Love is in the wear


South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, April 24, 2009
Architecture with a lived-in touch is winning hearts

When architect Bill Bensley was asked to design a hotel in Phuket not long after the tsunami, he found himself wanting to give it a deeper layer of meaning. That layer was found by his team of Thai and Indonesian designers at salvage auctions in the area, where they bought driftwood and other bits of wreckage wrought by the giant wave, and incorporated them into the hotel, Indigo Pearl. “We picked up a whole lot of materials and in various innovative ways reused them, in the structure, in sculptures,” he recalls. The hotel, which also uses a lot of old tin in tribute to the area’s tin mining history, has received rave reviews for its vision and its sensitivity.

Using architectural salvage like this is a great way to bring emotional resonance to a space. Though Asian consumers tend to love the look and smell of the brand spanking new, the virtue of an old door, scuffed floor tiles or a vintage piece of iron work is beginning to be understood – especially in a city like Hong Kong, where floor plans are cookie cutter and product brands are limited. Unlike antique ornamentation, salvage brings personality deeper into the fabric of your home.

Hong Kong artist Stanley Wong has explored the layers of personal meaning in materials by making installations out of refuse, but in Hong Kong bar and restaurants The Pawn and The Press Room he brought this philosophy into play as a designer. In the vintage club-style Pawn he used timber from old ship decks in floors and walls, and flattened out rice bags for wallpaper. “Of course, people here are not really used to it (but) there’s a more sentimental, sensational feeling,” he says.  “To me, salvaged materials not only provide a different look, but more important (are) the emotion and stories behind… and the sense of environmental friendliness”.

The environmental factor is key to the popularity of salvage among designers; the luxury market might be resilient to reuse but the green revolution has made the idea more marketable.  Raefer Wallis of A00 Architecture was responsible for shaping the look of young ‘carbon neutral’ hotel, URBN, in Shanghai (pictured above), founded by entrepreneurs Jules Kwan and Scott Barrack. “URBN is not about salvaged mahogany and old suitcases… it is about making the best use of available local resources,” stresses the designer, who with Kwan, spent days cycling around old expo sites and tiny shops on the hunt for resources to use in the building. A hefty dose of local character comes from the wall of battered leather suitcases stacked high in the hotel reception, and rooms are enveloped in brick and old mahogany from demolished hutongs. Most of the suitcases were barely recognizeable when they were first unearthed, he notes; they needed hours of cleaning and polishing.

Bringing these old materials into a home takes creativity as well as elbow grease. Jennifer Newton of Hong Kong-based interior design studio Newton Concepts, spends many a weekend sifting through old wood at reclamation yards, like the one near Bangkok’s Chatuchak market, and these find their way into her clients’ homes in various forms. “I use a lot of wood reclaimed from old railway sleepers in Bali and Java, and a lot of old oolong wood and iron wood used in shipyards and I’ll make it into table tops – coffee tables and dining tables – because it has so much character to it,” she explains. “You can also use big slate tiles as coffee tables, or reuse old Chinese windows either as windows or you can make them into mirrors.”

In one recent apartment redesign, Newton lined structural ceiling beams with worn elm panels from China, giving the home a strong earthy kick. But she advises against using old wood for flooring because each piece needs to be cut evenly, sanded down and treated for small holes. Flooring shops in western cities have such materials ready-prepared at a price, but she knows of no such option here.
In fact in this part of the world the road to good architectural salvage can be long and tiresome, though this journey itself brings a narrative to your interior. Designers speak of glamour-less trawls through wreckage yards and hours spent tracking down hole-in-the-wall stores in Beijing for a small pile of vintage tiles. Wallis finds his resources in little shops around Chinese demolition sites, where the former DVD or underwear-selling tenants have been replaced by salvage vendors in spaces “with a makeshift door and lock on the front, and maybe a hanging light bulb or two.” Kwan, thanks to a tip-off, found his suitcases in a dusty unnumbered warehouse outside of Shanghai.

In Hong Kong success can sometimes be had in the wood vendors along Wan Chai’s Lockhart Road, or in Cat Street shops in Sheung Wan, which stock smaller items such as wall sconces, light fitting and door knobs.  Newton has started to sell old pieces at her store on Elgin Street because of the gap in the market, though she has also sourced some wood through Mix Creation Ltd in Central (tel: 2307 0273). A few furniture vendors, such as David Ng’s Matchit ( on Star Street or Chen Mi Ji ( are good starting points for custom-made furniture pieces with age and character.

Character doesn’t come cheaply though. One Hong Kong designer impetuously shelled out HK$4,000 for a large plank of shipyard wood in a LockhartRroad shop; the piece is now mounted and spot-lit in his conference room, coveted by most of his clients, and according to him, worth it. Higher grade salvage, like teak from old houses in Indonesia or stained glass windows from churches in Europe, can command extremely high prices. However in Asia, at the source (mainly demolition sites) many pieces are in danger of being thrown away or chopped up, and bargains can be found.  “Typically they show up in the neighborhood where they are sourced,” notes Wallis. “Moving them any further isn’t worth it. Finding them requires a bike or scooter… or better yet walking. You miss these little places when trying to hunt them down with a car.”

For those that like to cheat, technology and cheap manual labour on the Mainland can add a century to a design scheme, courtesy of a good contractor.  “You say, I want this with a cracked lacquer screen and show them a picture,” says a designer at hospitality giant, Hirsch Bedner Associates. “They paint it, fracture it, repaint it and process, and when they’re done it looks 110 years older. You do get some strange looks when you first ask, though – the concept is not completely understood!” There are also DIY options: aged paint finisher can work wonders on mouldings.

However many designers can’t bring themselves to go faux. Alexi Robinson worked with top British designer Tom Dixon on Shoreditch House, one of London’s latest hipster members’ clubs, with a warehouse aesthetic that inspired the Pawn (and countless other interiors the world over). She has been hired by the Press Room Group to do a restaurant in Hong Kong. “Would I fake it? I don’t think I could; I believe in the honesty of a material,” she says.  “It might not be the most practical or economically sensible advice to homeowners because the technology for certain effects is now very convincing, but to build a narrative within the space, to create a feeling of true comfort I think you’ve got to believe in the authenticity of the materials you’re using.”