“Sometimes it pays to buck a trend and ignore well-meaning advice,” says Suzy Annetta, looking around her airy Wong Chuk Hang studio. Four years ago, the Hong Kong-based Australian interior designer joined her partner Philip Annetta in a leap of faith, selling her home to invest in her dream of creating a print magazine that celebrates and showcases Asian design.
Today, Design Anthology has a readership of around 80,000, is available in 30 countries and in February 2019 will host its inaugural Design Awards with a team of leading creatives as judges, including André Fu, Joyce Wang and Shanghai designers Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu.
“I can’t tell you how many people warned me that print was dead and that online would be the only way to succeed, but I have always believed that a magazine remains the best place to read about design,” says Annetta. “It’s something to do with the tactility of the paper, but also the size of the images. It’s more about the experience of holding something and having less distraction from other digital devices.”
Looking back over the past 20 years, it seems obvious that Annetta was never going to follow a mainstream career path for the sake of an easy life. Born in Melbourne, she trained as an interior designer before moving to Japan, where she lived for three years. She came to Hong Kong in 2005 to work for a textile company and started writing a blog, Studio Annetta, which later expanded into her own interior design studio.
“I was simply writing about things that caught my eye and that interested me in the design world and then noticed that the designers I liked were following my blog,” she says. “It was a natural progression for me to start thinking that it could evolve into a magazine.”
Annetta says that her eclectic taste in design fitted well with the idea of a magazine. “A lot of people go to an interior designer for a ‘look’ that they can buy into but I think one of my strengths as an editor is that Design Anthology is much more broad compared to other publications. It can include very minimal white Japanese interiors or a ramshackle brick house in the countryside of Vietnam.”
Annetta’s current open plan studio reflects this unpretentious approach to design through a neutral earthy palette offset by interesting furniture, accessories and art from a mix of well-known designers and up-and-coming artists. A matching pair of benches designed by Ilse Crawford for IKEA are placed together to create a coffee table in the studio’s sprawling lounge, while a vintage mid-20th century Parsons extendable table by Milo Baughman, bought on the online shop 1stdibs, is paired with classic white Panton chairs, creating a relaxed staff dining area.
One of Annetta’s favourite pieces, an elegantly simple lacquered wood bookshelf, is by Belgian designer Bruno de Caumont. “I have loved his work for a long time and we wrote about his Ho Chi Minh home in our first issue, so when he moved out and was selling a lot of his furniture I bought this bookshelf that had been in his study,” she says. “It is a very personal piece. I love the colour of it.”
Being exposed to good design means a daily temptation to buy, and Annetta sighs as she admits she finds it “gut-wrenching to walk away from some things.” Her focus, however, is on building a business so she tries to restrain purchasing to smaller, personal pieces.
On display at the studio is a terrazzo bowl from Hong Kong-based architect Joyce Wang’s Flint Collection, a colourful art work by Japanese artist Toshiyuki Konishi, and a very small painting on the back of a receipt by a Hong Kong artist Scott Chan Kin-yip, which Annetta bought at Hong Kong Art Basel. “I liked it even before I knew it was by a local artist,” she says.
“Furniture is even harder to resist,” she admits with a guilty smile, looking at a curvaceous pair of vintage 1960 fibreglass F300 series chairs by French designer Pierre Paulin that she discovered in an antique shop in Bangkok. The studio’s lounge also has a Maryam Montague rug from Morocco and a Karl Springer side table.
“When people think of Design Anthology they tend to assume it is all black and white and clean-looking interiors. We do reflect that aesthetic, but we are always after homes that are very personal, where the owner or designer hasn’t gone out and got everything from one place or from one luxury brand.”
Annetta has taken a similar approach to her office. “It is very personal. There are probably two different houses worth of furniture in here but we like it like this.”
Supporting local talent is a responsibility Annetta takes to heart and, although Design Anthology does not feature fashion or jewellery, she regularly wears pieces made by Asian designers. At the recent annual ball for Design Trust, the design advocacy group of which Annetta is a board member, she wore a dress by Wong Chuk Hang-based studio Edit. “They are an interior design and fashion practice. I just love the idea that they are informing each other’s work,” she explains.
“There is some incredible talent in Hong Kong, but all its young designers need more support and a platform .Real estate is prohibitively expensive, much more so than many other cities in Asia, so young creatives really struggle to find a place to do what they do, or even get exposure.”
Young, local designers featured in Design Anthology include Wilson Lee and Emily Ho of Studio Adjective, whose works include the Tripodal Stool, a simple cedar stool created in collaboration with Japanese furniture workshop Ishinomaki Laboratory. There’s also design collective Lim + Lu’s conversion of a Wong Chuk Hang warehouse into a Manhattan-style loft.
Annetta is quick to credit Hong Kong with much of her success. “Hong Kong is a 24-hour city that doesn’t slow down, let alone stop,” she says. “It is like a pressure cooker and the energy is palpable. The noise, heat and pace is intense,” she says. “Because of that, and how convenient it is to get around and do things in a small city with good transportation, getting something like Design Anthology off the ground was easier or more manageable than other places.”
Singapore had originally been an option, but Annetta admits that she probably wouldn’t have started Design Anthology there. “I don’t think the community in Singapore at that time was as strong and close knit as it was in Hong Kong. That may have changed since though.”
“I hit Hong Kong at a very interesting time when design was just starting to be talked about. Events like [Business of Design Week] were still in their infancy. It was pre-PMQ, Tai Kwun and M+ so we got in before it all took off and have been able to watch the transition. Perhaps if I had waited any later we might have missed the boat. People were incredibly supportive and it is that which makes this city unique.”
This is not to say there are no challenges. Annetta warns that Hong Kong has become a far more complicated place to do business, particularly for non-Cantonese speakers. “Language and banking issues — HSBC is more and more difficult to deal with as a small business owner — may be little things that seem insignificant but are slowly eroding Hong Kong’s status as a business-friendly city for foreigners.”
Getting the balance right between print and online remains a key challenge, especially since paper costs have soared as much as 30 per cent in the past year. But Annetta insists there is still a future for print. “There is still room for something special, that is curated in a way that it becomes something people look forward to,” she says. “Printed material, when done right, becomes a cultural artefact in its own right. Something to keep and treasure.”
Annetta says she regularly hears from readers who like the tactile quality of the paper, the way the images are reproduced – even the smell. “It’s a more sensual experience than digital,” she says.
That may be why the creative industry is still obsessed with paper, at least in Annetta’s estimation. “It is about respecting that print is a luxury product and not something to be churned out,” she says. “Appreciation from the local community means everything. When someone says they can see a lot of love has gone into that, it is what keeps us going.”