Before setting up his own practice, Brewin Design Office in Singapore, architect and interior designer Robert Cheng spent years soaking in the vibrant design culture of different cities around the world. He was born in Pittsburgh and spent his formative years attending school in Singapore and then the United Kingdom, before moving to Providence to attend Rhode Island School of Design, followed by Boston to finish his master’s at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. His educational background led him to prestigious gigs, first with Tsao & McKown Architects in New York, where he met his mentor Calvin Tsao, and later at Pritzker Prize winner Jean Nouvel’s firm in Paris. After years on the road, Cheng returned to Asia in 2011, founding his own practice that dips into his Asian heritage while being thoughtfully shaped by his global exposure.
Cheng’s work is discreetly luxurious, the opulence shining through in his choice of materials and the symbiotic relationship they create with the space. Some of his best-known projects include multimillion-dollar private homes and commercial properties across Asia, the most noteworthy being a restaurant in Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands composed of modular pods fitted with white oak fins that allow light to stream in while diners dig into delicately folded dim-sums. He also created an immersive design exhibit at the National Gallery Singapore, where he designed multiple unique spaces to showcase multi-artist pieces while still cohesively creating a uniformed, immersive experience for the user. Here, Cheng talks about his recent projects, Asia’s growing impact on global design, and why extravagance shines the brightest when rooted in functionality.
Interior Design: What are you working on at the moment?
Robert Cheng: Most recently we won a competition to design the National Gallery of Singapore’s new Rotunda Library, an art library meant to house the gallery’s Southeast Asian Art reference and archival collection. This project entails the conversion of the existing Rotunda space of the former Supreme Court into what will be the Rotunda Library and Archives. This is an exciting project steeped in historical research and heritage preservation as we are working on a building built in the 1920s and 1930s that played an important role in Singapore’s history.
ID: You grew up in Asia and then spent significant time in Paris and different parts of America. How have all these places influenced and shaped your design thinking?
RC: Architecture is so multidisciplinary and to be a good architect, one needs to be exposed. I am constantly trying to expose myself more through new experiences and travel, and growing up in various parts of the world has ingrained a natural curiosity and passion for learning about people and culture, observing how things are done similarly or differently around the world. In places like Paris and New York, what is wonderful is that they are cities that have an in-depth history. Good design comes when you can both borrow from the past and deal with the present.
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ID: What would you consider as one of your most career-defining projects?
RC: This would be in the early years when I was asked to work on my family’s house interiors with my mentor Calvin Tsao. It was a house designed by the architect Paul Rudolph. So many great lessons, which continue to stay with me until today, were learnt through designing extremely bespoke interiors, working with master craftsmen and furniture artisans on custom pieces of furniture that 16 years on, are still being used.
ID: Your favorite materials to work with?
RC: Our design values hinge very much on integrity: In our designs we choose to reveal a given object’s structure and construction and abstain from needless decoration and pastiche. Stone and wood are two materials that echo this value. Their production involves minimal treatment and their finished look possesses a raw and natural appearance that respects their biological make-up. With glass, the material allows for many different ways of manipulation. We see glass as a versatile element that can be molded to suit the different environments that we build. We also use the material frequently to counter the visually ‘heavier’ materials that we use.
ID: Do materials dictate the design process, or do you have a vision of what you want to create and choose materials accordingly?
RC: Design and material selection have always been two intertwining processes. The choosing of materials is synonymous with the expression of a design concept as they give a tangible characteristic to an otherwise abstract and theoretical idea. One on-going project, for example, explores the relationship of a home to nature and biological forms. Much of the design hinges on materiality. The selection of raw, minimally refined materials serves to bring in the raw texture of nature into the confines of the home.
ID: What makes Singapore such an exciting design city?
RC: There is a very palpable shift in Singapore’s design industry in that it is starting to look outwards for creative influences and inspiration. It is in a frame of time where it is starting to challenge pre-existing norms and adopt more creative and daring approaches to design—the constantly increasing desire to push boundaries in the curriculum of its design schools in one exemplification of this movement. In comparison to cities like Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Shanghai, these Asian cities are either more cosmopolitan or connected to a deep-rooted history. Singapore is nascent in that it is a young city that has all the right ingredients for becoming an international city of the future.
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ID: Asian designers are finally getting their due on a global platform. What do you think has been one of the key factors that has helped in changing the mindset?
RC: I the last 20 years, Asia has rapidly evolved to become more international. Cities like Hong Kong and Singapore have continued to grow steadily while cities like Shanghai and Beijing have made a mark to become world-class matured cities. Emerging markets like Ho Chi Minh, Bangkok, and Jakarta have allowed for more urban development, greenfield property development, which in turn have allowed more architecture to happen. Coupled with this, technology—becoming more of a connected world—has allowed more international architects to work in Asia. Some of the best buildings in Asia are being designed by international designers from the west, and they have also felt the need to create results that are respectful to the Asia context. As a result, we are seeing better quality stuff out there. We are also beginning to see countries like China lead the construction industry internationally for fixtures that are built in China….China has become world class in its construction capabilities.
ID: What is your biggest design pet peeve?
RC: When designs are extraneous, overly decorative, and insensitive to their context. Our studio’s approach to design is one that is rooted in problem-solving, and we see design ultimately as a tool to either address issues or reflect the environment that it occupies.
ID: Any interesting books you are currently reading?
RC: “Small Pleasures,” published by The School of Life Press. I picked this up during a visit to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles recently. It is a compilation of stories about the sometimes overlooked small pleasures of life, like going to a fish market, or touching the back of a tortoise.
ID: What is the most recent thing you experienced that has deeply inspired you?
RC: Traveling is one of my biggest sources of inspiration. Some of my recent travels have been to Walter De Maria’s “The Lightning Field” in New Mexico. I spent my 40th birthday in a hut for 24 hours with two other couples. “The Lightning Field” comprises 400 vertical stainless-steel poles grounded into the earth in a grid formation spanning exactly 220 feet apart from each other and were the only man-made structures in a 30-mile radius. Our task as viewers, was to take in the surreal experience of walking through these poles and observing them at different times of the day. For me, this installation embodies the best things about art and architecture.