For Hong Kong-based architect Nelson Chow, 2021 was a busy year. His award-winning studio, NC Design & Architecture Ltd., completed several high-profile projects that made global headlines.
Chow, who was raised in Hong Kong and Canada, has a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Waterloo in Canada but also a menswear tailoring certificate from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.
Before starting his own studio, he worked in the New York City office of the international design and concept firm AvroKO, then the Edge Design Institute in Hong Kong.
His innovative residential and commercial spaces offer sophisticated references to pop culture and history and also act as experiential entertainment.
Here, he talks about his inspirations and ideas, and what he’s planning next.
You’re known for using architecture to tell stories. What’s the story behind the space-themed Faye, the sky-high club you designed that opened in April 2021 in Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong district?
Faye was inspired by Space Carnival, which is in the penthouse of the California Tower, an iconic skyscraper in Lan Kwai Fong. Its predecessor, Volar, had been an institution in the district for over a decade. It had carnival ponies, which people would always take photos with. The owner really wanted to bring that back. So that’s how the carnival theme started. Given its location at the penthouse and the panoramic view of the city, we wanted to reinterpret a carnival and give it a futuristic twist and imagined it as a spaceship. This kind of story gives meaning to any design.
One of your other 2021 projects—Memento, the pop-up for Louis Vuitton’s Objets Nomades collection of travel-inspired furniture—transformed two floors of the historic Pedder Building in Hong Kong into an imaginary seaside mansion. What inspired that design?
It was important to bring an element of Hong Kong into the design, so we imagined the space as a seaside mansion. It’s pulled apart like pieces of a puzzle, each representing a special unique moment. References to old mansions found in Hong Kong are reinterpreted through architectural details in a contemporary manner. Visitors navigate between these different “moments.”
Memento also had a sensory component, which is a rather novel feature in architecture
There are 10 rooms, and each entices a different sensory experience. We wanted to make the experience truly immersive.
The living room mimics the feeling of morning in spring, so there are two windows in it, and each of them has artificial sunlight behind, and a slight wind blows the curtain in a slow motion. In the meditation lounge, we used metal with a ripple texture to create light reflections on the wall mimicking the feeling of water, and we played a gong sound to give a meditative feeling. In the garden, we implemented green walls and bird sounds and infused it with a floral scent.
Several of your projects provide a cinematic sense of mystery. In the nightclub PDT (Please Don’t Tell) in Hong Kong, guests slip up a clandestine staircase to gain access to a private bar via a vintage telephone booth. And in the nightclub Foxglove in Hong Kong, visitors touch a carved silver handle to enter its exclusive inner sanctum. What do these features add to the experience?
PDT has a long tradition back in New York of having a phone booth, so when it came to designing its second outpost at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong hotel, we needed to respect the original identities while developing a new narrative that suits the site. We developed a story about a butler having a secret drinking spot in the hotel room accessed via a sophisticated phone booth. Once the visitor dials the number, the curtain rotates and the audience sees the dressing mirror hidden behind the curtain—it’s a phone booth that doubles as a changing room for the butler—and the mirrored doors then open up to reveal the secret bar.
Foxglove is a hidden jazz club behind an umbrella shop, carrying the famous Fox umbrellas from England, so the outside looks like a museum for the umbrellas, which are famed for their decorative animal-head handles. When visitors press the handle of the fox-head umbrella, the lighting dims and one of the display cabinets opens to reveal a cruise-ship-like interior, bringing the audience back in time to an earlier era where jazz was played in cruise cabins.
Your work, which you’ve described as the intersection of art and architecture, has been the subject of many articles. Is there anything about your work that all the writers have missed?
Everything to me is equally important, whether it is the architecture, interiors, furniture, lighting, art, as they all contribute to the overall experience, so unlike some architects who may look down on the role of interior designers, I see the importance of all these mediums in a project. My training as an architect has provided me with a strong foundation in designing buildings and the urban environment, and menswear tailoring has helped me shift my focus into looking at the finer details.
Your projects also tend to reference the luxuries of the past.
Each period has its own look and feel, and we usually begin by researching all sorts of reference images we like for the project—whether it’s furniture, space, or art—then develop a design that is relevant.
Walk us through your design process.
We start by listening to the client and looking at the site. Good design should have a connection to its surroundings, so the designer should try to understand the spirit of the place. Mrs Pound is a stamp shop with a restaurant behind, but it was designed to be like a stamp shop as it is sited in a neighborhood of antique shops, and there is a street just selling stamps. And Timber House is nested around a hillside, so we created a treehouse to enhance the feeling of cabin living. After we come up with a story, we then do research on what is relevant, so basically anything visitors see is designed holistically.