Eastern Star: Nelson Chow Design + Architecture
TEXT Jean-François Goyette
PHOTOS Dennis Lo
Canadian architecture is rife with stories of immigration and emigration. Some of the country’s most talented designers have come from abroad—and others have left in pursuit of fresh opportunities.
Many young designers train in Canada, then elect to return to their home countries to build a career. That’s the path taken by one of Hong Kong’s rising stars in the realm of interior architectural design, Nelson Chow. From a solo practice started four years ago, Chow has made his mark in commercial spaces across the city—and with a recent commission to design McDonald’s flagship stores throughout the eastern hemisphere, he is poised to spread his Canadian-bred design vision across Asia.
Initially drawn to fashion design, Chow shifted pragmatically towards architecture, graduating from the University of Waterloo in 2004. He moved to New York after graduation, where he became licensed and, on the side, took evening classes in menswear design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Returning to Hong Kong to be closer to family, he worked for Edge Design—a local practice well known for creating interiors that maximize the limited space available in the dense urban fabric—before starting out on his own in 2011.
In Hong Kong, sky-high land prices and a competitive tendering process mean that large-scale commissions inevitably go to established consortia of architectural corporations and developers. For an emerging designer such as Chow, the strategy was to design bold and inspired interiors, largely for the city’s bustling restaurants. In contrast to the repetitive plans that characterize the city’s skyscrapers, Chow’s spaces present tailor-made respites rich with narrative.
In the Sheung Wan neighbourhood, a traditional antiques district located a five-minute walk from the central business area, one of Chow’s projects appears as an inconspicuous shopfront tucked away on a hilly side street. Exterior vitrines hold an extensive collection of stone seals in a myriad of materials and shapes, disguising what is held within. The store’s name—Mr. Ming’s Stamp Shop—is a decoy.
Press the correct stamp in the display, and a door opens to a 45-seat speakeasy called Mrs. Pound. Inside, the decor tells the fictional story of long-lost lovers—Mrs. Pound, a burlesque dancer from 1950s Shanghai and Mr. Ming, a Hong Kong shopkeeper. The decor echoes pastiche elements from the Orient of the mid-20th century.
A green and red palette forms a retro backdrop for an array of custom fixtures, such as mirrors and lighting inspired by gymnasts’ rings. Common tiles from a local shop help set Mrs. Pound within the material language of the city; the tiles are laid in colourful, inventive patterns. For Chow, the idea of designing a holistic experience is important, with each visit offering the potential for a new discovery that brings the guest deeper into the story.
Chow’s focus on customization is reflected in another recent project: the Pak Loh Chiu Chow restaurant on the 10th floor of a shopping centre in Causeway Bay, the retail heart of Hong Kong. The restaurant was established in 1967; Chow aimed to rejuvenate the brand while relating to its rich history. The resulting design combines both classical and modern elements, contrasting vintage and streamlined details.
Upon entering through a curved passageway, guests are seated in a vaulted dining room. The ceiling is lined with CNC-milled wooden halfarches, yielding a complex geometrical form and spatial effect from a simple pattern. Bespoke wall sconces, chairs with velour backs, and houndstooth wallpaper reinforce the contemporary interpretation of 1960s Hong Kong. Spatially, the ceiling helps break the dining room into intimate areas, while additional wooden separators define private dining rooms. Chow’s holistic design is applied at all scales, from the architectural interior down to staff uniforms and branding.
Nowhere is the contrast between mass customization and mass production more apparent than in Chow’s work for McDonald’s. For a brand more commonly known for global supply-chain logistics rather than design, it may seem unusual for someone like Chow to be involved. His function, however, isn’t in the roll-out of plastic-molded furnishings. As lead interior designer, his firm is responsible for the chain’s flagship restaurants in Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. In contrast to the loud colours typical of McDonald’s restaurants in North America, Chow’s interiors for the chain are more reminiscent of Scandinavian design, utilizing natural materials and minimal graphics.
The restaurants present an opportunity to link each of the stores to their local settings through design accents. The McDonald’s flagship in Shenzhen, for instance, includes lighting fixtures reminiscent of the bamboo baskets used for steaming rice-flour buns. An oversized abacus with red beads is deployed to divide the space. Pillar-like seats recall the posts used in traditional Chinese architecture. Abstracted Chinese graphics are applied to table and wall surfaces. Within the limitations of the brand’s systematic design guidelines, Chow finds ways to link to local context and to tell a story.
The meticulous execution of Chow’s work owes much to his education—studying in a practice-based program at the University of Waterloo and in the detail-oriented field of tailoring. Is there an element of his work that makes it fundamentally Canadian? It’s hard to say. He does, however, join a growing contingent of architects with Canadian links—such as the wellestablished Bing Thom and newer upstarts Jet Architecture (part of the winning team that recently won the M+ Arts Pavilion competition in West Kowloon)—who are bringing their talents and experience across continents to land on Hong Kong’s shores.
Jean-François Goyette is an architectural writer and editor, currently working in Hong Kong.