As a child, he would clamber onto the chaise then jump on it, as any seven-year-old would on a soft surface. Those playful moments are now a fond memory, though it’s 34 years later.
“Even after all that rough use, the leather is still supple,” says Bobby Cheng, running his slender fingers along the edge of the gray Cassina chair that belonged to his father and was placed in their family home, but which now resides in his Brewin Design Office (BDO), which he set up in 2012. “I keep it here for sentimental reasons.”
(Related: More luxury homes in Singapore and abroad)
This vintage piece is not the only familial inspiration in Cheng’s Henderson Road office, which Brewin moved into eight months ago. He came up with the idea of dedicating spaces to art in his work place, having been inspired by the art gallery on the first floor of his old home.
The name of his architecture and interior design firm is an ode to the street, Brewin Path, which is the location of the home where his grandfather Cheng Yik Hung raised his children in Hong Kong ’s Mid-Levels. The garment manufacturing company he founded in the 1950s eventually became retail and real estate conglomerate Wing Tai Holdings. Cheng’s father is Edmund, Wing Tai’s deputy chairman.
References to his roots continually manifest in his work and you wonder if the intention, even if subliminal, is to keep himself more connected and grounded, especially since he has lived nearly half his life away from family. He says: “I left for boarding school at the age of 12 and grew up too quickly. By 15, I was very independent and living alone in London. You pretend you’re an adult.
“Then you realise you’re 33 and your parents are in their 60s. You’re tired of traversing city to city and living in shoeboxes. That romance, fascination with living in another city in your 20s may be charming. But then you’re in your 30s, and you’re like, I miss home.”
To begin to comprehend his design sensibilities and introduce Bobby Cheng the architect and interior designer to bold-faced names in Singapore, one needs to start exactly from home.
ALL ROADS LEAD HOME
Cheng’s family home, in which he is photographed in these pages, has become a sort of temple for him and is where he returns for inspiration.
Designed by his architect-turned-real estate-developer father, together with renowned US architect Paul Rudolph who’s known for his Brutalist works including Singapore’s The Colonnade condominium and The Concourse, the three-storey L-shaped house is protected from plain view by swathes of bamboo trees.
A modern interpretation of a traditional Japanese residence, it was built over six years from 1998 to 2004, on the site of the first home, and features, in Japanese tradition, many smaller spaces rather than a few large ones, the liberal use of timber, and rice paper- clad rooms. It was Rudolph’s last work before he died in 1997.
Being in the company of top architecture minds from a young age has shaped Cheng’s perception of design, to say the least. “I’ve always known architecture to be in my blood. The home I grew up in is a reflection of the way my dad would do things. It was an extremely organised home,” says Cheng, who was born in Pittsburg, US, and moved to Singapore when he was four.
“He designed all our rooms, right down to where toys were kept. The living and dining rooms were always formal, and we knew never to have toys there. The rooms we could play in would have enough storage, tables for us to put our toys on and had sufficient space for us to play. From an early age, I knew there was a purpose for each space, formality for a room.
“He’s my biggest critic. When you have someone who doesn’t mince his words, it becomes a very enriching process because you can look at your projects from a different angle. To have a mentor right in your family, someone with a more experienced eye – it’s invaluable.”
SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT
At 17, Cheng left boarding school in the UK for Rhode Island School of Design in the US. It was at the institution that he felt the empowerment of being an artist. “People were committed to what they were doing,” he recalls. He later did his Master of Architecture in Urban Design at Harvard Graduate School of Design. “You find people who believe in their art form, invite you to their studio, show you their paintings and talk you through it. To see the work and hear it being explained in person – not through an A4 thesis – was really inspiring for me.”
It was his time at New York’s Tsao & McKown Architects – the firm that designed Suntec City – that introduced him to the possibilities of customisation. Founder Calvin Tsao was a mentor and, aside from architecture, the firm had a wide design scope, creating everything and anything, from a tap and side of a building to a door handle and, even, a floral arrangement for a Christie’s auction dinner. “It opened up the world of design, regardless of the scale/type of work, and to be holistic about it,” Cheng says.
You see this demonstrated throughout his portfolio, whether it is a custom marble dining table for a luxury showflat that would be torn down in a matter of months, one- of-a-kind rugs for residences and hotels, or a hand-poured glass facade for The Hour Glass storefront to mimic the facets of precious stones.
In 2008, he moved to Paris to train under celebrated French architect and Pritzker Prize winner Jean Nouvel. “He was the boss who never spoke to me because I don’t speak French,” quips Cheng. “He’s a true artist. Every single building he’s done is different, and yet there’s a common spirit although it’s not immediately recognisable. His work is cinematic, poetic and utterly unexpected.”
“HE WAS THE BOSS WHO NEVER SPOKE TO ME BECAUSE I DON’T SPEAK FRENCH.”
BOBBY CHENG, ON FRENCH ARCHITECT AND PRITZKER PRIZE WINNER JEAN NOUVEL
Yet those three and half years in Paris were also his loneliest. “You always see London, Paris, New York and Tokyo being mentioned in the same breath, but living in Paris was not something I had prepared for. I didn’t like the loneliness there. But, on the other hand, because of that, I spent a lot of time in museums and at antique shops, and was immersed in the old world. “I guess you could say that solitude shaped my design. I’ve always been introverted – I’m not the type of boss who takes the group for beers. So in a sense, there’s an added urge to let my work speak for itself.”
While most firms would deliver a showflat in two months, Cheng and his team took a painstaking nine months, because of the intensity of research and the design process they undertook.
“These days, I ask myself if it makes a difference, to apply so much effort in doing it,” Cheng says. “The answer is no, it doesn’t as long as it sells apartments. So we’ve stopped doing showflats. I’d rather stop doing something than get jaded and cut corners.”
The designer’s thoughtfulness shows in the recently completed penthouse at luxury residential tower The Morgan in Hong Kong. He and his team spent over a year on its interiors, sourcing for materials across the globe including Australia (timber pieces), Spain (black Marquina marble) and the US (Brooklyn for light fixtures).
Whether it is a 30m wide Calico wallpaper custom designed to add a hint of flamboyance to the sophisticated living room, lighting fixtures and furniture designed by Cheng to create visual interest with their shapes and textures, or celebrating the penthouse’s expansive 1,461 sq ft terrace with a lone bonsai plant set against a view of Victoria Peak’s vast green slopes, these chess moves reveal the rigours of his architectural training.
Even though the 11-strong BDO does mainly interior design now, Cheng says architectural principles permeate his practice.
“Thinking about design in a craft-oriented approach is very important and natural to me. I feel that the best design and architecture should celebrate how an item is made and put together – each has its own logic, research, back story and concept. A good building shows that in its form.” He contrasts this with the works of some interior designers who splash on beautiful colours and patterns. “That’s almost stage set design,” he says. “It’s a skill but it’s also purely decoration.”
To create storage for Pontiac Land Group director Evan Kwee’s penthouse, he took inspiration from one of Kwee’s favourite artists, Donald Judd, and his horizontal wall works called Progressions. He laid stone travertine slabs on metal sheets supported by wood vertical structures, ultimately resulting in a feature wall of sculpting lattice cubes.
For The Yoga School set up by Dawn Chan on the 39th floor of the OCBC building last year, he took reference from yoga’s philosophy of five koshas (or layers of being) to create a “journey” for practitioners – from the inviting entrance foyer whose walls are clad in American Walnut timber veneer to a living space that emulates a residential living room where conversations and interactions take place and, finally, a bare yoga studio that offers expansive views of the sky.
Currently, he is working on a local home, to be designed to look like a barn, for a real estate titan; the refurbishment of Capella Singapore hotel rooms; as well as an office complex in Shanghai, where he intends to juxtapose terracotta against marble in the lobbies. “It’s natural, sustainable and historical,” explains Cheng of the interesting choice of material.
He is zealous about these building blocks of craft. The heart of BDO is his library of materials in the loft. Here, countless marble slabs, fabric swatches, stone specimens and wood samples are lined up row after row, shelf after shelf. This is where Cheng spends most mornings and where client meetings take place. There are also plans to install 3-D printers and flatbed laser cutters to churn out true-to-form custom furniture prototypes.
Boxes of timber for every purpose – for joinery and floors to wall panelling – and of different colours and sizes fill up floor-to-ceiling shelves that line one side of the room. Stone slabs take up significant space too, and are neatly arranged across a low cabinet that runs the entire length of one wall.
This “obsession” is a necessity, Cheng says. “I feel that without a complete and efficient palette of materials at hand, the bandwidth of a designer is limited. It is the thousands of materials in sight that help me find a solution for a project. So, if I’m looking for a grey with a tinge of green, I’d make sure this piece of fabric is in a ziplock bag with a code that is input into the computer and with data about the project it was used in previously. This is also a way I can expand my thoughts.
“We prefer to work with international contractors because they do things more traditionally and don’t cut corners. Even when it comes to construction techniques, a foreign vendor has better facilities and machinery. In China, they have better, bigger machines that can cut huge slabs of marble. In Australia, you have artisanal carpenters who still believe in their trade. I’ve been asked to visit a workshop in Australia to review timber grain directions, where raw veneer sheets meant for room-cladding would be laid out on the factory floor for inspection.” The practice is more common for stone cladding than wood.
His top three materials.
“You can show off various qualities of a tree by cutting solid timbers in different methods. Every piece is different, and so the hunt for the right colour, grain and pattern becomes part of the design process. This material continues to breathe, move, age and change over time.”
“The whole process of melting glass and pouring it into moulds is fascinating. It is a material that we take for granted because it is so common, but when seen in a more artisanal process, that immediately changes the perception of it. The result is usually more unpredictable, relying on a skilled glassmaker who has to anticipate its change in the design process.”
“I love using it in its solid form for furniture pieces. I have samples of almost every stone type available in this region. In our library, this section is arranged by colour, and to a point where we would have different beiges within this hue, or similarly with whites, greys or blacks, the three shades that are most commonly used.”
The inconsistencies in product quality and contractors’ reliability are why Cheng is considering setting up his own manufacturing workshop. He likens BDO to a bridge between its go-to vendors/ fabricators and the marketplace.
“A big part of the firm is trying to constantly link global vendors. A more typical firm may rely on contractors to find resources. We’d rather go to contractors with the stone and tell them to go to that particular contact because they have exactly what we want.”
This expansion plan is also his way of ensuring the firm’s financial longevity, without sacrificing the soul of the firm – design.
“So instead of being a service provider,” he says, “can we get into a business that still incorporates design and research, and manufactures components for the home in a mass produced way? I still find it a challenge to imagine what going mass means.”
“The other answer is to stay small and not have more than eight to 10 projects a year. But it’s hard to imagine being in your mid-50s with four kids doing just that. Still, I’d rather burn out doing things I love than cop out.”