Creativity as a Family Business: Dinner With the Lims

ViIt’s a four course meal in the midst of Hong Kong’s top collection of contemporary art. We’re sitting inside artist, architect and art collector William Lim’s Wong Chuk Hang studio, where he has invited the team behind Zolima CityMag to join his family for food and conversation. On one side of us is a pastel-hued bathroom installation by Lee Kit; on the other, a painting by Yeung Tong Lung, master of everyday life. At the table sit William and his wife, interior designer Lavina, along with their elder son Kevin, his wife Caroline Chou, and younger son Vincent, who is with his partner, Elaine Lu – all of them architects.

Zolima_Lim Family Dinner_COpyright Nicolas Petit-3The evening opens with warm conversation around the studio, which William has turned into a sort of gallery stocked with pieces from his art collection – along with furniture pieces designed by Vincent and a library designed with the help of Kevin. Soon, we sit, presented with a salad of makrut lime and cilantro, light and fresh. That is followed by a lemongrass onion dashi soup that evokes the richness of French onion with the added depth of the dashi’s umami. Next comes pasta inspired by rich, briny Malaysian prawn mee. 

We have Kevin to thank for the meal. After graduating from Cornell University’s architecture school in New York, he spent a year and a half training as a chef – a creative road he felt the need to explore, after falling in love with cooking when he worked part-time in kitchens during his architectural studies.

Creativity runs in the family. William Lim is a familiar name to anyone interested in Hong Kong art and architecture. Raised in Hong Kong with eight brothers and sisters, William went to the United States in 1975 for his last year of high school and ended up studying architecture at Cornell. “It was just by chance,” he says. “I didn’t really know much about architecture back then, but I loved drawing and I’d always loved structures – I liked to photograph buildings.” William’s father was a property developer in Malaysia who was fascinated by architecture, but he doesn’t remember feeling pressured into the profession. “I only found out recently he tried to convince my brothers and sisters to be architects,” he says. “I guess I was the only one who listened.”

Zolima_Lim Family Dinner_COpyright Nicolas Petit-10William and Lavina came back to Hong Kong in 1987. She began working for corporate clients while he laid the groundwork for his own firm, CL3, which he founded in 1992. William says he didn’t try to push architecture on his kids. “There was no hard sell,” he says. But he and Levina often brought home their work, which he thinks rubbed off on the kids. “We’d be working together with a big floor plan spread out on the dining table,” he says. When they travelled, they made a point to seek out treasures like Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoie. William says they still make a point to travel as a family to the Venice biennale of art and architecture every year.

“We weren’t pressured into design – it just so happened that everyone in the family was interested in it,” says Vincent. “Being around beautiful design, beautiful artwork, that kind of filters through.”

While they all share an alma mater, William, Kevin and Vincent’s interests have all diverged to some extent. After finishing his studies at Cornell, Kevin decided to channel his creative energies into another art – the culinary one. He began working at Blue Ginger, chef Ming Tsai’s celebrated East-meets-West restaurant in Boston. That inspired him to enroll in the Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, where Kevin was one of the only four to graduate from a class of 21.

Zolima_Lim Family Dinner_COpyright Nicolas Petit-7Kevin’s design and culinary interests have come together since he returned to Hong Kong. His design firm, openUU, which he runs with Caroline Chou, has worked on a number of food spaces, including the late and lamented Chaiwanese coffee shop and the canteen at the Chinese International School, where both he and Vincent studied. Kevin is also one of the owners of Kasa (家香), a restaurant in Wan Chai, for which he designed both the interior and the menu. Known for putting a modern twist on Cantonese classics — think Scotch eggs with preserved vegetables and minced pork — Kasa’s name is an homage to its cross-cultural philosophy, alluding to “home” in Spanish and home-style flavours (gaa1 hoeng1 家香) in Cantonese. Kevin says his approach to food was inspired by family trips to Malaysia, where both William and Lavina have relatives.

“It’s interesting he developed this kind of street food concept,” says William. He sees a similarity with his own artistic interest in grassroots materials and everyday life, which is evident both in his art collection and the artworks he produces. “We like the underdog experience,” he says.

Vincent, meanwhile, took another approach altogether. After meeting Elaine Lu at Cornell, the pair decided to launch their own firm, Lim & Lu, with the goal of approaching architecture from a holistic perspective – the kind of Gesamtkunstwerk or “complete work of art” heralded by architects like Walter Gropius and Alvar Aalto. So far, their focus has been on designing furniture, which reflects their interest in craftsmanship. Vincent is fascinated by modularity, too; Lim & Lu’s work includes a stackable stool that also works as a nightstand, and a lilypad-inspired modular coffee table. Their latest prototype is a sofa that sits on a dolly, which allows it to transform into a space-efficient armchair and umbrella rack.

Zolima_Lim Family Dinner_COpyright Nicolas Petit-4CL3 has never focused much on bespoke furniture, so when Vincent and Elaine moved to Hong Kong from New York earlier this year, William has enlisted their help to design pieces for a number of their projects. “The clients love it,” he says. He often collaborates with Kevin, too. In order to promote CL3’s upcoming purpose-built art gallery tower, H Queen’s, openUU designed a booth at Art Basel Hong Kong that reimagined William’s personal work space, stocking it with imaginative furniture pieces, building models and art pieces drawn from William’s collection.

William says their shared education has given them a similar perspective on design, but he rarely tried to mould their approach. “Trustworthiness” was the main value he hoped to instil. “Keeping your promises. That’s more important than any design principle,” he says. That and having passion – whether it’s for architecture, furniture or food. 

Three courses in, our meal comes to a close as Lavina serves us Iron Buddha tea and Kevin brings out his dessert: a light yet indulgent chocolate lava cake infused with gentle, earthy pandan leaf. Vincent and Elaine are crashing with Kevin and Caroline until they can move into a place of their own, and Elaine tells us they have been willing guinea pigs for Kevin’s experimentation. The night before the dinner, Kevin was testing out his recipe for the cake. “I infused the pandan in water, and normally this cake doesn’t have any liquid, so it took awhile to get it right,” he says. It’s dessert as architecture: a final product whose elegance masks the rigours of its construction.

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