Coming from a family of doctors, Jess Sandford knew from an early age she wouldn’t be following that same path. Having always been a creative kid, Jess studied interior design before moving over to architecture, doing her architecture masters and throwing in some industrial design work for good measure. Jess has found herself working in interiors in Hong Kong for the last 3 years and we got a chance to ask her all about life here in Hong Kong, what inspires her work and what’s in store for her next.
Name: Jessica Sandford
Occupation: Interior Designer at Hassell
Hometown: Brisbane, Australia
Current Residence: Hong Kong, (nearly) 3 years
Three things you love about this city:
1. Hong Kong is an incredibly vibrant city - I love the social nature of the place!
2. The quality of restaurants here is next level - it’s great to have so many amazing places to eat at, and in the unlikely event that you get sick of any of those you can guarantee there’ll be a new one open in about 5 minutes.
3. Coming from Australia where everything is a long-haul flight away, it’s super convenient to be located in middle of Asia for travel. Vietnam in 2 hours? How good!
Three things you don’t love so much: Slow walkers, the overpriced coffee, and the relentless humidity!
Three things you look for in design:
Aside from the obvious qualities of “functionality and beauty”, if I had to pick 3 elements that make a successful design, they would be...
1. Clarity and simplicity. A unified design outcome comes from having clear focus in terms of the big idea, its execution, and the aesthetic expression.
2. Refined, considered details. This can really make or break a design - the devil is in the detail.
3. Spatial experience/atmosphere. It’s actually the main point of design, to enhance the user’s experience and create a memorable lasting impression of a space.
In a shortened version, how did you come to be working in Hong Kong as an interior designer?
Funnily enough, I actually started off at university studying interior design, then decided to move over to architecture, and now seem to have ended up back where I began, working in interiors. I come from a family of doctors and I think it was pretty obvious from an early age that I wouldn’t be going down that path. I was constantly making things as a kid (costumes, jewellery, paintings etc), and always knew that I wanted to end up doing something creative.
I grew up in Brisbane, where I spent the larger part of my twenties (seven years, to be precise) studying various design degrees (interior, architecture, architecture masters, and one semester of industrial design thrown in for good measure). I moved to Paris for a year towards the end of my architecture undergrad, which I think had much more of an impact on me than I would ever have predicted. That year definitely shaped me as a person, not only in terms of my education, but just the way of life. I definitely think that living in a city where you are constantly surrounded by exceptional beauty and a level of history that just doesn’t exist in Australia gives you an appreciation for aesthetics and culture.
When I moved back to Australia I worked in some small architecture firms, and as a stylist for a couple of years whilst finishing my masters. I think I got itchy feet quite quickly and decided to make the move to Hong Kong in early 2014. I’m currently working at the HK studio of the Australian international multidisciplinary design firm, Hassell.
What drew you to working in HK?
I moved over just a few months after graduating, at a time when the prospect of finding full time architecture work in Australia (or at least in Brisbane) was not looking particularly promising. There were lots of redundancies happening in the larger firms, and smaller firms were merging together to stay afloat. I had friends who’d been working in retail for nearly two years post-grad because there were just so few jobs available in the industry. It was basically just a pretty depressing situation to be faced with straight out of university. At the time I was in a long distance relationship with my (then) boyfriend, who had been relocated to Hong Kong with work. We had already discussed the possibility of me moving over and I had visited the city a couple of times and really enjoyed it, thought it seemed like a place I could definitely see myself living. There was nothing really tying me to Australia at the time, so I just thought, why not, let’s do this thing!
What are the big differences you see between design and architecture in Australia versus Hong Kong?
Well Hong Kong is an extremely high density city whereas Australian cities are much more sprawled out, so that obviously has a massive impact on the types of buildings that are being built in the two places - it’s just a completely different urban landscape! In terms of residential buildings, one of the major concerns in Hong Kong is to achieve maximum efficiency, which probably explains why so many HK apartment blocks look so similar - it’s almost hard to tell whether they were built 15 years ago or 50 years ago! So in that respect, there’s not much room for creative licence over here.
In Australia, on the other hand, you have all this space, and a large percentage of people are living in detached dwellings, so there is more variety in terms of the form a building could take. In saying that, there are a lot of regulations surrounding what you can and can’t build in Australia, which can be both a good and bad thing. I definitely think it’s important to preserve the character and heritage of a certain place, but sometimes regulations can also hinder progress.
Stylistically the two are also very different. In Australia there is an emphasis on open, relaxed design, simplicity, and use of natural materials. In Hong Kong, I feel the style is much more formal, more ornamental and definitely more OTT. There always seems to be a “feature” that can be added somewhere, or a bit of bling - no corner shall be left untouched! Over the past year I’ve had to move around quite a bit, and have visited what feels like almost every apartment between Wan Chai and Sai Ying Pun. One thing that constantly baffles me about Hong Kong rental apartments is the bizarre stylistic quirks that the landlords always seem to put in - the idea of “less is more” seems to be a bit of a foreign concept over here.
What do you see as the challenges in design and architecture here?
I think the density, as I already mentioned before, can act as both a challenge and an opportunity. Hong Kong’s density is a major part of what makes the city such a great place, but it’s definitely an issue that needs to be addressed, as it’s only going to get worse.
Hassell recently took part in this “Global 1:1” project as part of the Sydney Architecture Festival where we physically taped down of a number of 1:1 scaled plans of typical 1 bedroom apartments from different cities around the world. The aim of the exercise was to look at what is considered to be a ‘normal’ or acceptable amount of living space in different cities around the world, and to draw attention to the issue of housing density. It was interesting to compare the size of the Sydney one bedder with the Hong Kong apartment. After living in Hong Kong for just three years, I have already become accustomed to having much less space than what I would have previously considered to be a ‘comfortable minimum’. It’s funny how quickly you can adapt and learn to make use of what space you have. So I think that is an important discussion to be had, especially in the future - figuring out how to deal with the increasing density of the city, without compromising the living standards of the residents. Or even better, how can we increase the density, and actually improve the quality of life of residents.
Another big challenge here, but much more so in mainland China, is the issue of authenticity. Clients will often ask you to simply copy an existing design - often a design that comes from a completely different context and when taken out of that context seems utterly ludicrous. It can be quite hard to try and interpret what it is about that space that they actually like, and to convince the client that the reason they are hiring a designer is for them to actually design something from scratch.
Where do you see the industry heading in Hong Kong?
Actually most of the projects I work on are located in mainland China, so it’s hard for me to comment on the Hong Kong industry specifically. I guess with Hong Kong being so built up already, it means that there isn’t much more room for new construction. I’d like to see more cultural buildings being built in Hong Kong, actually I’m really looking forward to the opening of the M+ Building over in West Kowloon Cultural District as I think this precinct has the potential to really change the city in a positive way.
Do you have challenges being a western woman at work here (maybe just western or maybe just as a woman) and if so what?
Yes, both. As I mentioned, most of our clients are mainland Chinese, and often don’t speak much (if any) English. The language barrier can be quite tough at times. Often I am just sitting in a meeting or presentation without understanding a word that’s being said - it can be quite alienating! On the plus side, I’ve become really good at reading facial expressions and body language! Also, I find the system here much more hierarchical than in most western countries, and I think people have been educated from a young age to listen, but not come forward with their opinions, especially when dealing with someone of a ‘higher status’. In design this can be quite problematic as brainstorming of ideas is a huge part of the design process. When people are too shy to speak up and share their ideas it can definitely be detrimental to the process. This can be quite hard as you don’t want to come across as being too opinionated or ‘bossy’, but at the same time, I’m not just going to sit there with my mouth shut if I have a comment or idea.
Who/what are some inspirations for your work at the moment? Either other designers or architects?
Actually one thing that is a constantly source of inspiration for me is Instagram of all places. I think it’s a great platform to discover some really fresh emerging creatives - I can easily lose an hour on that thing - it’s like pandora’s box!
Travel is always a good way to be re-inspired and re-invigorated. I feel like your senses are much more heightened when you’re away from your natural environment - you tend to take in much more of your surroundings (not just the visual - but the entire experience) and notice things that you may normally just overlook. It’s also just great to see how people live in different parts of the world. Obviously what works in one city is not always going to be ideal (or even relevant) in another, but I find it’s good to open your mind to different ways of doing things - there’s always something to take away from the experience.
The work of Swiss architect Peter Zumthor has always resonated with me - there is a quietness and sensitivity to his work that I really appreciate. It’s really easy to “over design” something, but restraint is something that can be quite hard to achieve. I visited a few of his buildings on a trip to Germany about 6 years ago and was just in awe - actually I have been a bit obsessed ever since. There’s definitely something special about going to a place and experiencing it first hand - it’s that lasting memory that you just can’t compare to seeing something through a computer screen.
David Chipperfield is another one whose work I really admire for its refined simplicity and minimal detailing, as well as the Japanese firm SANAA. More locally, I think Shanghai based studio, Neri & Hu are doing some really interesting work which is both relevant to the Chinese context whilst coming across as modern and fresh.
If you could design for someone famous who would it be?
Tough question. Does it mean I get to meet them? Maybe someone like Tom Ford, as he has such great style.
Taking a turn away from design, as someone into their fitness, do you have any good recommendations for classes or activities to do in Hong Kong?
I try to make the effort to go to yoga at least 2-3 times a week, and have just started getting back into the hot yoga lately to try and prepare myself for the sweaty summer ahead! I’ve been at PURE for the past few years so I also alternate between GRIT and VIPR classes which are like high intensity interval training type situations that only last 30-45mins (bonus when I’m short on time - as is often the case). The classes at the gym are a convenient way to keep fit and healthy during the week, but I do really just crave the great outdoors - the city can become a bit claustrophobic at times. One of the fantastic things about Hong Kong is that you have access to so many great hikes. In less than an hour you can be somewhere that feels so far removed from the city. For something closer to home, I usually do the peak (Morning Trail) or Bowen Rd on weekends, or if I’m feeling a bit more adventurous, I might head out to Dragon’s Back, or over to Lantau. Some friends and I are currently doing “Booze Banuary”, which has been the perfect opportunity to make the most of the weather, and get back into the hiking!
Favourite bar hangout in HK?
There are too many to choose from! I really like Tai Lung Fung and Stone Nullah in Wan Chai, and, being an avid gin drinker, I also quite enjoy Ping Pong in Sai Ying Pun. But if we’re being completely honest, the places you’d most likely find me at are Stazione Novella, Soho Corner, or Varga Lounge.
Where do you see yourself next and what would you like to be doing?
It’s really hard to say, it could go so many ways. Ideally I’d like to be working in architecture rather than interiors and Hong Kong is sadly just not the best place to be doing that, but I still think I have a few years left before I’m ready to leave. In terms of cities I could see myself living in, San Francisco would be pretty high on the list, or maybe somewhere like Barcelona. I would definitely consider moving back to Paris but the main issue is finding somewhere that actually has work. Eventually I think I’d like to move back to Australia (Sydney) but I’m not ready for that just yet...