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Meet the Filipino architect reimagining domestic space in Hong Kong

Meet the Filipino architect reimagining domestic space in Hong Kong

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jj acuna space hong kong

It is refreshing to see and live in spaces that deviate from the sea of mobile houses and tiny apartments in cramped cities like Hong Kong. Architect and interior designer James Acuña knows this all too well.

He is the editor of the design blog Wanderlister+, and the founder of JJ Acuna / Bespoke Studios whose clientele include some of Asia’s best restaurants like the Tate Dining Room in Sheung Wan by Vicky Lau and the Little Bao in Bangkok by May Chow.

jj acuna space hong kong

Living in Hong Kong for the last 13 years working as a manipulator of space in the world’s least affordable housing market, Acuña designed his 100-sqm boutique studio to double as many things: a place to work, a library of ideas, and ultimately, an extension of home.

We caught up with Acuña about his spacious quarters located at the industrial district of eastern Hong Kong to talk about mixing aesthetic sensibilities and domestic practicality.


Take us through your creative process when designing your space.

Well, when I first got it it was just one big empty space. The biggest question in my head was—how can a design studio space be a place to work, a place to receive guests, a place to generate ideas, a place where inspiration can occur. I didn’t want too many walls but I did need a lot of zones for different types of programme.

jj acuna space hong kong

jj acuna space hong kong

The idea is to create anchors within an open plan to help define the use and aesthetics of that part of the floor plan and space. The living area has a big built-in bookshelf, the meeting area is underpinned by a 20-year old American Maple dining table made in Massachusetts, and so forth.

So now if you walk around the studio, each zone has a very unique personality, even if it’s a generally open plan.

What were some considerations you had in mind?

Basically, I just wanted to create a studio space that was very comfortable for friends, collaborators, designers to come in and ideate in different ways. I wanted it to feel easy, flexible, and textured. There’s collaborative areas like the living room and dining room, an introspective reading area for one, a meditation area, and typical working area with a nice timber desk.

jj acuna space hong kong

jj acuna space hong kong

What was the inspiration behind its design?

My own art and my books were the main impetus for the design. I collect a lot of books on architecture, art, and design, and I have tons of Filipino art from different galleries. So when planning the studio’s design, I basically planned the location of the bookshelf first for the display and exhibition of these special items, and then the rest fell into place after that. I also loved the natural daylight—it faces South West—so I get a lot of good light here.

Were there any hurdles you came upon designing this studio?

The studio’s windows needed updating because there were leaks and there was some existing structure we turned into storage, but in general, the space was pretty much a tabula rasa. The most difficult thing I think was re-plumbing the space for the open kitchen and pantry area and installing a new powder room and shower. Just to make it more homey and domestic because after all, it’s a multi-use loft. And doing everything within a reasonable budget and completing the whole project from design to turnover in about six weeks.

jj acuna space hong kong

What elements were you keen on including on your studio?

I thought even though it is an open plan, we still needed to create private/public zones. Without having to build obtrusive partitions. We were able to achieve this by creating glass and metal grid dividers for the space as well as incorporating satin curtains in a blush tone.

The glass and metal dividers help create a room within the open plan and the curtains when closed help give more privacy from one space to another.

jj acuna space hong kong

jj acuna space hong kong

When designing and putting together the space, I was really into Italian Memphis design of the ‘80s, so there were a few cool touches like the black and white granite stone slab for the powder room area, two vintage Tonon Italia chairs from the late ‘80s, the Memphis-style coffee table in black marble and electroplated brass designed by Jaime Hayon for &Tradition in the living area. Natural materials like the oak flooring, rattan chairs, timber sofa, and maple dining table kind of ground the high-style Memphis aspects of the design.

“I want to make spaces that make people better after spending time in there. No matter who that may be.”

Tell us about the decor and the accents.

Wherever I travel I tend to buy art especially Filipino art, or books, or even random things like crystal rocks, spirits, and ceramics. So even though there’s space, I try really hard not to clutter them and give every object room to breathe. I also wanted tropical plants at home, so I’ve got my monsteras, my birds of paradise, the yucca plant, lucky bamboos, and succulents keeping me company and cleaning the air.

Speaking of Filipino art, which artists are you a fan?

Right now my favorite Filipino artists are Jel Suarez, Dina Gadia, Alan Balisi, and of course, the late Roberto Chabet. I also love Arturo Luz. Someday I hope to afford his works.

jj acuna space hong kong

How is this studio different from the one in Manila?

Our Manila studio is slowly coming together. There have been hiccups, so it all looks a bit corporate at the moment. But when there’s time and opportunity in the coming year, we hope to make it look as homey as we have it in Hong Kong.

If you could live in somewhere else, where will it be?

I think its funny to think that finally in my life I’m living in two cities I really love, Hong Kong and Manila, and I don’t see myself actually living anywhere else. At present, I’m completely content, happy, and aligned with being a citizen of both places. I’m just having fun, working, and operating in both these cities. It’s a dream for me. But I also don’t mind staying in Sydney either. I love Australia, and I love Australian design. I like what’s going on there at the moment from a style perspective.

jj acuna space hong kong

jj acuna space hong kong

What is your signature style and how does it manifest in this space?

I think my style is trying to balance all kinds of projects with a considered and more humanistic approach to planning and design. How can a home be more than a home? Like how can a home support our lifestyle, dreams, and aspirations, or how can a workplace or a place to eat be an extension of one’s domestic space—meaning a space where someone can feel like they can come back to it again and again and be themselves?

These days I’m really concerned with the quality of life and making sure that we treat our clients and the people who use our spaces with respect. I want to make spaces that make people better after spending time there. No matter who that may be. So I think my signature style may be in the way that domesticity or the domestic environment feeds into a lifestyle space and vice versa. You see that from my studio.


This story originally appeared in Northern Living Discourse Issue

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