Tearing Down The Great Wall
Rossana Hu and Lyndon Neri are bringing the best of the world to China and the best of China to the world
Andrew Yang -- Interior Design, 7/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
The husband-wife team behind NHDRO (Neri & Hu Design Re-search Office), the Neri & Hu product line, and the Design Republic furniture gallery. Image courtesy of NHDRO.
In China, architecture is big business. Both the Olympics last year in Beijing and the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai were predicated on bold design. Unfortunately, the story of contemporary architecture in this vast country is often one of fleeting spectacle. Running an architecture practice, NHDRO (Neri & Hu Design Research Office), producing a product line, Neri & Hu, and operating a Shanghai gallery, Design Republic, American-raised Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu reveal a much more complex portrait of working in China. After meeting at the University of California, Berkeley, Neri and Hu attended architecture school at Harvard and Princeton Universities, respectively, before spending more than a decade at Michael Graves & Associates, which is what first brought the husband-wife team to Shanghai. Ask them what they're up to today, and the response can be dizzying. While Design Republic introduces China to manufacturers such as Tom Dixon, Established & Sons, and Moooi, NHDRO has taken on master-planning in Wuxi for Miami real-estate company DACRA; hotels in Shanghai, Xi'an, and Tibet; residential projects in Shanghai, Singapore, Mexico City, and Florida; and even cemeteries in China and the Philippines.
How do you account for the recent shift in your portfolio?
LN: It was a conscious decision from the very beginning. At first, it was hard to get architecture projects. This is the first year that five of our buildings are under construction.
Shanghai's Design Republic, occupying 6,500 square feet at 5 on the Bund, the 1925 home of a Japanese shipping company. Photo by Derryck Menere.
Michael Graves has had a thriving practice in architecture, interiors, and products.
RH: We didn't sit down and say, "This is what Michael did. This is what we'll do." Not at all. But we knew we wanted to be multidisciplinary.
LN: For 10 years, I helped Michael pitch projects in Asia. Our proposals were never just to do the building. They were for the lobby, the elevator banks. It was a no-brainer for Rossana and me to think, Why don't we do that? A lot of architects I admire are multidisciplinary, like David Chipperfield, Antonio Citterio, and Kazuyo Sejima.
Also, almost everything in our Neri & Hu line started with an interiors project. Our Solo chair was made for the Jean Georges restaurant in Shanghai initially—when they didn't take it, we pitched it for our spaces at the Opposite House hotel in Beijing. Our sectional stool was designed for another Beijing restaurant, the Whampoa Club. And our conference table. . .
RH: That was for our office!
LN: People would come in and ask, "Can I buy this?" After the 10th request, we said, "We're going to sell it."
NHDRO's Y+ Yoga and Wellness Center in Shanghai. Photo by Derryck Menere.
Has everything turned out the way you envisioned?
RH: Starting a brand was more complicated than we anticipated. Design Republic was not what we expected.
LN: The attention it got actually exceeded our expectations. That added a lot of pressure, though, because all of a sudden we weren't under the radar anymore. We thought it would take 15 years, but that got squeezed into two. Everything Design Republic offers was normal to us—a magazine, a lecture series, a design society, platforms that look like they belong in a museum. But what was normal to us was completely a shock to other people.
How has the economic crisis affected your efforts in retail and architecture?
RH: Retail has definitely slowed down but not catastrophically. For many of our architecture projects outside China, construction has been put on hold. In China, at least, new ones have come through, largely through the private sector.
Bei, one of five interiors the firm designed for the Opposite House hotel in Beijing. Photo by Derryck Menere.
What do you think are the differences between Beijing and Shanghai?
RH: In Beijing, people are more artistically and creatively inclined. In Shanghai, they're more brand-driven. Spending habits in Beijing are more generous. It's in their personality. In Shanghai, they shop around and compare prices, always trying to get just a little more. In Beijing, people appreciate more avant-garde design. In terms of international standards, though, Shanghai is more sophisticated. Trends catch on more quickly, but it may come from a more superficial understanding.
What's the future of Design Republic?
LN: Expanding to Beijing via local partners is very natural as well as trying to set our foot in Hong Kong. There could also be a big component that's real-estate development. It's about finding people who can bring our crazy ideas to the next level.
The Whampoa Club, a restaurant in a traditional Beijing courtyard house. Photo by Derryck Menere.