JJ Acuña’s stu­dio mixes aes­thetic sen­si­bil­i­ties with do­mes­tic prac­ti­cal­ity

Hong Kong-based ar­chi­tect and in­te­rior de­signer James Acuña takes us on a tour of his de­sign stu­dio/home


It is re­fresh­ing—as much as it is a priv­i­lege— to see and live in spa­ces that de­vi­ate from the sea of mo­bile houses and tiny apart­ments in cramped cities like Hong Kong. Ar­chi­tect and in­te­rior de­signer James Acuña knows this all too well. He is the ed­i­tor of the de­sign blog

Wan­derlis­ter+, and the founder of JJ Acuna / Be­spoke Stu­dio, whose clien­tele in­cludes some of Asia’s best res­tau­rants, like the Tate Din­ing Room and Bar in She­ung Wan by Vicky Lau and Lit­tle Bao in Bangkok by May Chow.

Liv­ing in Hong Kong for the last 13 years and work­ing as a ma­nip­u­la­tor of space in the world’s least af­ford­able hous­ing mar­ket, Acuña de­signed his 100-sqm bou­tique stu­dio to dou­ble as many things: a place to work, a li­brary of ideas, and ul­ti­mately, an ex­ten­sion of home.

We caught up with Acuña at his spa­cious quar­ters lo­cated at the in­dus­trial district of eastern Hong Kong to talk about mix­ing aes­thetic sen­si­bil­i­ties and do­mes­tic prac­ti­cal­ity. Take us through your cre­ative process when de­sign­ing your space. Well, when I first got it, it was just one big empty space. The big­gest ques­tion in my head was, “How can a de­sign stu­dio space

be a place to work, a place to re­ceive guests, a place to gen­er­ate ideas, a place where in­spi­ra­tion can oc­cur?” I didn’t want too many walls, but I did need a lot of zones for dif­fer­ent types of pro­grams.

The idea is to cre­ate an­chors within an open plan to help de­fine the use and aes­thet­ics of that part of the floor plan and space. The liv­ing area has a big built-in book­shelf, the meet­ing area is un­der­pinned by a 20-yearold Amer­i­can maple din­ing ta­ble made in Mass­a­chu­setts, and so forth.

So now if you walk around the stu­dio, each zone has a very unique per­son­al­ity, even if it’s a gen­er­ally open plan.

What were some con­sid­er­a­tions you had in mind while put­ting the plan to­gether?

Ba­si­cally, I just wanted to cre­ate a stu­dio space that was very com­fort­able for friends, col­lab­o­ra­tors, and de­sign­ers to come in and ideate in dif­fer­ent ways. I wanted it to feel easy, flex­i­ble, and tex­tured. There’s col­lab­o­ra­tive ar­eas like the liv­ing room and din­ing room, an in­tro­spec­tive read­ing area for one, a med­i­ta­tion area, and typ­i­cal work­ing area with a nice tim­ber desk.

What was the in­spi­ra­tion be­hind its de­sign?

My own art and my books were the main im­pe­tus for the de­sign. I col­lect a lot of books on ar­chi­tec­ture, art, and de­sign, and I have tons of Filipino art from dif­fer­ent gal­leries. So when plan­ning the stu­dio’s de­sign, I ba­si­cally planned the lo­ca­tion of the book­shelf first for the dis­play and ex­hi­bi­tion of these spe­cial items, and then the rest fell into place after that. I also loved the nat­u­ral day­light—it faces south­west—so I get a lot of good light here.

Were there any hur­dles you came upon de­sign­ing this stu­dio?

The stu­dio’s win­dows needed up­dat­ing be­cause there were leaks and there were some ex­ist­ing struc­tures we turned into stor­age, but in gen­eral, the space was pretty much a

tab­ula rasa. The most dif­fi­cult thing I think was re-plumb­ing the space for the open kitchen and pantry area and in­stalling a new pow­der room and shower. Just to make it more homey and do­mes­tic be­cause, after all, it’s a multi-use loft. And do­ing ev­ery­thing within a rea­son­able bud­get and com­plet­ing the whole project from de­sign to turnover in about six weeks.

What el­e­ments were you keen on in­clud­ing?

I thought [that] even though it [was] an open plan, we still needed to cre­ate pri­vate/pub­lic zones with­out hav­ing to build ob­tru­sive par­ti­tions. We were able to achieve this by cre­at­ing glass and me­tal grid di­viders for the space, as well as in­cor­po­rat­ing satin cur­tains in a blush tone.

The glass and me­tal di­viders help cre­ate a room within the open plan, and the cur­tains, when closed, help give more pri­vacy from one space to an­other.

When de­sign­ing and put­ting to­gether the space, I was re­ally into Ital­ian Mem­phis de­sign of the ’80s, so there were a few cool touches like the black-and-white gran­ite stone slab for the pow­der room area, two vin­tage Tonon Italia chairs from the late ’80s, the Mem­phis-style cof­fee ta­ble in black mar­ble and elec­tro­plated brass de­signed by Jaime Hayon for &tra­di­tion in the liv­ing area. Nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als like the oak floor­ing, rat­tan chairs, tim­ber sofa, and maple din­ing ta­ble kind of ground the high-style Mem­phis as­pects of the de­sign.

Tell us about the decor and the ac­cents.

Wher­ever I travel I tend to buy art, es­pe­cially Filipino art, or books, or even ran­dom things like crys­tal rocks, spir­its, and ce­ram­ics. So even though there’s space, I try re­ally hard not to clut­ter them and give ev­ery ob­ject room to breathe. I also wanted trop­i­cal plants

at home, so I’ve got my mon­steras, my birds of par­adise, the yucca plant, lucky bam­boos, and suc­cu­lents keep­ing me com­pany and clean­ing the air.

Speak­ing of Filipino art, of which artists are you a fan?

Right now my fa­vorite Filipino artists are Jel Suarez, Dina Ga­dia, Alan Bal­isi, and of course, the late Roberto Cha­bet. I also love Ar­turo Luz. Some­day, I hope to af­ford his works.

How is this stu­dio dif­fer­ent from the one in Manila?

Our Manila stu­dio is slowly com­ing to­gether. There have been hic­cups, so it all looks a bit cor­po­rate at the mo­ment. But when there’s time and op­por­tu­nity in the com­ing year, we hope to make it look as homey as we have it in Hong Kong.

If you could live some­where else, where would it be?

I think it’s funny to think that fi­nally in my life I’m liv­ing in two cities I re­ally love, Hong Kong and Manila, and I don’t see my­self ac­tu­ally liv­ing any­where else. At present, I’m com­pletely con­tent, happy, and aligned with be­ing a ci­ti­zen of both places. I’m just hav­ing fun, work­ing, and op­er­at­ing in both these cities. It’s a dream for me. But I also don’t mind stay­ing in Syd­ney ei­ther. I love Aus­tralia, and I love Aus­tralian de­sign. I like what’s go­ing on there at the mo­ment from a style per­spec­tive.

What is your sig­na­ture style and how does it man­i­fest in this space?

I think my style is try­ing to bal­ance all kinds of projects with a con­sid­ered and more hu­man­is­tic ap­proach to plan­ning and de­sign. How can a home be more than a home? How can a home sup­port our life­style, dreams, and as­pi­ra­tions, or how can a work­place or a place to eat be an ex­ten­sion of one’s do­mes­tic space—mean­ing a space where some­one can feel like they can come back to it again and again and be them­selves?

These days, I’m re­ally con­cerned with the qual­ity of life and mak­ing sure that we treat our clients and the peo­ple who use our spa­ces with re­spect. I want to make spa­ces that make peo­ple bet­ter after spend­ing time in there. No mat­ter who that may be. So I think my sig­na­ture style may be in the way that do­mes­tic­ity or the do­mes­tic en­vi­ron­ment feeds into a life­style space and vice versa. You see that from my stu­dio.

Filipino ar­chitech and in­te­rior de­signer James Acuña’s 100- sqm stu­dio in Hong Kong

Satin cur­tains in blush tones were added to cre­ate di­vi­sions in lieu of con­crete walls.

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