Designer and DB resident Kevin Chu aims to bring a whole new standard of environmental design to Hong Kong homes. Elizabeth Kerr reports.
If you haven’t noticed, Hong Kong isn’t as green as it could be. The government loves to drone on and on about how it’s committed to building a green city, a smart city, a liveable city, but when regulating departments (the Buildings Department, the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department as two) make it difficult for even the Big Seven developers to innovate, it’s up to individuals to fill in the gaps.
Hong Kong native, designer and architect, and Discovery Bay resident, Kevin Chu has set out to do something about that, one chair – and one home – at a time.
This morning, Kevin and his wife, Maria Giulia di Bonaventura, are parked at Fuel in ifc mall. For all their personal standards and dedication to sustainable design, neither looks the preachy hipster type you’d expect. Kevin is relaxed in the kind of weekend pants suitable for frequent ferry rides, and Maria, originally from a tiny town on the east coast of Italy, looks effortlessly thrown together – and like she just stepped out of a Michelangelo Antonioni film.
Partners in life and work
Kevin, 42, is taking a day away from the Discovery Bay home studio for inspections and other design legwork, and to set up some appointments with Maria’s doctor – the life and work partners are expecting their first son in a few months.
“I’m creative; I’m not really good at marketing. I can do it, but she’s the exact opposite,” begins Kevin with a laugh. “Maria is really good at it – and my Mandarin is ridiculous. So we go as a team. I’m the Asian guy who doesn’t speak Mandarin and she’s the Western partner who does. People remember us.”
That team is the heart and soul of Chu Original Creations (COC), founded in 2012 to focus on contemporary environmental design – possibly the only studio like it in Hong Kong.
The pair met in 2009 when she was in town from Beijing, where she was studying Mandarin and working in education. He spent some time there, and they relocated to Hong Kong in 2014, settling in DB after an exhaustive search.
“When we decided to move to Hong Kong, we looked in every single area of the city,” says Kevin. “We looked in Shek O, Yuen Long, at anything green. After Beijing we’d both had enough of the city and the pollution,” Maria interjects. On top of which she admits a new appreciation for her tiny hometown’s cleanliness and greenery, and found it best duplicated in DB.
“And we’re qualified for DB now, we have a cat, and a baby on the way,” Kevin chimes in.
COC was always in the cards for Kevin. “I think I wanted to be a designer when I was five years old. And even when I was a student I was focused on environmental architecture. I didn’t even know it,” he recalls.
After graduating from the London University Bartlett School of Architecture and working for a pair of architecture firms there, he came home and worked at a few firms locally before striking out on his own. The turn towards environmental design was a process, one that followed so- called ‘normal’ design work, and the realisation that there’s a great deal of misunderstanding about what exactly environmental or sustainable design is.
“In 2013 I started getting a bit more recognition for [my] environmental design, and since last year we focused completely on it,” Kevin says. “If a client wants us to do interiors, I will introduce a lot of environmental technologies. For example, we’re working with a new technology that can clean the environment of your house without a machine – through the material. It uses chemical process through sunlight that is non-toxic. We’re the first to use this. Or we introduce upcycling through furniture, and if clients need this knowledge I’m happy to teach them.”
It was a wise move: Kevin’s won a dozen design awards in a relatively short career in Milan, Beijing, London, Tokyo, Chicago and New York, and he has been a guest speaker or featured exhibitor in Valencia, Dublin and Munich. Suffice it to say when he posits an opinion on Hong Kong design and its sustainability footprint, he knows what he’s talking about.
Getting the word out
“Hong Kong is not that forward thinking; interiors are still very archaic,” Kevin says. “It’s not like Singapore or Germany, there’s still a lot of solid materials like marble and gold. We’re behind the rest of Asia, and we lag behind even compared to China, which is really into the green look and movement.”
Get him started on sustainable, green design and Kevin’s got plenty to say. He’s not so much a believer that form follows function, rather it should work for function; he is firm that aesthetics are every bit as valid in design.
He sees design eras as products of their political zeitgeists, the current one being the environmental movement as a result of the urgency of climate change. He agrees that policy in Hong Kong is stunting sustainability, and an economy, rooted in land sales and property taxes, is never going to be one that can effectively respond to the demands of green building.
Kevin is convinced that environmental education is still needed in the SAR. Until Hongkongers opt out of spending extra cash in a casino or on a fancy sofa, until there’s a wider understanding of ideas as valuable – that an upcycled cardboard lamp isn’t necessarily ‘cheap’ – there will be little movement on sustainability. For now, it’s trendy, and that helps, but passing the buck hurts.
“The answer is always, [Hong Kong’s] not as bad as China,” Kevin says. “That’s true, but it’s far worse than Europe or North America.” “In China, it’s a matter of political stability now. People are suffering with the pollution, so the government is looking at green energy and designers are pushing sustainable products,” adds Maria. “Maybe that kind of demand doesn’t exist in Hong Kong.”
In the meantime, COC (yes, Kevin is fully aware of what that looks like, and he’s endlessly amused by it) is working with the aforementioned sunlight technology on sustainable interiors, and on incorporating another one that involves some revolutionary environment cleansing. And he’s hoping to launch his own upcycled furniture brand down the road.
As it stands, COC does a lot of work in China and Europe, though as a local Kevin would love to do more here at home. And even though things could be better, COC’s profile is rising and he’s getting the word out.
“Someone needs to break the mould,” Kevin finishes. “You can’t think money every day.”
Images: Baljit Gidani – www.evoqueportraits.comTags: Environmental design, kevin chu, chu original creations, upcycling