A successful restaurant project values design and meets operational needs, according to Caroline Chou and Kevin Lim—who are trained to find the sweet spot between both. Before the husband-and-wife-team founded their award-winning interdisciplinary design studio OPENUU in Boston in 2011 and moved the company to Lim’s native Hong Kong in 2012, they studied in the U.S. Both have degrees in architecture, but Lim is also a trained chef, having attended prestigious culinary school Le Cordon Bleu and worked as a chef at Massachusetts restaurant Blue Ginger.
“Design concepts are developed from two points of the spectrum—from that of a designer and a restauranteur,” explains Chou. “Leaning too heavily on one will either make the operations team turnover faster or the restaurant fail to attract customers.”
This methodology has paid off: OPENUU has scooped up four Interior Design Best of Year awards. Most recently, the firm’s design for Mean Noodles in Hong Kong earned a 2019 IIDA Award. Interior Design sat down with Chou and Lim to learn more about a project inspired by a Chinese tea house, the genre restaurant design is leaving behind, and what international chain is a sure-fire source for last-minute dining tips.
Interior Design: What have you completed recently?
Caroline Chou: Ah Yung Kitchen, a restaurant in Hong Kong. The challenge was to design a Chinese restaurant in a contemporary style. The restaurant interior was inspired by a Chinese tea house, a place often regarded as a place of sanctuary for tea—or, in the case of Ah Yung Kitchen, refined Cantonese cuisine.
Kevin Lim: The materials—predominantly wood, with terrazzo and stones—also reflect a sanctuary. These contrast with fabric in a subtle color, and hints of greenery throughout.
ID: Instagram is changing the restaurant design scene. Is this something you think about during the concept phase?
CC: We do keep Instagram and social media in mind with our designs. We love creating ‘Instagrammable moments’ during our design process. In turn, this becomes a free marketing tool for the client when restaurant guests post about their food or the interior design. One instance is our facade for Mean Noodles. It is finished with polished concrete and aged green metal to blend into the surroundings, and guests tend to stop for a photo before or after their meal.
ID: What is restaurant design leaving behind?
KL: We see a decline in the ultra-high-end fine dining experience. This generation now views fine dining with a more casual appeal, often minus the tablecloths. A more homey approach is where diners feel more comfortable—and spaces take into consideration operation concerns. The restaurant scene is starting to place a stronger emphasis on design and the desire to stand out, hence losing the tablecloth to avoid that monotony.
ID: What’s upcoming for you?
KL: We have three restaurant projects underway for a hotel in Zhuhai, China. For these we have a long lead time—compared to the average six weeks for a restaurant—so we are taking the time to focus on the overall concept, fleshing out the details, and going back to revise it all again and again.
ID: Can you name one or two pieces of furniture in your home?
KL: We live with our one-year-old daughter and two dogs in a walk-up apartment building in Hong Kong’s Happy Valley. This area generally consists of older neighborhoods with their own charm and efficient use of space. We have a Tom Dixon High-back Scoop chair. This piece is significant to us because we always propose designer chairs for our clients and we saved up for a designer chair of our own, which we always fight to sit in. Another piece we can mention we initially designed as a bed for our dogs. As they prefer sleeping on the floor, we took the doggie bed and gave it to our daughter Coco, who has since been calling it the ‘Coco chair.’
ID: How do you think your childhood influenced your design thinking?
KL: I grew up in Hong Kong with an architect father and interior designer mother, so I spent my childhood seeing drawings of all kinds, from plans and sketches to beautiful paintings. Our family vacations consisted of visiting different museums. I never really liked heritage museums but was always intrigued when visiting art museums or galleries. As I grew older, some visits would be to buildings. These experiences encouraged me to think about and study how different cultures address design.
CC: I grew up in Taiwan and my father is a businessman and my mother is a pharmacist—both loved traveling and taking us to museums, especially to look at Renaissance paintings. I grew up doing a lot of sketching, drawing, and oil painting classes.
ID: How do you think the U.S. and Asian design cultures have influenced your design thinking?
KL: Space is not luxurious in Hong Kong, and we often must be creative to maximize every inch for small site areas. Studying in the U.S. created a great foundation for us and allows us to be more creative with problem-solving.
ID: Is there a person in the industry that you particularly admire?
KL: Frank Lloyd Wright, who recently had eight of his buildings added to UNESCO's World Heritage List. It’s always a pleasure to visit buildings designed by him, seeing how each harmoniously sits and interacts with its surroundings. Like him, we try to incorporate features that allow a space to become more continuous with the existing environment, taking into consideration the user experience.
ID: What are you reading?
CC: I recently picked up—to read again—Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't by Jim Collins. I try to apply some of these concepts in my daily life, in order to be a better leader and build a great team culture. What I find I value the most is getting the right people on the bus, getting the wrong people off the bus, and then figuring out their seats. This has helped us build and grow steadily.
ID: Do you have a secret you can share?
KL: Prior to one family trip to Sapporo, Japan, I had not done much research. It's hard to search for places to go in Japan, and on one morning, when it was still early and nothing was open, I decided to go into Starbucks. What I discovered is most Starbucks baristas around the world speak English, so I was able to communicate with them. After asking where they’d normally go for lunch, I was guided to a ramen shop just down the road. I was one of the few diners—but then when I stepped out after my lunch, the line was around the corner. Little did I know, this spot was frequented by all the locals. From that trip on, I always ask Starbuck baristas for lunch tips—this method has yet to fail me.
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