We sit down with co-founder of AB Concept, Ed Ng, to discuss inspiration, travelling, AB Concept's latest launch and what the the word 'luxury' really means.
In the heart of the Four Seasons, Ten Trinity Square sits the Rotunda Lounge – a stylish circular room set beneath an ornate, art-deco domed ceiling. I am extremely aware of my footsteps on the polished, tiled floor of the lounge as I make my way to meet Ed Ng, one of the co-founders of Hong Kong based design firm AB Concept. Dressed in a smart suit, Ed greets me with a warm handshake. We immediately begin to discuss our awe-inspiring surroundings.
“It was designed by Bruno,” Ed explains nonchalantly. He is referring to the renowned Parisian designer Bruno Moinard, who designed the space with colleague Claire Betaille. It is not the Rotunda that we have come to see, however. Instead, we make our way around one side of the room and through a corridor, coming to the entrance of Mei Ume: the hotel’s signature Asian restaurant. Currently hidden behind a glass panel dotted with exquisitely detailed plum blossoms, the restaurant was designed and put together by the animated Hong Kongese gentleman that walks beside me.
Mei Ume, Ed tells me, is AB Concept’s first project in London. “As a first project in the city – in the Four Seasons, as a signature restaurant,” he exclaims, “it’s one of the best examples [of a debut] we can find.” We walk the length of the restaurant while Ed points out the blend of styles that feature in the room; Corinthian columns, mixing with Japanese silk bamboo art and vibrant red accents that symbolise ‘luck’ in Chinese culture.
“I feel very at home working on a project here,” Ed responds when I ask about designing projects in Europe, and London specifically. “[In] Hong Kong, we’ve been groomed to be very British - we’ve been under the British system, the whole professional language and drawing system is very British. The only thing is, in Hong Kong, we don’t have [as many] heritage buildings, so that’s something we really enjoy [about the UK].”
Ten Trinity Square is a Grade II listed building, so for their design of Mei Ume Ed and his co-founder Terence “had to have a few meetings with the Heritage consultant; London is very sophisticated in knowing exactly how to give you enough flexibility without destroying the heritage. I thought [it] was very important that they allowed for that flexibility, because otherwise we would never have a new design, or a new building. I always believe that design should have a challenge, should have a restraint, I think that a brief without constraint is just not a design – it becomes an art piece.”
Ed gestures to the ceiling of the restaurant, as we stand by the large, street-facing windows. The lights, he explains, became one of the biggest challenges of the Mei Ume restaurant design when the heritage consultant mentioned they should avoid down lighting. “Now you’ve given me a restriction,” Ed continues, “I can think of how I will light the tables without down lighting – that’s the fun part. This is a very important part of design methodology- it’s how we are challenged to come up with a new solution.” Looking around at the lighting - subtly hidden at the top of the Columns; chic lamps dotted along the windowsills; round halo lights that section each table from each other - it’s clear that it’s a solution that paid off.
The immaculate dining room is set next to a long, multipurpose marble bar. Here, guests can have a drink on golden stools, or watch a sushi chef at work, depending on their preference. The bar is accented by unique hanging lanterns and bespoke glass panelling reminiscent of running ink. Everything works together seamlessly, but of course it does - this is not the first restaurant that Ed has worked on in the high-end hospitality market. Others include the Rosewood in Sanya, China; it makes me wonder, why is the high-end market where AB Concept feel most comfortable?
“I’ve actually been asking myself that a lot,” Ed admits, “but I do think [that being] at this level gives you a very good advantage. If you design a restaurant, you want to make sure that the food is great and that the surface is immaculate –the success of the project is not just in the hardware. If the food is lousy or the service is bad, the project is dead, especially in highly competitive cities. If you have an amazing interior but everything [else] is not up to standard, sorry, it’s going to close,” he shrugs.
“So that’s why we love to partner with major players. Rosewood, the Four Seasons - these are the partners to work with because they have high respect for design; they know design is important but they also know how to keep your design going and they have high expectations. I mean, the food, the music, is everything – we are just part of the team. We cannot take all the credit, it’s a group effort.”
Curious diners watch as we exit the restaurant, preferring to continue our conversation over cups of tea in the Rotunda Lounge. Settling into a plush armchair, I ask Ed about AB Concept, and how the design firm that specialises in luxury projects started. “We – my partner Terence and I - started in 1999. I remember my friend’s home was next to the studio, and that was our first project. We designed it, and from there we did some smaller restaurants. Luckily, we got some exposure and Swire spotted us; one day the managing director saw a newspaper and said ‘this little company is kinda cool, let’s get them to design for us’ so I think that’s how everything started.”
I mention the fact that Ed’s partner (AB Concept co-founder, Terence Ngan) hasn’t joined him on his trip to London. “Terrance is extremely shy,” Ed says, by way of explanation. “He will be joining me in Paris but he likes to stay in the studio. He enjoys staying at his desk with all his floor plans and everything; he’s an architect, so he is more like ‘the guy who loves control’. I’m always teasing him,” he laughs, “he’s really like a control freak.”
Ed explains that both he and Terence work equally on all of AB Concept’s projects. It brings up the question of Ed’s role within the process, if Terence is the one who enjoys working on the planning. “I’m more spontaneous,” Ed reveals after a moment of thought, “I’m more about the emotional quality, about the experience and how I want people to feel [in the space. Terence is] more the logical side, more the logistics and rational side. I make sure the projects are worth that ‘Instagram moment’; make sure [the space] is exciting and the tone is right. I think it’s a very important combination.”
AB Concept also has a very unique standpoint in their industry, considering Ed’s background as a designer and Terence’s work as an architect. “One important advantage [of this is that] because of our profile, we can work with the top projects and amazing architectural firms,” Ed says with a smile. “They purposefully try to get us on board earlier because we can speak the same language as the firms and start moulding the interior spaces and to work for [project]. Once the space is set and formed, you can’t do much – but during the architectural design stage you have a lot of flexibility and can convey your idea with the design architect.”
“After the ‘space audit’,” he continues, “we leave the project for one or two years and then pick it up when the space has already been shaped to what we feel is appropriate. I think this has been giving us a very strong advantage because they know we have the calibre to even do it from ground zero.” I remark that this must mean working with a lot of different people, at the various stages of a project. Ed agrees: “One reason I like doing hospitality, is because it [allows me to] travel and work with different people in different parts of the world. There is always an on-going learning path for a designer.”
“For example,” he continues, “the other project that is going on in Europe is the W Resort in Algarve. [We got to] Portugal and started learning about the local arts, ceramics and the Mediterranean climate and [we] asked what the vegetation is like, the colours - and all this becomes new inspiration. It brings us diversity. These two projects in Europe - one is a restaurant in the banking district of London, one is by the ocean in Portugal, it’s by the beach. The extremes in diversity are something I’ve been enjoying.”
I note that there is also another project Ed hasn’t yet mentioned – the launch of their exclusive rug collection with Tai Ping, Nephele (which, at the time of writing, took place in the House of Tai Ping’s Paris showroom on the 18th January). “We’ve been developing with Tai Ping for two years on this collection,” Ed comments. The remarkable collection is comprised of four unique, hand crafted rugs which represent a different time of day: sunrise, midday, dawn and midnight, from a birds-eye view.
I ask Ed where the inspiration for such a unique set of designs came from. “Quite interestingly,” he begins, “a lot of the time I can think best is when I’m on a plane. “We’d been talking about collaboration with Tai Ping for a long time and they said ‘come up with an idea’. One day, I was [flying] to Paris [to visit the Tai Ping creative team] and thought: people in the old days, they always used to imagine ‘What is up there [in the sky?’ A lot classical buildings and ceilings, they might paint the sky…”
“Nowadays, you get so used to it [if you fly],” Ed continues, “I wondered what you would see if you had the same window on the plane and you looked downward; it’s beautiful terrain, it’s the mountains, you see the oceans. I’m always taking snapshots of what’s outside; at different times of the day; seeing the beautiful horizon; the clouds always look different – it’s just something that is endless inspiration of colour and texture, and I just thought ‘oh my god I’ve gotten the idea’!”
This brings us onto the topic of inspiration – after all, it seems like Ed and Terence take their inspiration from almost all areas of their lives, from their cultural heritage to the view outside the window of a jumbo jet. “You don’t need to be a particular style,” Ed explains, “which is something Terence and I really believe in. I don’t want you already knowing what exactly [my design] is going to be. Some designers you will – you’ll know their distinct style and that is all they do, but I would rather [make something] that it’s going to be a surprise.”
He goes on to explain this idea with the metaphor of being a chef: “I know how to cook, so now I’m trying new things, rather than have everything fly over with me (so you know exactly what I’m going to cook). I think this is the fun part about [working] locally- and maybe you will meet a new ingredient.” I ask if ‘ingredient’ is the metaphor for AB Concept using predominantly bespoke artists. Ed nods. “I can find an Italian company to do the floor panelling, another company to do wallpaper or enamel glass. It [becomes] several different projects together, you start building your database - and maybe I meet someone now with something I cannot use, but I can use it three years later.”
He pauses for a moment, and then continues carefully. “I think, as well, that the word luxury has been overly used. If everyone can have it, it’s no longer a luxury. I think that’s why bespoke has become a very important of what luxury means – uniqueness. A bespoke piece is going to be a one-off – it just has to be able to form a part of the story. [For example], there are two Four Seasons in London; this one is bespoke with the Tower Bridge location. It will not fit into the one in Park Lane - the interior itself, the Corinthian columns; the Park Lane one doesn’t have them. Even if you forced me to design exactly the same restaurant, [because of their environments] they will not be the same. I think that’s why the location and everything is so unique and important.”
It’s another reason, Ed thinks, why high end brands like the Four Seasons come back to the creative studio time and time again. “They know you will be doing something so differently from the last project,” he says enthusiastically, “and that you will have that consistency of being different.”
Finally, I ask Ed about any future AB Concept projects that he is excited about. Behind his stylish glasses, a mischievous glint appears in Ed’s eyes. His answer: the Vogue Lounge, Kuala Lumpur. “We’re working directly with Conde Nast,” he reveals, “It’s an amazing location – on a rooftop, overlooking the city centre. We have full access to all the archives of the Vogue images, which is amazing – but also where do you start? There are so many years of history and creativity, which is why it’s important to set the narrative and decide what you want. It’s a fun project, and so close to fashion; Terence and I believe fashion and interiors are so closely related. We are designing it now and hopefully in the second to third quarter this year, it will be finished - it’s definitely one of the projects this year!”
On that bombshell, our conversation comes to a close. As the co-founder of an internationally renowned high-end creative studio, Ed Ng has an incredibly busy, jet-setting schedule, and London is only the first stop on his European tour. Leaving the Four Seasons, Ten Trinity Square, I consider what has been most memorable about the day; not the beautiful Mei Ume restaurant – but the intelligent, passionate designer behind it.
This interview took place on Monday 15th January. At the time of writing, the launch of Nephele has taken place in Paris, with Ed Ng and Terence Ngan attending – the second leg of Ed’s European trip.