Q&A: Steve Leung on the Rise of Branded Residences and What’s Next in Design

Posted in Designers to Know, Interior Design
Steve Leung

Steve Leung, the founder of interior design and architecture firm Steve Leung Design Group and one of Hong Kong’s most eminent creatives, has had his name attached to a number of prestigious projects over the years.

He most recently partnered with Kuala Lumpur’s latest skyline-transforming tower, 8 Conlay, now considered to be the world’s tallest twisted twin residential skyscraper powered by a branded residence. It’s home to Yoo8 serviced by Kempinski, featuring interiors designed by Leung and his South-African-born British contemporary, Kelly Hoppen.

8 Conlay in Kuala Lumpur.

In Hong Kong, Leung has also been dipping his feet in several exciting projects. An avid boat-lover, Leung partnered with Italian yacht builders Sanlorenzo last year to create custom interiors for the SX88 and SL106 models. In recent years, he was also behind Hong Kong’s first Yoo Residence, located in Causeway Bay, which sparked his ongoing collaboration with the brand.

As a pioneer of the worldwide branded residence model, Yoo Residences has plucked from some of the most powerful names in design as its creative directors, with collaborators including Philippe Starck, Jade Jagger, Marcel Wanders, Sussanne Khan, and of course, Steve Leung.

We recently caught up with Leung in Hong Kong to chat about the growing prominence of branded residences across the globe, and how residential design is expected to change in 2020.

Why is there a growing popularity of branded residences around the globe, and what sets this apart from traditional homes?

You’re correct, there are more and more branded residences in the world. At the moment Dubai has the largest number of branded residences, overtaking New York. People who are buying these residences or living in them are not just hoping to find a place to stay, it’s [become] part of their lifestyle.

The [location], surroundings and materials are not the only factors to consider when people buy or rent an apartment, they want something stylish. A branded residence can be connected to a hospitality group, like a hotel chain such as the Four Seasons, St. Regis or Marriott. To some people, it equates to luxury, but it’s also equated to service — they can ensure that the service provided is held to a certain international standard.

Branded residences are always part of a compound, so residents can enjoy the amenities of a hotel, such as the gym, health club, room service or housekeeping, or valet parking.

Steve Leung - 8 Conlay
Yoo co-founder John Hitchcox with Steve Leung.

[Another reason is] unrelated to hospitality: For example, as Yoo Residences is a design brand, it does not provide that same hospitality service, but why is it still so sought after? Because Yoo represents lifestyle — there are different creative directors [in the team]: we have people like Philippe Starck, Marcel Wanders, Jade Jagger, and myself from Asia.

Buyers can claim, “my apartment was designed by Steve Leung or by Philippe Starck.” It offers something that’s different to the rest of the market. And when it comes to resale value, a branded residence offers a new benchmark, it’s something that traditional residences cannot offer. When the global community has higher expectations and standards, this [has become] the new global trend.

Are traditional, no-frills, no-clubhouse apartments outdated, then?

I don’t agree with that. You can’t exactly say that these apartments are outdated. Imagine I’m from Hong Kong, and I want to buy an apartment in San Francisco. If I look at the Four Seasons residences, I immediately know that the Four Seasons is an international brand of this standard, and I have the confidence in buying such a brand. Similarly, when foreigners come to Hong Kong, they don’t know local developers — they won’t know Sun Hung Kai Properties, for example, although maybe [the developer] can produce very high-end, high quality homes.

When people are trying to invest overseas, they have no clue which would be the best developer that can produce the best apartment. But when it’s a branded residence, they [can vouch for its quality]. They’ve heard of St. Regis; the Four Seasons, and so on. This is also one of the reasons why developers are doing more and more collaborations on branded residences.

For international investors going overseas to buy property, these branded residences can be attractive. On the other hand, locals who want to buy in Hong Kong may know Henderson, but they can also compare, for instance, Sun Hung Kai Properties and Four Seasons. As a local I would know better — I would have more choice.

Is the increasing interest in overseas investment affecting interior design? If so, how?

Design is not so simple. Design can be different for different people, for different projects at different times. Every project is unique — when I am asked to design something I need to understand the background so I can provide the best solution to answer all these problems. It depends on the agenda, the budget, the target customer and so on. 

This also explains why at Yoo8 we have different creative directors. For example, Philippe Starck has always designed very ‘wow’ interiors. But this ‘wow’ factor doesn’t work in, let’s say, some parts of China, especially as the elderly rich in China may not like that kind of expression by Philippe Starck. But on the other hand, they may like something from Steve Leung or something with an Asian perspective. That’s why at Yoo8, at 8 Conlay, they chose to complete two towers, one by me and one by Kelly Hoppen. The client chose us because they believed Steve Leung and Kelly Hoppen can deliver a product that both bear the DNA of Yoo, but at the same time it’s welcomed by the customers in KL, especially the target group.

How does Feng Shui factor into your more Asian-inspired design philosophy?

I was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Hong Kong. A lot of people, like my clients, are concerned about Feng Shui. I’m not an expert, but I understand the basic principles. Feng Shui is actually dealing with the feeling that people get when they enter into the space, and I agree with most of these principles. When I do design, I try to avoid the ‘don’ts’: like opening onto a corner, or [having a door] face a toilet or face the kitchen or the stove. When I design, I subconsciously have all these things in mind. I’ve actually designed some private residences for my clients, who went to a Feng Shui master and gave me a set of principles to follow.

What are people looking for when it comes to new luxury residences in 2020?

If you’re talking about the luxury residence market, the number one thing I can say especially in China or Asia is that people are not so keen on Classical design anymore compared to 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.

In the past, particularly in Mainland China or even in Hong Kong, people always labeled luxury with Western Classical design. But now, they are saying that it’s not the best, or not the only solution. People are more open-minded to accept more contemporary designs.

Number two is that you have to consider individual comfort. The home is regarded as a place for the family, not a place to show off. A family normally means you’re not living alone — you have your spouse, your kids, your parents. In your own home, you have to make everybody happy, not just yourself.

Number three, people are getting better off now, they don’t go for material luxury, they go for psychological luxury, meaning they want fresh air, sunshine; they want clean water. Ecological principles, sustainability, wellbeing — these things have moved to the top of the list.

Especially now we have the coronavirus, people are very concerned about health. Your money means nothing to you if you don’t have good health, right? 

What are some practical ways you’ve noticed that people are using to update design in the home, as a result of the pandemic?

There are a lot of small things that people are hoping to improve in the home. They want to clean their shoes before going into their apartment, so they’ll want a place [for that], somewhere to store their dirty shoes and then change into clean house slippers. Another example is that people would be very concerned about whether their flooring material is easy to clean or not — carpet would be more difficult to clean compared to a tiled or marbled floor, for example. 

In terms of design and living, I would say people are more concerned about overall wellness. They need to have ventilation. I have some friends — they never open the windows in the house, they use air conditioning 365 days a year. Of course, it’s very comfortable in terms of temperature and humidity control. But it’s not healthy: You need fresh air. Now people are realising that this is something they should not disregard. Ventilation, natural hygiene, cleaning practicalities, this has all changed the perception on what makes a perfect home.

Evelyn Lok
When not trying out the latest beauty and wellness trends, Evelyn is likely enjoying a perfectly balanced negroni or exploring some of Hong Kong's best new places to eat and drink. She covers everything from the biggest events in town to interviews with Hong Kong specialists, with topics spanning art, food and drink, health, tech, and travel.