the apartment—where traditional Chinese rosewood furnishings and European antiques draw focus—whereas the dining room and study are designed for the practicalities of everyday living.

Hand-carved rosewood joinery details, traditional Chinese motifs and a set of rosewood bi-fold shutter screens separate the study and dining rooms. These carefully considered elements are inspired by Yuan ye, which advised that adjacent rooms should be connected but also demarcated with movable barriers without inhibiting access.

This harmonious blend of elements extends to the study, where bookshelves are positioned behind a stately desk. Next to it, a window seat offers the homeowner a comfortable space for reading when the shutters are closed. It’s a cosy nook that doubles as an additional area for socialising when the shutters are open, revealing the adjoining dining room.

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When it came to the reconfigured layout of the apartment, Holloway Li borrowed from the Chinese tradition of the Four Arts—comprising the mastery of the guqin (a seven-string zither), qi (Chinese chess), shu (Chinese calligraphy) and hua (Chinese painting)—to create a conducive retreat for calligraphy and music. “The client also plays the guzheng (a Chinese string instrument) in his spare time and the space was specially designed with this in mind—we even crafted a bespoke stand and chair for the instrument,” explains Li.

While the apartment features predominantly Chinese influences, Holloway Li also infused refined European details in the design. “The brief was to bring authentic Chinese elements into an Edwardian-style apartment; to us, it is a sort of a reversal of the chinoiserie style,” says Li.

During their research, the duo discovered chinoiserie, an aesthetic that was highly popular in Europe during the 18th century and reflected the Western fascination with East Asian cultures. This slice of history can be observed in the bedroom. Decked in hand-painted wallpaper by De Gournay, the bamboo motifs provide a calming setting.

Modern appliances, which are largely absent in the main rooms, make an appearance in these private quarters. “We deliberately avoided positioning the TV and speakers within the living room because of the formality of the reception room layout, as well as the client’s belief that a formal reception area should not be an entertainment space. Therefore, an 82-inch TV was fitted in the master bedroom directly opposite the bed,” adds Li.

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With its angular edges, a TV would also be the antithesis of Yuan ye, which teaches reconciliation and harmony through the principle that a “curve should not be an absolute curve; a square should not be an absolute square” and there should be interchangeable elements reflected in both shapes. Interpreting these values, Holloway Li juxtaposed angular openings, doors and spaces with furniture featuring rounded edges and curved carvings on the feature wall panels and shutters.

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The overall design of the apartment is a beautiful blend of historical and cultural influences. “It was thrilling to work on a project that had such an intricate level of craft and detail. Ultimately, our mission was to create a comfortable home for our client, one that emulates his beliefs and lifestyle,” says Holloway.

This sentiment was echoed by the client, who was pleased by the results of the interior makeover, which took 18 months to complete. “The designers of Holloway Li, who listened to my beliefs and opinions in Chinese and English histories and politics, have delivered a project that subtly and beautifully translates these in the design and details of my home,” he says.

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