Rossana Hu and Lyndon Neri are an interesting phenomenon – a design duo diaspora with a strong hold on that covetable market, China.
Both Hu and Neri worked in architecture in the US for more than 16 years – Neri as director of projects in Asia for Michael Graves and Associates for a decade.
After 20 years away, the pair returned to the land of their parents and grandparents. In Shanghai, explains Hu, they felt they had ‘found the perfect setting for exploring’ their design aspirations. ‘We would be committed to doing good architecture and be rigorous in our pursuit for design excellence wherever we were, but as Chinese educated in the US (Harvard University for Lyndon and Princeton University for me), we feel compelled to give back to China as much as we can through our understanding and knowledge of design.’
With Michael Graves, they spent a year living and working in Shanghai, in what they describe as the reinvented contemporary Chinese urbanity. ‘We saw that although Shanghai is booming economically, there was a design vacuum. Capable manufacturers help foreign companies promote their brands only because the ‘production of creative ideas’ is left for the foreigners to perform.
Although their initial intention was to open their contemporary furniture and furnishing store Design Republic, they first set up Neri & Hu Design and Research Office, having been approached by interesting clients. In fact, they had to turn down seven architectural projects at that time.
The consultancy is now 25-30 strong, working on everything from boutique, mixed-use developments, high-end restaurants, private residences and clubs, to spas and stores. Clients include The Mandarin Oriental Group, Ritz Carlton, Three on the Bund, Muse Club, Beijing Financial Street and the Y+ Yoga Centre.
Although its focus is architecture and interior design, NHDRO is multidisciplinary, because, explains Hu, ‘We live in a world where traditional boundaries are increasingly blurred and we feel our practice should respond to that phenomenon.’ She cites the new China House at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok (part of the Mandarin Group) as an example. ‘We were asked to create the total environment, from traditional interior design to details such as music and scent, plates and spoons, hostesses’ dresses and chefs’ hats, a logo and moon cake boxes. We were able to control details at all levels and create an environment that is in keeping with the original design intent.’
Despite their experience and familiarity with China, Hu and Neri faced some culture clashes in their early days (some of which may not sound so alien to UK designers). ‘It’s not easy in China to convince people of the need for quality, both our own staff and clients. There is the notion that profit is everything, and the idea that we may possibly want to sacrifice profit for top quality, because we want our first works to be the best we can do, is sometimes unthinkable,’ explains Neri.
And when it comes to deadlines, ‘Clients tend to want everything immediately, so we continue to educate them in the importance of giving the designer ample time to think, design and create,’ he adds. On the plus side, cheaper labour means designers can experiment with different materials that would often be financially prohibitive in the West.
Coming up, NHDRO is working on a boutique hotel, a design centre development, restaurants, private houses and a product range for Design Republic. It also plans to publish a series of books on architecture and urban planning.
And while NHDRO has no intention of opening more studios or to get too big, its ambition is to be one of the best design firms worldwide, not just in China.