Hong Kong-based designer Andre Fu is bringing his magic to London, says Emma O’Kelly, with his creation Cinnabar on the 52nd floor of the city’s latest and Europe’s tallest tower, The Shard
In Asia if you want a drink, you can go to a bar, but if you want a bar, then you go to designer Andre Fu. In the past decade, British-educated and Hong Kong-based Fu has built himself a formidable reputation creating bars, restaurants and spas for some of Asia's finest hotels: the Fullerton Bay Hotel in Singapore, the Four Seasons in Suzhou, on mainland China and the Jia, Shanghai.
And soon if you want a drink in London and you want that drink to come with not only some nibbles, but a fantastic view too, you can head for the very hottest Andre Fu watering hole - Cinnabar on the 52nd floor of The Shard.
It's his latest collaboration with Hong Kong's Shangri-La group, which represents a generation of Asian hotels that take luxury to new levels. When its hotel opens next year from the 34th to the 52nd floor of The Shard, it will have 202 rooms over 18 floors, culminating in the bar and pool on the 52nd floor.
Excluding the viewing galleries on level 68, this is the building's highest public area and, like another of London's beaumonde haunts, Shoreditch House, it will be a tranquil mecca of health and fitness by day, a party-round-the-pool venue by night.
Fu is currently in the throes of designing the 600 sq m space. He has divided the area into 'chambers' around the pool to create a 'modern boudoir feel'. He lived in the UK for 14 years and understands how Londoners like to party (although he travels too much to be anything other than a modest drinker himself). 'The space needs to provide a visual backdrop to that, as well as bringing with it an Asian sensibility,' he says, adding emphatically 'but it is not ethnic'.
To this end, the bar area will be made from charcoaled oak and cinnabar, the red Chinese lacquer used in the Imperial Palace in Beijing, and there will be lots of bronze and deep lilac, 'like an Yves Saint Laurent palette'. He adds: 'Architecturally, it's a very clean space of glass and galvanised metal, so I'm introducing a degree of sensuousness.'
Expectations are high. London is not familiar with high-rise hedonism, and Fu knows it's his job to show how it's done. Plus, the bar is open to the public, though subject to capacity. Given its novelty value, namely that it's at the top of Europe's highest skyscraper, it will draw crowds. Fu says: 'I don't know how they will manage that but, this being London, there will no doubt be some guest-list stuff.'
For a man who has been up more skyscrapers than most Londoners have had fry-ups, he sounds genuinely enthusiastic about the 52nd floor space. 'It's amazing. The Shard's architect Renzo Piano has created a glass curtain wall which is 3m high, crisp, clear and really dramatic. I'm amazed by how good the view is. It's a great bird's-eye view.
'You imagine you are going to be really high up, but actually it's not that high and not at all alienating, as some of the skyscrapers in Hong Kong can be. Take the Ritz Carlton, from the 102nd to the 118th floor of a 490m-high tower. Up there, you feel a million miles away, and it's strange.'
Nearly a decade ago, Fu set up his practice AFSO, which currently employs 15 people, and since then he has worked on more than 30 high-rise projects, most recently the new Nadaman Restaurant at the Shangri-La, Tokyo. He explains: 'A sense of height is not uncommon in Asia and everyone aspires to having a bird'seye view. The scenic backdrop - be it the cityscape below or a picturesque garden - remains a backdrop. In skyscrapers, you must conjure up a sense of warmth and create comfortable, intimate spaces. To do this I create chambers of humane proportions and often use lanterns to fill rooms with a soft, golden glow.'
Fu was born in Hong Kong in 1975, and at 14 was sent to a British public school where he acquired an accent and British reserve. A degree from Cambridge University followed. In 2004, he headed back to Hong Kong, and it was perfect timing. Mainland China was booming and Hong Kong was crying out for international designers. The Upper House was his breakthrough project and it took him to another level. 'I was - and still am - in the right place at the right time,' he says. His internationalism and polished, high-end designs have led him to be dubbed 'the modern Asian man'.
How does he feel about this label? 'Well, I'm perched between Asia and Europe. My design is not purely Asian, nor is it a European interpretation of Asian. That's the unique thing. I'm in a very privileged position,' he says.
For Fu, London is a 'second home', and despite its challenges finds it an exciting place in which to work. He is currently creating a glass box addition to the Pavilion Suite of the Berkeley hotel, a large top-floor space with a terrace overlooking Hyde Park. The Berkeley is owned by the British group Maybourne (which also owns Claridge's and The Connaught), and it is almost the counterpoint to the Shangri-La group in its slow-paced conservatism. Fu understands it, embraces it even. Perhaps it's an oblique reminder of his university days?
Recently, Fu has been gaining 'design star' status. This year, during Milan's Salone del Mobile, he was one of a handful of Asian designers called on by Kvadrat to interpret the Danish company's Hallingdal 65 textile in a contemporary way. Last year, at a glitzy launch in Mayfair, he unveiled his collection of seven hand-tufted rugs for Hong Kong textile company Tai Ping (which is providing all the carpets for level 52 of The Shard).
For every project, Fu has everything, from furniture to lighting, made by hand in Thailand and China, 'so the proportions work exactly'. It's an approach that would be prohibitively expensive in the UK. For Cinnabar, he has commissioned 50 pieces of bespoke furniture.
What impact does he think The Shard will have on what is, essentially, a low-rise city? 'I know how controversial The Shard is. I can see that people are sceptical of such a building in Southwark. At the same time, everyone is looking at it as a symbol of recovery for London.
'But there is a captive market in that part of the South Bank, with the new White Cube Gallery and Richard Rogers' residential development at Tower Bridge. More worrying for me is how the infrastructure on the ground will handle it, given that it is already jam-packed around there. But, you know, people in London worry too much,' he laughs. 'In Hong Kong, we just go for it.'
When we turn to the mother of all go-getters - China - Fu launches into one of his obsessions - the notion of Chinese luxury and brand building on the mainland. 'Over the next decade I want to explore what modern Chinese luxury really is,' he says. 'It's quite astonishing. Things are changing so fast, yet the Chinese are still importing Western luxury. Because of my brand positioning, I'm exploring the niche, high-end route.' (He is currently creating interiors on a Tadao Ando resort in Hangzhou, opening in 2014).
'If we are able to cultivate an understanding of this market, these early brands will become leaders and others will follow. It will take a lot of endurance, but it's really very exciting.'
This article was first published in fx Magazine.