Since its inception in 1999, AB Concept has forged a well-deserved reputation as design firm of choice for the world's leading hoteliers, luxury developers and premium restaurant operators. Based in Hong Kong, this 70-strong team works across an expansive portfolio of some of the world's most prestigious brands, among them Four Seasons, Shangri-La and Waldorf Astoria. The centre-pin of this success is without a doubt co-founders Ed Ng and Terence Ngan – the combined talent and vision of whom has made them something of a dream team within the industry. Hospitality Interiors' Gemma Ralph had the pleasure of speaking with Ed about this partnership, and the inspirations and aspirations that fuel it.
The hospitality design sector abounds with talented individuals, pairings and teams alike, but the synergy and vision shared by Ed Ng and Terence Ngan is certainly not commonplace.
At the root of this winning formula are the pair's highly disparate creative and professional approaches, skillsets and and world views. While lead architect Terence relishes complex architectural projects – employing his incredible aptitude for planning and visualising a space – Ed draws from a significantly varied creative background to bring surprising and bold visual touches to their work.
“After graduating from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, I worked at a hospitality design firm, an architectural firm, and as an owner's representative – so I have basically seen every side of the story,” Ed explains.
“I met Terence through mutual friends, we both admired one another's work and this naturally led us to start a business together. Terence and I benefit from a rare synergy; while Terence focuses on manipulating spaces and solving technical issues, I work on a more abstract level, creating a strong narrative or overarching theme.”
Communication – whether it be between two individuals in the bid to realise a shared vision, or the way in which a space relays a certain narrative – is thus a key philosophy for the pair. Of course, having worked with a great many highly-respected hospitality brands over the years, Ed and Terence are expert in creating high calibre venues and spaces that expound the individual values and visuals of these big industry players.
For AB Concept, communicating brand identity is much less a motion towards uniformity or ‘cookie-cutter' designs, as it is an opportunity to interpret and enliven the essence of the brand in new and surprising ways. “We see ourselves as storytellers of space – weaving stories with our design, bringing alive the soul of our client's brand and accentuating the character of space,” Ed stresses.
This storytelling motif denotes AB Concept’s twofold approach to designing, and indeed to experiencing a space. The ‘structure’ of the narrative appears to denote the architecture of the space itself, upon which the description and colour of the narrative – in this case the palettes and textures of the space – are hinged. Beyond the immediate sensation of entering a space and taking in the feel and atmosphere, guests will notices the finer details, the subtle touches and hints unique to both the brand narrative and the wider locality of the venue.
One of AB Concept’s most recent projects – The Shangri-La Hotel, Qufu – is the perfect example of this imaginative approach. The gargantuan lobby area features striking walnut and red laquer wall paneling, complete with a black metal frame and bronze metal skirting, to create an immediate sense of impact and drama. Working on a more subtle level, the gently beauty of the lobby’s smattering of lanterns – custom-designed by AB Concept – casts a soft glow on this ‘structure’, while also offering up a cultural reference.
“The hotel is the city’s first international luxury property, so we wanted to the design to make a statement,” Ed explains. “We visited the Confucian temples and museum in Qufu to understand the art and history of the buildings, and that is why the hotel was personalised with the use of majestic wisdom lanterns instead of the usual chandelier you will see in all other Shangri-La properties.
“What I particularly love about the project,” he continues, “is the way in which it pays homage to this city, which was a long forgotten jewel, while at the same time bringing in the first luxury hotel in the city for the many followers of Confucius. It really is exciting to be involved in a project that has, in a sense, changed the landscape of the of the city it is built in.”
Despite the impressive scale and budget of projects such as this one, Ed is nevertheless cautious about oversimplifying what he deems to be the 'language' of luxury design. Indeed, far from simply signifying a large price tag, Ed equates luxury design with timeless taste and, above all else, comfort.
Looking to his design heroes Coco Chanel and Andree Putman for inspiration, Ed rigorously strives to execute furnishings and spaces that achieve "a perfect combination of style and function." In doing so, he religiously adheres to what he describes as the three central tenets of the firm – architectural precision, craftsmanship and a bespoke sensibility.
“Architectural precision is evident in the way that we adapt structure, form and proportion,” explains Ed. “While the choice of luxurious materials, rich textures and intricate detailing embody our couturier-like craftsmanship, our sensual interiors instinctively express a mood and capture a sense of place. The scale, purpose and nature of our designs may vary, but these three fundamentals are always present.”
Despite the prolific portfolio and solid reputation the firm now enjoys as a result of these principles, Ed and Terence are in no sense complacent – something that is eminently likeable about them. Their drive and resilience is, perhaps, partly fuelled by a particularly unfortunate experience early on in the firm’s career.
"In 2007, we won a design competition that gave us the full scope for the W Hotel in Yokohama, Japan," Ed explains. “We had put all our manpower and resources into the project to ensure the best result; we committed to and designed everything, and our work was a huge success. Unfortunately, just a week before the groundbreaking celebration, the Asian financial crisis hit and the whole project vanished.
"It was such a disappointment for us, but because the hotel operator saw our talent and dedication to the project, we were immediately brought on board for the W Bali, which turned out to be a huge success. What we learnt from this was that the result often may not be an immediate ripple; the Yokohama project may not have come to fruition but it turned out to be the project that got the world talking about us.”
Surviving, and indeed embracing, the challenges involved in making a name for the firm in its early years appears to have stood AB Concept in good stead for the mercurial nature of today’s hospitality industry. The key, according to Ed, is to avoid dependence on fleeting trends and disposable design, focusing instead on the central narrative of a space or brand, and the bespoke elements that can be introduced to enliven it.
“We believe that having a blank canvas does not make you creative, but that creativity is about problem solving and working around challenges,” says Ed. “Hospitality brands are always evolving and being modified and, as a designer, you have to move with them, ensuring that your design is in line with the brand's direction.
“About 20 year ago, minimalism was the big trend. That was a distinct movement, but there doesn’t seem to be a seismic shift in design trends today. If anything, people are now exploring the big concept behind each project, and creating a narrative around it. Once you have a strong narrative, it becomes the core design, and everything else falls into place. There is no point designing just for the sake of following a trend.”
Ed certainly makes a sound point: a room containing the most expensive or well-placed furnishings, no matter their level of craftsmanship or quality, is never going to be sufficient to propel that hospitality venue to the top of its game. In today’s age, when there is ever-increasing pressure upon hospitality spaces to deliver – on both a visual and experiental level – bespoke design, local commissions, collaborations and experimentation are all-important to keep up with the competition.
The burgeoning emphasis on guest experience, in particular, is a key preoccupation for Ed: “We believe the design paradigm is shifting rapidly from being aesthetic driven to more user-experience driven,” he says. “Whether it is serene or opulent, the design should accentuate and complement the experience. ‘Comfort’ – whether it is opulent or modest, intricate or minimalist, should be non-intimidating and form-fitting, with less structure and weightlessly constructed using beautiful materials.”
As the industry continues to reward those designers that push the boundaries of guest experience, that are willing to pursue the myriad of stories waiting to be told through their designs, it is clear that AB Concept will remain at the fore of hospitality design. After all, in Philip Pullman’s words: “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we most need in the world.”
Ed Ng’s favourite...
Design/Designer: Andrée Putman
Place: I have to be greedy and choose two – Paris and Kyoto, one from the West and one from the East. I find inspiration in a city’s culture, history and arts scene. When you use this as a benchmark, no other cities compare to the intimate beauty of these cities.
Time of day: I love the magic hour, as this is the turning point between dusk and night, warmth and cool. It is a magical hour that contrasts the breathtaking Tuscan warmth with an evening blue.
Book/film: Steve Job’s biography – inspiring; everything from his way of looking at design, to experience-oriented approach, to how he always thinks outside the box, to his courage to break the norm.
Quote/motto: “Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury” - Coco Chanel