With its panoramic cityscape, sumptuous, picture-window bathrooms, and elegant minimalist interiors, the Upper House is one of Hong Kong’s most-admired luxury hotels. But what visitors probably don’t know is that the man who designed it had never even worked on a hotel before.
“It was a remarkable proposition,” Andre Fu tells Fortune in an interview at Singapore Design Week, where he is being honored as an influential next-generation designer at the Innovation by Design Conference on Tuesday. “The Upper House was my very first hotel.”
Fu got the assignment just three years out of Cambridge University, where he’d studied architecture. It meant a return to his hometown of Hong Kong after 14 years in England. “At the time, I’ve only had three staff in my team,” he says. “A nerve-wracking experience.”
The project would become Fu’s claim to fame, as he set out to "challenge the whole idea of hospitality." There is no lobby, no formal reception area. Instead, guests are checked in with iPads and embark on a long upward escalator when they arrive. “It’s all about creating small, intimate experiences,” says the designer, adding that the hotel was filled with more than 300 pieces of artwork.
The smallest of the Upper House’s 133 rooms starts at about 730 square feet, “which is typically two hotel rooms” in Hong Kong, Fu notes. “Instead of giving all the spaces to the lobby, to the corridor, we’ve given them to the guest.”
Since then, the scope of Fu’s work has extended rapidly across the globe, ranging from Villa La Coste, an upcoming 28-room hotel in Provence, southeastern France; to London’s Berkeley Hotel’s Opus Suite; to Hong Kong’s new Kerry Hotel, which boasts more than 500 rooms (“probably the largest project that I’ve ever worked on”). At the moment, he’s juggling a boggling lineup—seven different hotels, most of them in Asia.
Why take on so many projects at the same time?
“I do feel very fortunate. I try to remind myself that not many designers from this part of the world will have the opportunity to work outside of Asia, to start off with,” he said. “Especially someone from Hong Kong. The exposure tends to be more [about being] Asian-savvy than being able to expose ourselves to a bigger audience.”
In today’s age, design has become much more easily and directly communicated, particularly with the speed of social media, Fu says. “People become much more aware of the nature of travel, for example, and travel inevitably links to design.”
But he tries not to get too caught up in the idea of being scrolled past on social media feeds. “It’s very easy to create designs that are purely driven on aesthetics. But good design actually communicates experiences,” says Fu.
“The more that I’ve been doing what I’m doing, I’m more interested in the physical experience of being in a space, and being surrounded by whatever that I’ve designed, than physically how it looks. I think there’s a much more kind of solid and meaningful purpose of design than simply creating something for the purpose of an image.”