Interview: HBA Residential’s Chris Godfrey on What China’s HNWIs Want in Their Ultra-Luxe Homes

Grand entrances can be everything in a luxurious space. The Grand Mansion Hotel in Nanjing wows with carved stone walls surrounded by an extensive collection of archaeological artifacts and art. NUO Hotel in Beijing greets guests with larger-than-life Ming Dynasty-inspired ceramic vases, bronze sculptures and a cut-out ceiling. The Castle Hotel in Dalian emits a “five-star fairytale” bringing Bavarian influence to mountainside viewers before they even step inside.

But for the firm behind these projects, Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA), luxury is more than just a grand entrance, and the growing number of ultra-wealthy individuals in China are beginning to agree. HBA, which has been working on projects in China for many years, set up an independent division called HBA Residential in 2014 to cater to these most distinguished real estate buyers and investors in China, by focusing on customization that marries aesthetics with function. HBA Residential’s portfolio in China consists of mostly private villas, penthouses, and high-end apartment complexes. The firm’s Chinese clients range from those seeking to build on the mainland to those looking to design homes in Hong Kong and Vietnam, to as far as Dubai.

HBA Residential brings its expertise in everything from lighting and interior design to architecture and furniture to its clients to create tailor-made, luxurious environments. Affluent Chinese consumers’ appreciation and openness to this “considered luxury” is what Principal of HBA Residential Chris Godfrey had in mind when moving from his home in the UK to Singapore, where working for the Chinese market gives him flexibility. Jing Daily caught up with Godfrey to find out what building a ultra-high-end place to call home in China looks like.

What is the demand like in the China market for these ultra-high-end luxury projects right now?

Demand is certainly important, but it’s also about being selective and working with people who really want to do something exceptional. The surprising positive is that there is a genuine ambition for quality, for appreciation of the process, which is very important to me. These designs come out of a process, not from a stylebook. With the clients we’ve met and worked with, there’s a very appreciative and responsive approach to design and an appetite for good design and an appetite for, which again has an appeal for me, melding international design with qualities of the locale. That’s where it becomes quite interesting design-wise, where we bring what we’ve learned in Europe and meld that with the deep-rooted traditions that are predominate in the mainland to create something timeless and of its own merit.

A rendering of a HBA Residential property in Xian. (Courtesy Photo)

A rendering of a HBA Residential property in Xi’an. (Courtesy Photo)

Are your projects more often than not drawing inspiration from local cultures and traditions and using local brands and materials?

We try and source locally where relevant and try only to bring in what we have to. In each case, we try to understand and moderate what was there before and to try bring a fresh eye. So that can be culture, can be personal, can be from people’s collections of art and objects that often form the basis of our designs. Often people are collectors or have ambition to become collectors. So heritage is something cultural and personal that we respond to.”

Do you see a lot of art collectors?

Yes, definitely. I think there’s a huge range, but we are finishing one villa in Beijing that has a big collection of Chinese contemporary art, as did the villa in Xi’an. Out of our eight clients, there are two or three that are passionate about Chinese contemporary art, so we’ve come to have good exposure to that.

In your experience, are the clients you work with well-informed on what they’re looking for and educated on what makes good design?

Clients at the top-end of the market are well-traveled, well-versed, are quite high level. They are coming to you for commensurate experience and product. It’s not driven by the same commerciality as retail and other hospitality projects might be. So we are slightly luckier in that regard.

Having said that, we do work in commercial residential centers and a few show apartments for high-end developers. There are different drivers there as well. The challenge for a designer or the design process is to get the best understanding and the best of the situation. So for me, I’m learning from these clients about what are the market drivers of present, and that’s changing all the time. We always look to learn from each project equally and to respond in the right way. And hopefully, without it sounding arrogant, to try and give a bit of education to each and every client as well. It’s a two-way process.

What are some design trends that are you noticing among Chinese clients?

It’s always a difficult one to answer. We try to avoid trends. I think stylistically the commonality is to move increasingly towards an international style and to have references to culture in the past, but to be quite subtle. I see an increasing demand for subtlety, as opposed to being overtly ostentatious. Contemporary design seems to be continuing to gather interest, where as historically I think more classical, Baroque design styles were predominate. There is more of a demand for the simpler. Luxury, refinement can be reductive, can be more simple. That’s something that fits our basic way of thinking well. You can achieve luxury through simplicity, not through ostentatiousness.

A rendering of a home in Beijing by HBA Residential. (Courtesy Photo)

A rendering of a home in Beijing by HBA Residential. (Courtesy Photo)

You see a lot more interest in that: the minimalist, simple, clean design, very art-focused, contemporary. Are many of your clients looking for function out of design or design for design’s sake?

The points you are making are absolutely consistent with our key drivers. You mentioned the rise of the boutique hotel, that’s a fact of its not a chain, it’s a unique thing. That’s what we are. We are a boutique office that creates one-off things so that’s where our way of working fits with the changing demand. For me, function is the forefront of all design. What I call what we do is luxury by design. That means it’s the process of design that creates the luxury. It’s the way of thinking, it’s the depth, and it’s the fact it’s utterly functional. Everything has been well thought through. That’s where you create luxury. It’s not about the application of a style that’s being said, but rather what’s being unsaid. If the process has a greater depth, then the product has greater resonance. The right client wants something that has more gravitas.

Is eco-friendliness more important to Chinese clients these days?

Awareness is growing, and appreciation is growing. Again, we try and moderate where we can. That can be following the directive to source locally. Things come in from a 500-kilometer radius versus abroad. Eco design can take many forms. At the end, that’s the way I see it being relevant. You employ local labor, you source from smaller radius—all of those ways have an impact on the environment.

How do you work with Chinese clients who value feng shui?

We understand the movement, and we understand the principles. We will typically work with an expert as well on projects, and the client often has their personal expert. The big house I’m designing in Dubai right now is very rigorously designed to feng shui, even more so than the properties in the mainland we are working on right now. With each individual they have degrees which they believe and apply. The one in Dubai is very rigorous to the point of every room being in the correct quadrant and all the elements are considered. The plan is perfectly square. The rooms have to be correct, then the orientation of each room. It’s quite a rigorous process.

It seems like residential clients can have much more flexibility when it comes to these requests.

Absolutely. For example, the apartments we are designing right now are for Beijingers—ostensibly local people who therefore are Chinese and to some extent believe in feng shui. You have to moderate, because it is commercial. For a three bedroom apartment, it’s almost impossible to get all the beds in the right direction. You have to have simple terms and make the plan efficient for sale. Fundamentally, if that’s one of the tenets, then you have to compromise. But, the smaller elements like positioning of furniture and the positioning of windows, and colors can all be considered.

You’ve said that in Asia you feel like you have more freedom compared to London, where there are a lot of limitations in terms of where and what developers can build. Can you elaborate on that?

I think it’s two-fold. A lot in Asia is being done for the first time. It’s a very progressive part of the world. Therefore, there is a reception from clients to be challenged, to be pushed a little bit positively through projects. The other side of it is because the economies are more dynamic as well. There is more of a reception at a government level to things being built and a more open view on style and what things look like. These are aspects that make it attractive for me. It’s all down to openness and desire for progress that ultimately drives the outcome.

Do your current mainland clients have homes in other countries?

Certainly. One of our clients has a home in Singapore and in Canada. Another has a home in Canada. Another has a home in London. They are pretty present in the usual hot spots.

Do you bring in aspects to your designs from big-name luxury brands?

Yes, we work with the brands. Where opportunity unfolds, we like to collaborate with other like-minded brands or suppliers or craftspeople who can make unique things. We almost create site-specific art pieces in projects, so we do collaborate with lots of different people. It’s part of the richness and uniqueness of the process. In terms of brands, we have in the past worked directly with some of the big names.

Are Chinese clients looking for big-name luxury brands in their homes as a status symbol?

What we’re promoting in our practice is that luxury is created, it’s not bought. First and foremost, that’s who we are. We are not anti-brand, by any stretch of the imagination. But we are trying to create something that is above that—it’s personal. Some clients will be happy that everything, or 90 percent, is created. Others will still desire the residences are populated with brands. It’s a project-specific thing. It’s not off-the-shelf. So we can work in conjunction with the brand or commensurate craftspeople. But brand isn’t a drive.

For me, I do get the impression that brand is still omnipresent in China. It’s not as important as it was previously, but there is a growing appreciation for the uniqueness, for provenance, for craft, for creation. That for me is in line with what we’ve always reported. There is an appetite for creation, rather than brand purchase.

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Architecture & Design, Creative