Design That Feels Good: Joyce Wang’s Sumptuous Yet Sensitive Interiors

I’m following the Hong Kong British architect and interior designer Joyce Wang around Spiga, one of her latest interior design projects. It’s a charmingly retro Italian restaurant and bar with a chic outdoor terrace on the third floor of an office building in the middle of Central’s frenzied streets.

Yet those streets feel anything but close. It is as if we’ve stepped back in time to a glamorous 1950s Milanese café, and it isn’t just the collection of vintage Italian lamps, imported terrazzo stone floors or the amalgamation of vintage circus paraphernalia and stall games. It’s because of Wang’s unique ability to craft and compose spaces that blend multiple layers of textures, objects, furnishings and lighting within a coherent, authentic narrative that never, ever strays close to kitsch.

Spiga’s interiors offer a prime example of how Wang’s design language has evolved since she relocated to Hong Kong in 2011 and founded her own eponymous design studio at the age of 27. “This project really served as a case study for several of these sorts of key principles around functionality, craftsmanship and emotionally engaging design that we think underpin our practice,” says Wang.

The hanging radial glass lighting was inspired by design in traditional Italian circuses – Photo by William Furniss

Over the past six years, her sensitive, unpretentious approach to design has already had a major impact on Hong Kong, through a series of standout hospitality projects. Wang’s most recent work reflects an increasingly nuanced approach to design, confidently mixing contemporary with vintage, and custom furniture with iconic pieces.

Wang developed a passion for design at a very young age. Her earliest, most defining architectural memory was of visiting the Norman Foster-designed HSBC headquarters on Queen’s Road Central. She travelled with her family as a child, which she says opened her eyes to how design reflects distinctly different cultures and times. Her passion for film — science fiction in particular — is another important source of inspiration.

After graduating from MIT and the Royal College of Art, followed by a year at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Wang initially worked at Foster and Partners in London before snapping up a coveted commission to redesign 50 cabanas at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles. Taking the hotel’s glamorous – and often scandalous — heritage as design inspiration, she delivered a series of carefully crafted, cinematic interiors, including a room that emulates the interior of the Lautner House in Tom Ford’s 2009 film A Single Man.

“I don’t think anyone could believe that we had won that project, but we were so hungry to do it – and the client knew we would put our every living minute into it,” says Wang.

She delivered the same attention to detail in her first Hong Kong project, Ammo, a new 185-square-metre restaurant and bar in the Asia Society Hong Kong Center in Admiralty. Here, the interiors are a nod to Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 science fiction film Alphaville, with a dramatic six-meter-high domed ceiling showcasing three sculptural spiral staircase chandeliers constructed out of copper plumbing pipes.

Projects that followed soon thereafter reflect the evolution of Wang’s highly refined, bespoke design sensibility. At Mott 32, tasked with the challenge of transforming a bank’s basement into a restaurant, Wang devised an enticingly surreal modern Chinese eatery inspired by New York’s first Chinese convenience store. The narrative comes complete with an unconventional mix of concrete walls and elaborate hand-embroidered silk panels, eclectic colonial Hong Kong-style furnishings, and furniture meant to evoke antique Chinese heirlooms.

Last year, the designer crafted a very personal design for a small neighbourhood restaurant in Sai Ying Pun, working closely with co-owner and chef Nate Green to create a space that would reflect his distinctive personality and charcoal style of cooking. The interiors reflect a playful side of Wang’s signature style with a cluster of reclaimed washing machine drums reworked as a statement chandelier and a quirky barbershop themed private dining room featuring seemingly hairy walls formed by pushing concrete through chicken wire. There’s also a suspended light box decorated with stencils of Green’s favourite vintage tattoo designs. “Every design should make people feel good and should be an open-ended conversation, allowing guests to complete the narrative with their own perspective,” says Wang.

A mix of salvaged and new shoe soles clad the front of the bar – Photo by William Furniss

Looking back on her portfolio, Wang notes that her work at Spiga represents a distinct evolution in her practice. “It’s not about being overly rigorous and loyal in our approach to delivering a vintage Italian restaurant,” she explains. “This time, we embraced pieces that were from Hong Kong and finishes from other projects that are neither Italian nor vintage. It was this careful, yet relaxed, curation that allowed for an open-ended ambiance for people to interpret and complete the story.”

While each project brings its own unique experience, Spiga marks the first time the designer has created an outdoor space, a task she says called for a very different way of thinking about the design of a cozy refuge in the midst of a dramatic urban landscape. It also made her consider the boundary between indoors and outdoors in a new way compared to previous projects. “I discovered it is actually more important to craft cosy spaces outdoors where you’re exposed to the elements and towers that are not at a human scale,” she says.

Spiga is also one of the first projects where Wang has introduced such a complex interplay of her own design furniture and lighting with vintage pieces sourced through galleries and collectors. “There was a temptation to custom design everything from lighting to tables and chairs like I have done at some other projects,” says Wang, “but there was something also wonderful about celebrating Italian design because they have so many beautiful things. There is a soul in reclaiming and reusing some things. The challenge, but also the most fun part, was how to tie it in with our own language in one space.”

The project also allowed Wang to tap into her growing network of galleries and vintage specialists who she trusts to source intriguing finds. “With vintage or antique pieces you have to work with what you can find,” she says. “Sometimes chairs or lamps come in different colours but they don’t have to match perfectly. It has become increasingly clear to me that while some things may look different, they still fit within the same design family and so still work well together.”

Wang’s series of curved banquettes lined with an unexpected mix of antique glass bricks and caramel-hued leather upholstery is an example of how the designer blended custom and vintage design create a more sophisticated, layered ambience that builds on her trademark tactile materiality. “The glass bricks were one of our most expensive vintage finds and were difficult to transport,” says Wang, “but I believed that the cost would be justified within the budget because they bring something exceptional to the space which you cannot reproduce with a copy of the original.”

Vintage Italian circus paraphernalia add a quirky, authentic touch above a sitting corner that is topped with a layer of vintage glass bricks – Photo by William Furniss

Although unabashedly Italian, the restaurant’s interiors also reflect Wang’s confidence in blending distinctly different cultural references, adding local Hong Kong elements like bamboo scaffolding that hang off vintage Italian sconces, along with Asian batik textiles and tiles. “I think we learned that it’s about not controlling everything in a space,” says Wang. “It is also about being comfortable enough to let another world come in.”

A design project doesn’t just end when the studio completes the design, she says. “I like to watch people in my spaces and see how they use it. On Spiga’s terrace, for example, we were so pleased to see that the furniture encourages people to relax and mix, sharing the seating instead of claiming a sofa as their territory.”

The somewhat costly decision to completely relocate the kitchen to the far end of the restaurant and the outdoors bar to the rear of the terrace have also confirmed that sometimes it is worth redirecting part of the budget to create a more functional space. “It is not just about creating an aesthetically pleasing look,” says Wang. “Often the greatest design benefit can be achieved simply by drawing the eye to the back of the room or creating a new sense of space.”

It’s a thoughtful, crafted approach that is clearly paying dividends. Wang now has a staff of 16 and a studio in London where she is currently designing a club for Equinox and a hotel for Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, while other new projects include a private members’ club and a spa in New York City, all due for completion next year.

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