Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with Ed from AB Concept. Ed, thanks so much for joining us today.
Ed Ng: Hi, Stacy. How are you? Thank you for having me here.
SSR: Yeah. Thanks for staying up late to do this. It’s early where I am and late where you are, but appreciate it. Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
EN: I’m homegrown Hong Kong boy. I have my education also in Hong Kong. And then my my design education as well. And then I spend most of my time, my design career to start out also in Hong Kong, in different design firms and architect firms.
SSR: Got it. As a kid, did you have a love of design, were you creative? Was there any inkling that this is the path you might want to take?
EN: Well, creative or not it’s usually people telling you, which I guess I have. Some people, my teacher always said, ‘You’re a creative person.’ But one thing I am sure of is I’m not very much an academic person. I did okay in the school, but I hated examinations, so I was not a good student in doing examination. But I think that’s also why I finally choose to go for design because there’s no examinations, we only do projects.
SSR: Right. So you get to be tested on something besides the exam. Did you travel as a kid at all? Did your family, your parents have any influence on your creative background or your love of hospitality?
EN: Well, surprisingly my dad is well, he’s a very boring engineer, so I don’t think my creative side is from him. But my mum, she loved tailoring. I remember when I was a kid—and then I look at all the old photos and she’s the one who actually made me a lot of jackets and clothes and all these things and she quite enjoyed doing it. And then she loved fabrics and that kind of thing. It’s probably from my mom’s side, I would say.
SSR: Yeah. You said you went to school for design. What was your first job out of design school?
EN: I always wanted to go for hospitality when I was in design school. Of course, there’s a reason behind that. When I first graduated from my design school, I remember I only sent out five letters. There were just a handful of hospitality design firms, international hospitality firms, and I pretty much just sent out five of them and I got very lucky and then I got accepted by the one I really wanted to work for. That’s how I started my hospitality design career.
SSR: Got it. What drew you to hospitality? What was your love of that, that you specifically wanted to do and why?
EN: It started from my high school and then there was an exchange program, I think maybe in the States you still have it, is called AFS. It’s an exchange student program. When I finished my final year in high school, and I looked at one of those brochures and thought, ‘This is cool.’ I got to travel for a year and do different things and explore two different cultures. I thought it would be so much fun. So I applied and I got accepted and I actually ended up in Pennsylvania. Then I spent a year in a small town called Bradford, the Zippo town. That’s how I spent one fantastic year in the States. That’s how I also had my first trip to New York because it’s just across the border.
It not only exposed me to the American culture, but because it was a very well-organized exchange program, I remember every month you had gatherings with so many exchange students from all over the world. I remember the students from Iceland, from Turkey, even from Kenya. It was like a little United Nations. Of course, after one year, we all built really good friendships.
I remember saying, ‘Okay, I need to find a job that I can travel.’ And then after I returned to Hong Kong, I got accepted to design school and after a few years, when I needed to start thinking about my career, interior design seemed like a natural fit.
SSR: Yeah, for sure. In this first job did you get to travel? Were you working on the hospitality?
EN: No, not yet. I remember my first job was just designing the area rug in the Tokyo Hilton. It was my first day of job. My boss assigned me to design it. Well, actually, this is where am I now. The last two years, I’ve spent most of my time in Japan. I’m actually not in Hong Kong.
SSR: Wow. Do you have a mountain retreat or a beautiful home there, right?
EN: Right. Yeah. The town where am I staying is called Karuizawa, which is about one hour away by the Shinkansen, by the high-speed train from the Tokyo station, which is really accessible. We bought it as really as a holiday retreat and we were just planning to come every other month. And because of COVID…We traveled back from Europe from a ski holiday in January 2020, and then as soon as we arrived, COVID became out of control and then all the travel measures, quarantine, Terence and I just said, ‘Okay, let’s try to stay in and see what’s going on.’ But somehow it seemed to work out. Over the last, let’s say 18 months, Terence and I are staying in the mountains in Japan.
SSR: Yeah. That must be so lovely.
EN: Yeah, it is. As you know, I was born and raised in Hong Kong and I’m so much a city boy. And that’s actually the reason why this kind of a mountain retreat in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the forest, is so attractive to me. It’s different. At first, I couldn’t believe I could live in such environment but the more you stay in the forest and then you start looking at the change of the seasons and because it’s so famous about the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves in autumn.
And then I started feeling, ‘wow, there is so many inspirations.’ If you look at the artistic side, you are just looking at the color palettes changing. I picked up one of my hobbies, which I picked up when I was a design student, which is photography. But I haven’t really done it seriously. I’m still not doing it seriously, but I think it’s just giving me so much drive just to pick up my camera and go out on my bicycle and [take a lot of photos] and then to learn new software to make the photo even better. It’s something I didn’t expect that I would pick up over the last two years.
SSR: Yeah. A couple of questions. The house, did you and Terence build the house?
EN: Well, we had a small condominium in Tokyo before that, and then we always tried to look for something somewhere just outside of Tokyo. Then we saw this house was already under construction, which would allow us some room to modify it and do some minor changes to fit our needs. We managed to build an outdoor deck and in front of the house, a floating deck on the slope.
We did some modifications. But having said that, we bought this house originally as a holiday retreat, so it’s really like a cottage, but then we realized we can live here for a long time so now we managed to get the land directly adjacent to us and now we’re building our permanent house.
SSR: That’s great. How will the house reflect your style? What are you hoping to build?
EN: Well, it’s so different from our hospitality projects, and I think all our friends, when they’re looking at it, they said, ‘Wow, this is the other side of Ed and Terence that we wouldn’t be able to tell from your projects.’ It’s not a commercial project to start with. It’s more like a haven. It’s about for you to get the way, and it’s been really eclectic because…Actually, maybe some people didn’t realize there is a lot of vintage furniture, the midcentury collections and there are so many in Tokyo or in Japan in general because it’s a very embracing culture. And of course you can also find a lot of beautiful objects, ceramics in Japan. The longer we live here, the more we acquire all these collections and so that’s why we need even an even bigger space to house all of them. That also influenced our design a lot. The more time you spend here looking at a lot of the local craftsmanship, going to the museums, going to Kyoto. There’s a very interesting change about our aesthetic as well.
SSR: Love it. We’ve mentioned Terence a couple of times. He’s your partner, tell us, how did you meet and when did you guys decide to start and launch AB Concept?
EN: Terence and I are about the same age. We have pretty much friends. And then because he’s an architect, he was actually trained in University of Toronto. He’s an architect. And so, it was quite natural we had the same circle of friends. Whenever we met, we started talking for long hours and about like, ‘Which is a new building, the new architecture here, there, the new shops?’ We talked about fashion, design, and so the more we talked to each other and the more we can see we shared very similar aesthetics, and also, he would see some of my projects. But he would also have some very frank opinions. We thought this is actually a very good partnership. Because you had to be very candid to share ideas about design.
Terence has been working for a long time, and obviously, me too. And my last job was actually working for a developer. I start all my career as a hospitality designer, I told you. And then I joined an architect’s firm as an in-house interior designer, and then I moved on to the owner’s side. But then at that time, when you are being owner’s representative, you’re not supposed to design because you’re supposed to bridge the gap between the owner to the design consultants. And my boss just said, ‘Ed, you’re not supposed to design.’ But in the beginning, it was fun, but after a while… So I was in my 30s, and I said, ‘Am I not going to design any more for the rest of my life?’ And I said, ‘No way.’ The idea came up and let’s… I think it’s time for us to do something on our own. That’s how the whole AB Concept story starts.
SSR: Right. And that was back in 1999, right, that you started?
EN: Yeah. It was back in 1999 and it was very much… We were brave because in 1999 we just had some kind of economy crisis just before the millennium. That’s always the case. When the economy is not so good, it’s actually easier for you to rent an office and to start a business. That’s how everything was started.
SSR: What were those early days like? Was it just you and Terence? Did you have any other people? Did you hire anyone with you?
EN: We actually started off with I think around five people. But we started out with some drafting support and I remember we start out with my friend’s own apartment, which slightly about 1,000 square feet. It’s actually not small in Hong Kong standard, but it’s small today of course. And then I started out with that and then later on we got a few more residential projects and that’s about it. [What we really wanted to do was] hospitality. We started designing the service apartment for the Swire, which is called the Pacific Place Apartment. You know the Swire group, like the Opposite House, Upper House, that developer. I think that was one of the key milestones. Because Swire is a very reputable developer and to design a project for them in that scale…I remember by the time we designed it, we still only had about 10 staff in our office, which gave us solid credentials. That’s how we start getting more and more inquiries from different developers and hospitality operators.
SSR: Got it. It was actually a residential project for Swire?
EN: Yeah, it’s a serviced apartment. It’s actually a whole…It’s close to hospitality.
SSR: Right. Service department. Got it. And so that helped you get on the map. What do you think was your big break or breakout project or the one that really elevated you all?
EN: I would say the W Bali. Back in the 2009 when it was opening, so we designed it just like two or three years beforehand. Of course, W has been around in New York for several years, but it was still a very new and hot brand in Asia. We managed to design this our first resort projects and also the first W hotel, this kind of resort in Indonesia. We got good exposure because the product is unique. And I think that really put us onto the map of international hospitality.
SSR: Got it. What did you and Terence want AB Concept to be? Can you tell us a little bit of what it’s like now, what’s your culture like, tell us about the firm a bit?
EN: I think this is a very important mindset I always tell myself and also to tell all our designers. In AB Concept, we always try to be a cultural partner of our clients. Don’t just look at yourself as a service provider. As a designer, and especially for hotels, you need to put yourself on a different perspective. You’re not just designing to fulfill all the functions or how many check-in stations, how many seats in the restaurants, we go far beyond that. You become a cultural partner for your clients, for the hotel operators, because we design the whole emotion and the space together. That only if you can put yourself on a mindset as a cultural partner, so you will dive deeper and then because you are so focused on this human experience—I always remind our designers, when you come up with a design scheme, and when you look at the beautiful renderings, and then imagine yourself being the guest. After you walk into this restaurant, what do you remember this evening or what do you remember tomorrow, or maybe a week later? And what about a year later, what do you still remember of that restaurant? Do you still remember something? If your answer is no, then sorry, go back and keep designing.
SSR: That’s so important. Looking back, what do you think has been your most challenging project along the way?
EN: If I tell you all projects have their own challenges, you will not accept this answer.
SSR: But they all do.
EN: Yeah, we all do. Every project, if there’s no challenge, there’s no designer needed, right? We are here to solve problems. The brand-new project we just finished this week which is the Bar Argo in the Hong Kong Four Seasons has been really challening in many aspects, personally, because it’s in our doorsteps. This is Hong Kong and all our friends are the regular guests there.
Stacy, if you’re a designer, you design something in New York, all your friends will and it was such a high-profile project, all their eyes, so many eyes are looking at what you are doing. It used to call the Blue Bar and now it has a new name. Because we’ve been on the project for more than two years and over the time all our friends keep asking, ‘What are you going to do? What is it looks like?’
Then you will get all the comments and very candid comments or brutal comments, so you know you prepare for that. Okay, that’s the personal level, but from operations level, I would say because this I think this is also something very Hong Kong. We want to make everything super-efficient. When we get into the design briefing and say, ‘Okay, Ed, this restaurant although you’re designing a destination bar, but I’m telling you that you need to design a space that can serve breakfast in the morning and not just sit down breakfast, but a breakfast with a good selection of buffet.’ Because is a Four Seasons so you don’t expect anything so-so. You expect a really good buffet. And then you will go into the power lunch, because it’s in the central district in the international finance center. And then all the way you go to the high tea and then go to the happy hours and then merge into the destination bar at night.
I’m sure everyone listening to this podcast is a hospitality lover. And so you know the vibe is everything, but how can you design something that doesn’t look too clubby if you’re sitting there for the breakfast or too breakfast-like when its meant to be a destination bar. That has been quite a big challenge for us.
SSR: Yeah. I’m sure. So cool. Is there another project that you’re looking forward to? Is there one that’s coming up that you’re excited about?
EN: Everyone in the office is looking forward to our first full scope resort in the south of Portugal, which is in Algarve, a beautiful resort town and just by the sea in the south of Portugal. Yeah, so that’s actually our first full scope project in Europe. This is something we’re really looking forward to.
SSR: That’s great. And what are you trying to create there? What’s the vibe or atmosphere?
EN: I think Portugal is somehow quite special for people from Hong Kong because our neighbor Macau used to be a Portuguese colony. As Hong Kong people, we travel to Macau a lot of time. And then also the first time when I traveled to Europe, I spent a lot of time in Portugal because I liked the culture and I liked the food. When we got chosen to be the designers, wo a lot of research. We actually stayed an extra-long time over there to do research, if you know what I mean, just to make sure we tried everything. Algarve is a very energetic location, because there are a lot of travelers from maybe from UK, from Germany and with very young demographics and the brand just works so perfectly to these locations. What we are trying to do is create this kind of vibe for this location.
SSR: Is there a part of the process that you love the most. And has that changed since you started?
EN: The most fascinating part is when you start discussing the design of a project in a location that maybe you only traveled there once as a tourist, or maybe a place that you always wanted to go, you heard so much about it, so you need to set yourself on a different position because now you need to design a fixture to that location, so you need to, as I said, you need to dive deeper into the culture. And for me, I always considered this is another level of cultural exchange. Because the way you exchange is you need to learn about how people eat, how people live, and then, but through your lens, and then through your designer’s lens, your skills. It’s like a chef, I go to the local market, I see this all sorts of exotic ingredients, and then I’m looking at it and then I’m just using those ingredients but through my design skills, and then I create something that is AB Concept, but also that is very location driven. That’s the process that we really enjoy.
SSR: When you say that’s AB Concept, you guys design such luxury high-end, but you do it with such layer and detail that, to your point, really bringing in that community. I don’t want to say you have a style by any means because you do adapt, but when you say it’s AB Concept, what does that mean to you?
EN: We don’t set ourselves in a particular style in terms of the visual, but let’s say it’s more of the approach that is similar. It’s really about this layering and about the use of the materials. And also we like to look around for the local artisans, local workshops, like the project we’re working on, and we work with the local pottery, so they create a lot of unique objects for us or mural. I think that that’s really the part of enjoyment because you go beyond being a tourist; you go into the workshop, you work with the artisans and create the things that you want to create, but with the local essence. That’s something really interesting and exciting for us.
SSR: How do you pass that onto your team? How do you teach that? You as a leader, how do you pass on some of the knowledge that you have?
EN: Even though I’m now physically away, we spend three days a week with the design team just doing sketchings over Zoom and then we talk about a lot of details and then also pushing them to go into a much deeper research and what is the story behind and what’s the narrative? That’s how really through a lot of interaction of design reviews.
SSR: How do you constantly stay inspired or where do you go seeking for inspiration?
EN: Right. Well, definitely nature is a key thing and then art is definitely the key. Nature and art is really on a very high level a source of inspiration. I’m sure most people would agree on that. But then I think we also have been lucky that we are in the hospitality field, and the thing that keeps me inspired is the people in the industry. Because we get the pleasure to work in different countries. Different operators have different way to do things, talking with different chefs. It doesn’t matter if it’s a lighting consultant or engineer, they all come up with some new creative ideas. It’s really about working with people. And then especially when I’m traveling and having these design meetings in these exotic locations, these are really important for me. Then your sense will be much sharper and to understand the things that this is a new way of doing things, which I never thought of in my other projects. And this will become your new inspiration for your next project.
SSR: Love it. How do you and Terence work together? I know he’s an architect, you’re a designer, but what are his strengths and weaknesses versus yours?
EN: Pace wise, he’s super-fast. He’s in the fast pace, and I’m in the slow pace. In a sense, normally his response will be super-fast, like in terms of the layout, in terms of a narrative. And I observe. He literally responds in seconds, but I’m sit back, and I need to go much deeper before I would say something. Well, I think this is actually a good way because by the time he has already come up with a few things and then I start looking at them and re-examining them. I think this is very important, you need a fast pace and a slow pace to constantly challenging each other.
SSR: With everything, given everything that we’ve gone through in the past year, what are you paying attention to in terms of how hospitality and luxury are evolving or are there things because of COVID and what we went through or were there things happening already that might’ve just been accelerated?
EN: Well, I think we are just like all the other designers when back in the early 2020s when this whole COVID thing started to come along, and then we kind of like, ‘okay, what is going on and what is going to change in our hospitality world?’ But now we are more than one and a half years in, we have new projects coming in. We’re still receiving new design briefings. And a lot of projects are in the middle of construction, but surprisingly there was not so many changes as a core of hospitality.
But first we thought are we going to have to emphasize this kind of social distancing? And do we have barrier between everyone and just to keep these kind of a safety barriers, but surprisingly there was no such things. I think because everyone has been working so hard over the year, over the last year, is really to get our life back to normal. Although we all know it’s not going to be that same normal anymore, but that’s our aim to be as close to what we had before.
But one thing I noticed is not so much about the physical changes, but more of the was the things that we more is psychologically or more of what we’ve been craving for. I haven’t been traveling. All my friends and we all have a list, like where shall we travel or which restaurant shall we go immediately after, as soon as we can do so.
I think this type of craving is really driving us and also in a way it’s helped us to filter out what is really essential, what really matters. I feel there’s this kind of celebration moments. This is something we’ve been missing. In hospitality, just my personal observation, in the past decade we’ve been shifting to this kind of more casual luxury and things would be much more in a relaxed mode even in the lobby, in a lot of things.
Like the way we dress, even now in the Zoom, we’re all in a relaxed mode. And so now, we are kind of missing that dress up moment, that white tablecloth moments, and this kind of grandness and that moment seems like we’ve been missing. The pendulum is accelerating that shift to the other side of the spectrum a little bit stronger and a bit sooner than I thought. This kind of a neoclassical, this kind of a more intricate, more new renaissance moment, whatever you call it. We see there’s a tendency going to that side.
SSR: Yeah, for sure. How has that changed you or how has it changed you as a leader the last year?
EN: Well, I think the last year also enlightened us. Before, we always thought a physical meeting is essential when you talk about many things. But this year, we actually learned to realize the physical meeting is more about this kind of relationship bonding. If we talk about just technical, just talk about design, we can actually do it over the online and that we can get a lot of things done. But one thing that I’m missing is to be able to go to the workshop to see the mock-up, to go to the sample library to touch and feel a lot of materials and to select these things. That is something I’ve been missing.
SSR: Yeah. No, makes complete sense. And you’ve seen a lot, right. You’ve traveled a lot; you’ve done some amazing designs. Has there been your most memorable experience of design, something that you saw along the way that changed or inspired you? Has there been a moment of travel that has stuck with you?
EN: Well, it is very hard to pinpoint just as one. But I think I would say the Japanese ryokan hospitality, those traditional Japanese hundreds of years old ryokans. This kind of very family-style hospitality really has influenced us a lot because usually it’s in the setting and everything is highly personalized. I think that actually also influenced a lot of today’s hospitality is all about this being very personalized and attentive services. That has been influencing me quite a lot.
SSR: Yeah. And you’ve designed a lot, right? You’ve designed a bunch of F&B and hotels. You’ve done furniture and rugs. Is there something that you still want to design? Is there something in your bucket list that you’re like I’d love to do X?
EN: Okay. Well, doing collaborations is always fun because we normally partner with brands that have the most supreme knowledge of what they’re doing, like Poltrona Frau. Every time we do collaborations, it’s an eye-opening experience not because not just how we learn about the way the design, but also to see how detailed we need to be to look into each of the products. It helps us to really understand why a chair would cost so much because there’s so much engineering, so much time you actually need to invest behind the scenes. It just make me to understand that or to elevate my level of appreciations to all products around us.
If you asked me what else we would love to try in terms of design, not just products, maybe s yacht. That’s also something we still haven’t got the chance to try, but that will be something really fun because it’s a show piece. It’s about the ultimate luxury. That is something we want to check it out.
SSR: I love it. And maybe you can go into photography too. Is there something you love to take photos of now that you’re dabbling in photography?
EN: I would still say I’m an amateur photographer, so I would just do whatever I see and then I’m just doing a lot of testing. But in my, because I’m in Karuizawa, in my context most of them is landscape. Because it just is breathtaking even the mountains. Because my house is on the hillside, I’m overlooking the mountains on the other side. And if I remember correctly, I’m still doing different shots every day, because the light is different. The color of the mountain is different. The time, the fog, the mist, the rain, the cloud, everything, it’s just endless combinations, even just you looking at the same mountain every single day, but I still haven’t stopped taking photos of that.
SSR: That sounds so gorgeous. We always end this podcast with the title of the podcast. What has been your greatest lesson learned or lessons learned along the way?
EN: For any designer, if you want to pursue hospitality, you really need to have a very resilient mind because anything could happen. Of course, you will see a beautiful project, you spend days, weeks, months, or years to design a projects and then they finally the whole execution is so perfect and then you got a beautiful baby in front of you. That’s ideal. That’s just perfect. But having said that, sometimes you can spend months and years of work, and maybe the project stops in the middle of nowhere for many reasons. And you can’t stay heartbroken. You need to move on and learn from it: your design, your process is the way you became a better designer. And finally, you will just have some beautiful projects on hand.
SSR: Love it. Well, it’s always such a pleasure to check in with you. Thank you so much for taking the time today.
EN: Thank you, Stacy. Thank you.
SSR: And I hope I get to see you in real life sometime soon.