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December 5, 2010

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Architect's exploration into changing space

A kind of "wow!" moment often occurs when entering Tom Pen and Yvonne Chau's home on tree-lined Anfu Road, located on one of the city's most desired residential blocks.

Fluid space planning, random pieces of modern design furniture and collected art give this newly wed couple's home a distinct personality.

"My previous apartment was just opposite but I wanted a bigger space to live in. The reason I chose this 300-square-meter apartment so close to my old house is because of the location," Pen said.

"Actually, I liked the overall building design compared to other high-rises in the city. This flat has a unique-shaped interior layout: it is narrow and long with a lot of windows. Most typical apartments have barrier walls and the rooms become very defined," he added.

The American Taiwanese architect worked for Michael Graves' New York office after receiving a Bachelor of Architecture from Syracuse. He entered Harvard's Graduate School of Design to further pursue personal design interests and started practicing on his own in New York in 2001.

In 2003, after extensive travels to China, he reestablished TP/A in Shanghai, and has been actively involved in the design and supervision of each project. Pen also started the MRKT product line with a focus on fashion accessories and home goods.

For his own house, Pen saw the potential of the space and was up to the challenge of creating an interesting interior based on the unique shape. "This residential compound is 10 years old so everything is run-down a little bit. That's why I did not mind tearing everything down and started to design from scratch."

The original state was a four-bedroom layout. It was worlds apart from the airy loft it is now.

Walls that delineated the living and dining areas, and those around original bedrooms were all torn down. He left the spaces open and fluid so that they could be customized to suit the occupant's lifestyle and living preferences.

The priority was to let in lots of natural light and ventilation, according to Pen, who undertook the extreme makeover including creating floor-to-ceiling windows to open up the space and allow sunlight and fresh air to enter.

For visual continuity and design consistency, Pen kept to a few basic materials - a lot of wood, natural stones and steel.

Basically there is no paint in this place because "the paint in China is never well done."

"I kept thinking of it as my log cabin so I decided to use a combination of natural materials but done in a refined, modern way," Pen said.

"As a designer, the first step was to think of the overall layout and to experiment with different materials." Combinations like steel with wood and steel with stone that decorate the walls and ceilings worked out beautifully. "It is about the balance between the color, texture and taste. With different combinations of materials the space doesn't look too rustic," he said.

To conceal the few structural beams that marked out the different areas, Pen installed wood ceiling panels. He started to draw some lines and created a sort of geometry to break up the overall wooden ceiling. Pink and green color panels were also introduced to give a warm feeling because Chau complained the overall state was a bit too muscular.

The house might have possibly broken certain rules but that was Pen's intention. The aim was to break up the typical cellular structure that defines most interiors, so that the owners will be confronted to find their own preferences and how they want to live out the space.

The whole point was like an experimental journey for Pen but he does regret sometimes that the ceiling with intensive design might be a little too complicated, which actually makes the space less homey.

Peek into any corner of the home and there's no denying Pen's eye for design. This creative area was the result of an exercise of space-making ingenuity. "A lot of my taste and inspiration comes from loft spaces in New York, where there is maximum open space layout to accommodate living and dining."

The open-concept allows for many chill-out pockets of space - the large windows overlooking the hectic traffic, the seating area, sleek kitchen counter and Pen's designer pool table forming the central activity spot for buddies who pop over for drinks and playing pool.

The living/dining area is the heart of the home. Tucked behind the kitchen area is Pen's fitness room where he transformed an extra room into a workout space with all the comforts of home. Instead of the gym's sterile walls, this room has a green-colored felt wall. Italian-designed Technogym equipment further reinforces the room's soothing ambiance. But the couple will change the room into a nursery as they are expecting their first baby in March.

The other end of the flat comprises of the master bedroom, master bathroom, a walk-in closet and the study.

The bedroom's moss-green felt wall and floral-pattern ceiling gives a restful effect where the worries of the day melt away. The large-size bathroom, even bigger than the bedroom, is a stunning, ultra-sleek sanctuary with state-of-the-art facilities. "If I could help, I would rather have the best views in the bathroom. It's the space that I am most creative," Pen said.

Pen's proud collection of designer furniture adds further pizzazz and color to the rooms and the living area shows off Pen's panache for mixing ultra-modern with classics. "I either purchase furniture pieces from designer brands or custom make them. I try to design something very clean, geometric, and in some cases, quite colorful."

Pen loves furniture having roots in classicism. "That is a simplified classicism with some modern geometry that you will discover from a lot of pieces that I designed," he said. "I am very old school in many ways."

On the walls hangs Pen's collection of contemporary paintings. And your mind is always stimulated with all kinds of fun, creative and artistic items scattered around. For the couple, it's good to know that after a long day, they can come home to a place they will be comfortable in, surrounded by their favorite things.

Q: What's the best thing about living in Shanghai?

A: I can hire more people to help me in all aspects of life.

Q: Describe your home in three words.

A: A diamond inside an apple.

Q: What's the first thing you do when you get home?

A: Strip.

Q: How do you unwind?

A: I like to stop using my brain and jog on my machine.

Q: Where do you spend most of the time at home?

A: On the well-worn patch on my leather sofa.

Q: What's the best view from your window?

A: My balcony with flowers and a breakfast table.

Q: What's your favorite object at home?

A: My Toto toilet – it's fully automated!

Q: Where do you source furniture in Shanghai?

A: I either custom-make them or buy from places like Design Republic.


Who is he?

German designer Stefan Diez studied industrial design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart. He set up his own studio in Munich in 2003, where he develops furniture, products and exhibition designs for several clients such as Rosentha, Authentics, Elmar Flototto, Thonet and Moroso.

Tell us some of your works, and name the one you are most proud of.

One would be really difficult, but I think it's the E15 collection at the moment for me because it has aspects that are very unusual for a (crafted) chair.

I think it's a good piece. I also like my work for the project with Wilkhahn. It's also a chair project that was launched at the Orgatec this year, and presented three years ago.

It's a chair made from sheet metal. Another project I'm proud of is the "Papier" bag project in collaboration with Saskia with a series of bags entirely made of synthetic paper.

I think it explains a facet in our work, or with Saskia's work, which deals with the perception of quality and also to look for a new perspective in this perception.

What I mean is, trying to find out what is valuable or where value can be perceived without using traditional methods. Of course you can make a valuable bag using the best leather, with the happiest cow, the best craftsman, at the beautiful countryside.

This is the storytelling that works with a lot of brands, but I think there's much more possible. It's not just about the material.

Are you currently involved with any project?

Yes, a very interesting project for me is working for the German bag manufacturer Bree with its background in leather-crafted heavy-duty school bags and business bags, in a way partly redesigning their portfolio but also coming out with new designs. By doing this, I have to understand how the projects are linked together and how is this working in the context of this company.

I personally like this kind of complexity in work. It is touching the brand identity, of course, a lot. In our generation of design, many design offices work like brands themselves.

Sometimes designers become brands by themselves, sometimes you feel like it's a collaboration between two companies, like co-branding, you have the designer and the company.

But I'm quite critical to this, at least for my work I try to not stand in the first row. That's why working for E15 was a lot of fun because everything was just so much in order; the ideas and the purpose was clear.

Describe your design style.

I think I don't have a style, yet the projects are very much linked to each other. It's this link between the making of a product and the look of a product, and also this curiosity of material which is an important aspect of my work. Many of my projects have a technical aspect, which gives a surprising twist to the material and the looks.

But for the style I would say it's minimalistic, but I'm not looking for formal minimalism. It's the minimalism at a more middle level, which is minimalism concentrating on one idea, not trying to pack too many stories.

Where are you most creative?

In my studio. I have my Sundays for sketching. Usually during the week I work with my colleagues in my office and we work intensively on projects.

I have very little time during the week to think about a big idea, during the week we are more into details, into organization, into solving problems which get in the way.

But the weekend, Sunday, is really my holiday for sitting alone in the office, listening to loud music and not taking phone calls, reading the newspaper, having a lot of coffee. The office is peaceful, you have everything to yourself, you can work in the workshop, you can make a mess, I really love it.

What does your home mean to you?

I feel most comfortable when I'm surrounded not by my existing work but by my pieces that are just emerging. I feel most comfortable in my studio. If I want to relax I'm always in my studio.

We designed and furnished it in a way that we really like, it's not so much only committed to work, and work and living are very much linked.

My home is really just a space for a couple of bedrooms and a breakfast table. It's such a luxury to know the office is close, and I have all this space for myself, so if the children are with me, then they have a lot of space to play.

What do you collect?

I don't collect. We collect so much just for my work - details, pieces, materials. I don't feel any collecting besides that, no stamps, no classical furniture, nothing like that. Not yet, maybe one day, later on, I don't know.

Where would you like to go most in Shanghai?

I would love to walk through the city and see how it is. It's my first time in Shanghai, coming from the airport I saw the Expo site which looks empty now but still very nice. I actually hope that someone is taking us around a little bit, ideally seeing a mix of Shanghai 1930s architecture and local lifestyle and culture.

What will be the next big design trend?

Trends are usually not long lasting. For example, eco-friendly products should be more than a trend; it should be part of every project. I don't care about trends at all.

I travel a lot, I see a lot and I think all this is somehow reused in some way in my work. I think many companies will think this is one of the basic qualities of a designer that the designer knows the trends before the trend is there, right?

But in my case it is not like this so I also have no idea what the next big trend is. I don't think we are making a trend, considering my work.

It's part of my work to continuously think about reinventing oneself, and by that you are developing your own style, and that in the end is a trend for me.

We try to work with engineers and manufacture offices before we even design the object. You have to learn to live with the material; you have to understand how it flows and the nature of the material, and once this is done you can design much easier.


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