Posted in News, People on 15 July, 2020

Having worked with a huge number of luxury hotel brands and been responsible for the design in some of the most ground-breaking projects in the world, Joe Cheng unquestionably deserves his spot in the design hall of fame. Sophie Harper finds out how one of China’s design superstars became such a success.

Joe Cheng grew up in Guangzhou in southern China. He was in one of the early groups of students who were enrolled in the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts to study architectural and interior design. After graduation Joe worked there as a teacher. He left to set up his own design practice. “I built my design team

and set up the firm, which has been vigorously growing in pace with the Chinese economic boom,” he says. “Under my leadership, Cheng Chung Design (CCD) has grown into a team of over 800 professionals and was ranked third among the Top 100 Hospitality Design Giants by Interior Design Magazine. In 2019, the company was recognised as one of Asia’s 500 most influential brands, and was the only design brand included in the list.”

It was Joe’s passion for design that carved out such a successful career path, and his passion for all things design is as evident now as it was when he first started out. “I draw inspiration from all aspects of life,” he says. “As a designer, it’s important to experience daily life and stay sensitive. I’m interested in automobile, fashion, food, photography and many other fields, and often read magazines of various kinds to get to know the relevant trends, such as the colour palettes of garments, industrial design of automobiles and composition of photos, which can always inspire me. For instance, I learned from the fluid lines of Aston Martin cars and applied them to spatial elements such as ceilings and stairs.”

Joe’s typical working day starts with checking and dealing with work messages and is often followed by online meetings, business trips, on-site inspections, client reception, and communication with his team in the company office. It’s important to Joe to keep abreast of the actual design work. “I love design, it’s indispensable and the most wonderful part of my life,” he says. “Whether being a student, teacher, entrepreneur, or a corporate leader, I’ve always been at the frontline of design. Even now, half of my time is devoted to design practices. I feel lucky to work in the field that I’m really passionate about. I’m convinced that the degree to which a person loves something can determine his ability to conquer setbacks and achieve sustainable growth, how much potential can be unleashed.”

Passion is one thing, but surely the success CCD has experienced so far can’t be solely reliable on a love of design, so I ask Joe what makes his and his team’s designs so sought after. “Good design is not just about concept and skills,” he states. “It cares more about the people who will experience and use it. Space is the bridge that connects humanity and commerce, tradition and innovation, present and future. Excellent architectural and spatial design is more than a project. It is also a landmark of the city, and the carrier of history and culture.”

Talking specifically about hotel design, Joe tells me about the connection design brings to a space. “Design serves people. The purpose of incorporating a story into design is to evoke the interaction between the guests and hotels.” He adds, “As we approach a hotel project, we often extract the interactions between people and people, people and items, and then enrich the story with creativity and tell it to the guests via design languages. We don’t need to create lifestyle. What we try to do is beautify and sublimate them.”

During the process of design or even from the very first ideas, prior to a design concept, Joe says the most important thing is detail. “Details tell stories, which make for quality and touch the heart,” he says. “In CCD’s hotel design practices, we pay attention to every detail and its use. Take the handrails around the atrium in Shenzhen Marriott Hotel Nanshan as an example. The handrails are veneered with wood and given a thickness of 20mm, which showcases superb quality and more importantly enables guests to stand in the corridor to enjoy the view of the atrium without worrying about their safety.” The handrail on each floor was meticulously designed and made after several sample trials, in order to provide guests with a more user-friendly experience. “The design is fully ergonomic,” Joe says. “The handrails are harmonised with the curves of the human body, so that guests can lean on them in a very comfortable manner.” Additionally, Joe tells me that he is meticulous about materials, all of which are selected specifically for each project from all over the world. “We insist on using the best quality materials, with a view to create safe, cosy and enjoyable experiences for guests.”

Having worked with so many different clients in the hotel sector, I wonder if CCD’s approach to design has some kind of winning formula that guarantees project approval from some fairly discerning people. “In the past, clients often gave us foreign cases of typology for design reference, or even asked us to imitate a specific work or style of foreign design. And I’d think ‘that isn’t design’. With years of hard work and perseverance, our designers figured out our own way. Our design works not only draw on Chinese culture and traditions, but also show international perspectives. In terms of residential design, CCD advocates the concept of customisation. It’s important to know the clients’ real needs and create a unique home for them.”

Drawing on Joe’s experience over the years, I’m keen to find out what he thinks of advances in technology and other trends that have impacted on the design world, he tells me: “Over the decade, technological developments and a change of lifestyle have exerted huge influences on design. 5G, IOT and Big Data are making our daily life smarter. Meanwhile, emerging social media, online shopping, and internet-famous places are also influencing our lifestyles. People are pursuing more quality and personalisation. Therefore, when designing a hotel restaurant for instance, we’ll often bring in additional features such as coffee shop, dessert lounge or bakery, which make the hotel more down-to-earth and community-friendly.” He adds: “Social media like Instagram can have a big influence on people’s lifestyles. In these connected times, everyone is a disseminator. It’s the feature of this era. People visit and take photos of Instagram-famous hotels, because there must be something appealing, whether that’s the design, atmosphere, products, or something else. Creating attractive designs is what we have always been trying to do.”

Joe points out that while these are things to be taken into consideration when designing a hotel, it’s ultimately the practical use of a space that makes good design. “Design is capable of creating value. As conceiving a hotel, we always make great efforts to balance the design and hotel operation. It’s not our ultimate goal to create a social-media-famous place, but it does help raise the hotel’s reputation. Therefore, we don’t mind doing so. However, we must anticipate the effects of passenger flow on a hotel operation or its management after this exposure and adjust circulation design as early as possible,” he says. “A design work can gain great influence around the world, and attract thousands of people to visit, which is good, but it also means more responsibility. As a designer, I hope it can touch people, improve their aesthetic level, and let them get to know certain culture. An excellent design should be something long-lasting, not a flash in the pan. Many hotels designed by CCD, such as Shenzhen Marriott Hotel Nanshan and Diaoyutai Hotel Hangzhou, have attracted lots of people to visit and share on social media since the opening. Even today, we can still hear people say: ‘It’s amazing!’, ‘It’s full of oriental charm!’”

Joe and his team have been fortunate to have worked on some fantastic projects over the years, and he tells me how he remembers the smallest details of each. “I’ve been engaged in every project of the company, from concept to renderings, technical details, material selection, decoration, show flat construction, and even the final display. I remember the process of every project. The most distinctive project in recent years was InterContinental Shanghai Wonderland – a hotel built in an 88-metre-deep abandoned quarry. It even has two floors built underwater, which accommodate guest rooms and a restaurant. It was a new attempt, different from many regular projects.”

With this level of experience as well as having been a teacher on the subject of design, I ask Joe what advice he would give his younger self and young design enthusiasts. “Choose one thing and stick to it,” he says decisively. “From college to workplace, I have devoted myself to design over the decades. Looking back, I would tell the younger me: keep your passion for design, endure loneliness, constantly learn, broaden horizons and make breakthroughs, finally you’ll embrace a wonderful design career.”

Looking at projects for the year ahead, it seems Joe is thinking about likely changes. “Currently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people across the world are paying increasing attention to health and sustainability, which is driving change in design practices,” he says. “CCD has been working on projects in the fields of health, wellness and physical therapy over the years. Although all industries are facing challenges brought by the pandemic, we believe now is the right time to reflect on the past, and to think about the future. When it’s over, future design practices will focus more on the development of human society, and I’m convinced that we’ll work out better designs.”

Although not able to fully divulge, Joe does mention a particular project that piques my interest: “Multiple projects will be completed in this year, and we’re expecting to share them with you. There’s a unique hotel under construction in Yunan province. Positioned as a ‘rustic luxury and artistic hotel complex’, it’s derived from a group of brick buildings. The design breaks with the conventional hotel forms and concepts and incorporates art industry into the hotel’s public space. The entire hotel complex looks like an artwork that breaks through the red soil and grows freely.”

He adds that CCD will be developing its self-owned brand products in the realms of interior décor and artworks in accordance with market trends and client demand, “Moreover, we’re gradually expanding our business with a wider range of project typologies such as architectural design and healthcare and wellness projects. We’ll carry forward the excellence of hospitality design, while at the same time striving to create more superb works beyond interior design.” So watch this space.

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