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Stylish chef creates tasteful surroundings

ALTHOUGH there is no room for waste or error when you are planning the layout of a small apartment, there is plenty of space for big ideas to make even the tiniest area work efficiently.

Craig Willis' one-bedroom apartment might at first glance look like the toughest design challenge, but in many ways there are advantages the chef has proved to living in a small apartment - it's efficient, less wasteful in terms of unused space and, on top of everything, small can be beautiful.

When everyone else is wanting a bigger apartment to accommodate city life, Willis is satisfied living in a small flat in which to recharge and relax, and to immerse in a distinct local neighborhood lifestyle.

Originally from Australia's northern New South Wales, he came to Shanghai a decade ago working as a guest chef at M on the Bund, and then Wagas group chef until now with his own restaurant bearing his name.

"Now Shanghai is my home, I'm much more comfortable than in Australia. I like the old things. There is a lot of old culture, skills, materials here, and I love living in this old neighborhood," he said.

My first encounter with Willis was at his restaurant Mr Willis on Anfu Road where he has shown his creative state of mind both in the dishes and his decoration concept. The restaurant features a warm intimate ambience with couches, carpets, good lighting and an open layout, as Willis wants people to feel like they are sitting in a comfortable living room instead of a stiff, cold restaurant.

When he opened the door to his home, there was a similar sense of warmth and comfort wafting through the air. He opted for an old 50-square-meter flat to rent six years ago. It comprises a main room, a balcony, a small storage room, a bathroom and a tiny kitchen.

"I was looking for an old apartment with lots of natural, nice neighborhood atmosphere and an empty interior. I would not live in a modern high-rise without small shops and local food stores around as I observed a sense of community is missing there," he said. "I enjoy being alone but also feel the need to have people around me."

Because the apartment was originally built as a hotel room in the 1930s, there was no need for a separate bedroom and a living room or extensive kitchen facilities.

The space operates like a studio, with a bed-cum-lounging area in the living room and two sets of French windows that slide open to provide a seamless transition to the balcony. Opening up the balcony lends a light, airy feel to the living room.

Without much change to the original layout, Willis created a simple, flexible living space. "I prefer to live in a room that is open, and features many windows, room for tables and walls for paintings - I always have projects laid out: some drawings here, some menus there," he said.

Willis was looking to capture a feeling rather than any particular style. Old-world ambience abounds, with wooden floors, original floor tiles and lots of antiques, including tables, chairs and porcelain bowls.

He creates a relaxed look for the bed-cum-lounging living area by teaming a sofa with classic chairs and old Afghan carpets. Willis says he prefers subtle background colors so stronger accents can then be introduced by means of rugs and artworks.

"When I first came here, I really enjoyed the emptiness," Willis said. But now he is thrilled at how the flat has been transformed. He surrounds himself with all his favorite things - mixing furniture, paintings, knick-knacks of different periods and styles.

Willis is a huge fan of antiques, and each area in the flat has an eclectic mix of his collection. He also loves to keep things simple, which can be hard for one who loves antiques. It's all about knowing how to arrange, when to stop, otherwise the home begins to resemble a junk shop.

"I have an eye for picking up neglected pieces out of the trash," he said. In order to use the space effectively, Willis even utilized wall space for decorative displays. Everywhere you turn in his flat, something special catches the eye, even in the nooks and crannies.

The treasures include the Shanxi stools from Hu & Hu Antiques, old carpets from northeast Afghanistan, blue and white porcelain bowls, and small pieces sourced from junk markets around China.

Tactile materials also play a major role: linen bedding and Kyrgyz carpets provide a softer feel in the space and evoke the sense of escapism that the owner was looking for.

Willis designed a flat that features problem-solving ideas, along with a pleasing color palette and a carefully planned furniture arrangement. The home needed to serve as the living room, bedroom, dining room, bathroom, kitchen and the storage room - all in a relatively small area.

When you have a place, if you decorate it well, it doesn't have to be expensive or big. You can make the most of it through creativity and ingenuity alone, just like how Willis did it.

Ask the owner

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

A: Shanghai is a dynamic and exciting place with many opportunities. For my home and my restaurant I especially like the feeling of old Shanghai, the former French Concession, old trees, lanes and communities.

Q: Describe your home in three words.

A: Open, many windows, walls for paintings.

Q: How do you unwind?

A: To unwind after work I love to throw open the windows and play some music, read and sometimes paint - most of my time is spent at the restaurant!

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

A: View is not important, there is light, sunshine, sounds and smells coming through the windows - I love the bells and songs of the hawkers and peddlers and everyday my neighbors prepare their lunch, cleaning vegetables, chopping, cooking.

Q: Where do you source furniture in Shanghai?

A: I have many things collected from many places. I love my red and indigo Kyrgyz carpet from northeast Afghanistan, purchased from Carpetstan on Yanqing Road, which warms the room with its rich colors and its history. I notice it every time I walk on it. I also love the Shanxi stools from Hu & Hu Antiques: they are solid yet twisted, all different. Most of my things come from junk markets on Dongtai Road and Fangbang Road.


Who is he?

Daniel Fintzi. Originally from Tel Aviv, Israel, Fintzi has studied and worked in the field of interior and product design in Milan, Paris and London. He was feeling a bit sluggish in Europe, so following a friend's advice Fintzi came to Shanghai to take part in a brief project, and four years later he is still here.

Describe your works and some you are especially proud of.

A nice thing about Shanghai is the variety of industries and people, plus the vicinity to manufacturing. These factors have given me an opportunity to work on projects of different scale and for clients in various locations, from cutlery and furniture for the Italian market, fashion store display systems in Sydney to Shanghai interiors. A favorite personal project that comes to mind is one of a spoon entirely molded from caramelized sugar. In my eyes this project has a perfect balance between the shape, function, material and irony.

Are you currently involved in any particular project?

An interesting project I am working on at the moment is a commercial outdoor chair. We have taken a slightly different road while thinking of a new chair which will be easy and fast to manufacture here. A great deal of research went into various locally copied items of furniture and their evolution according to the market's demand. This is the main inspiration for this project. It looks interesting on paper and I hope it will be so in reality as well.

Describe your design style.

Styling is not my style. Design is not art, working solely on styling can result in a very superficial outcome. The work is about confronting a situation, problem or a need through a process of trial and error, eventually coming up with the right solution for the situation, which has to fulfill the needs of the client, the capabilities of the manufacturer and the dreams of the user.

Where are you most creative?

Creativity is not a specific state or feeling so it's hard to pinpoint when it does "occur." Like everybody I just respond to stimulations, these responses sometimes translate to some new projects.

What does your home mean to you?

After living constantly as a foreigner for the last decade, home is not necessarily a place. It can be also a feeling. I feel very much at home when having a nice home-cooked meal with people close to me.

What do you collect?

Collecting in my opinion is a mental disorder. We do have a lot of DVDs in the apartment, though I would not call it a collection.

Where would you like to go most in Shanghai?

Strangely enough, I have been coming down with a slight case of vertigo recently. A trip on the glass-floored observatory of the bottle opener (aka SWFC) might be the cure. They also say it has a pretty good food court downstairs.

What will be the next big design trend?

The next big trend will be "made in China." People are always looking for new and refreshing stuff. Once China gives them some they will be happy to go out and buy it!


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