Lyndon Neri, cofounder with his wife and fellow architect Rossana Hu of the prolific Shanghai-based multidisciplinary design firm Neri & Hu, has felt depressed for the past couple of years. But in a seemingly contradictory way, it excites him.
“I see a number of our friends who have done amazing work and I look at it and it’s like, ‘Oh! I should have been the one who thought of that,'” Neri says. “I look at Konstantin Grcic’s work and Naoto Fukasawa, and the Bouroullec Brothers and it continually impresses us. I turn to Rossana and say, ‘Wow, we suck.'”
Neri is just being modest, as the firm has created a number of compelling designs this year–a gorgeous flagship for a Korean skin care company, a retail installation for the British department store Selfridges, a Milan Design Week trade show booth for the Danish fabric company Kvadrat, and new furniture for Stellar Works, Offecct, and Poltrona Frau–but braggadocio doesn’t come naturally to the firm. In fact it’s the opposite of what the designers want to achieve. They preach the virtues of modesty and hard work and rail against objectifying design. But because they’re based in Shanghai, Neri and Hu have been labeled as the poster children of modern Chinese design–a celebrity designation that sits somewhat uncomfortably with the duo.
“During an interview, a reporter described us as ‘reluctant ambassadors’ of Chinese design, and I think she was right,” Neri says. “It’s thrust upon us. I’m a man of faith, and I believe we were put in a particular place and time for a reason and we can’t take that for granted. We’ve been given skills and backgrounds that a lot of people don’t have. I can draw; Rossana has an amazing mind. We need to be able to use this to help [Chinese design] instead of being very critical. We are just the bridges to the next generation. We want to make sure people can look at us and say, ‘If they can do it, we should be able to do it, too.'”
Though the practice is based in China, Neri & Hu has a distinctly international take on design. Neri, who is 51, was born in the Philippines. After his uncle was kidnapped and killed, Neri’s father sent him to live in the United States when he was 15 years old, out of concern for his safety. Hu, who is 48, hails from Taiwan and moved to the United States when she was 12. They both earned undergraduate architecture degrees from the University of California, Berkeley. Neri received his master’s degree in architecture at Harvard, and Hu received hers from Princeton.
“Is [the firm] Chinese? Is it Spanish? Is it Filipino? Is it Taiwanese? Is it American? No–it’s a mixture of all this,” Neri says. “There’s a lot of tension in a lot of these cultures. That contrast makes it interesting. We’re constantly in this mediation.” And the work they take on reflect as much; the firm has projects on the boards in Europe, North and South Americas, and Asia.
The pair didn’t meet until 2002 when they were both working for the late architect Michael Graves, from whom they inherited a cross-disciplinary approach to design. “There isn’t that big of a differentiation in terms of designing a cup to a table to a rug to a building,” Hu says. In 2004 they established their firm, Neri & Hu Design and Research Offices, in Shanghai. Since then, they have amassed a body of work that includes offices, hotels, bars, nightclubs, restaurants, private residences, and furniture. Today, the firm, which also has a satellite office in London, employs about 110 people split between interior designers, architects, product designers, graphic designers, and administrative staff.
Working in so many realms–products, architecture, interiors, and branding–helps the firm stay agile. “It’s a break sometimes when you’re working on a large architecture project that’s been going on for years,” Hu says. “You work on a furniture project then a graphics project. They inform each other.”
Neri believes this approach also helps strengthen the sensibilities of people the firm employs. “If you leave our practice and have become more ‘whole’ as a designer, I think we’ve done something good and meaningful,” he says.
While the pair jokes about becoming depressed by the quality of their peers’ work, they are very frustrated by and nervous about bad design entering the market and how design has, in some ways, become a consumerist undertaking, which in turn fuels more bad design.
“This whole sense of commercialism around furniture as fashion and taking cues from the fashion world that every season is a new thing [is at the root of the problem],” Hu says. “Freshness has to be constantly replaced, and it’s really the mentality of the society–this fast-paced and fragmented way of communication. These are all the maladies we’re all experiencing in our culture here and now. Whether or not a piece of furniture or a product is ‘good’ is not in question. It’s more about who designed it. What is the big label? Who is the name? It becomes the ultimate consumerism. Collecting names is like collecting bags: I have a Gucci today, tomorrow I have a Louis Vuitton. Today I have a Patricia Urquiola–we love her, we’re not criticizing her–and tomorrow we have a Philippe Starck. This is becoming a problem.”
Neri also believes that there’s too much stuff in the market, which adds to the problem. “A group of Chinese designers saw me and said, ‘We just saw your Poltrona Frau piece. Why didn’t you do a bed? You’d make a lot of money in royalties. What about a sofa? You’re just doing small wood things,'” he says referencing the firm’s new Ren collection of valets and foyer furniture. “It’s because we believe in it. We believe that Poltrona Frau doesn’t need another sofa. It doesn’t need another bed. They’re these humble pieces I believe are important and needed.”
This is also feeding into how the Chinese furniture industry at large is operating today. Neri compares the state of design to a sports game where companies are mostly producing branding exercises in the name of publicity. “They create this buzz in Milan [for design week], they wrangle all the press backing, they create associations that invite each other to lecture, they create awards they give to each other,” Neri says. “Rossana and I say, don’t waste this time patting each other on the back–do good work and eventually people will take notice.”
The antidote, they argue, is more humility and honesty in design.
“I stumbled upon a quote by C.S. Lewis and he was talking about creativity and that true creativity comes from being honest,” Hu says. “As long as you’re honest, you’re going to be creative. If a young designer tries to design to be famous–seeing that this is the trend so I will go towards that trend–you don’t know if you’re ever going to reach it. But if you are a young designer and you’re honest about who you are and try to develop who you are to the best of your ability, then no matter what you do you’re going to be elevated to the highest level you can be and I think that’s being honest. It’s intention.”
“You have to stay humble,” Neri adds. “If we’re not humble as designers, eventually this profession will crumble.”
Neri and Hu strive to embody this sentiment in their work and point of view, even as they embark on larger and larger projects. Right now they’re working on a factory in Portugal for De La Espada, one of the furniture manufacturers for which they often design. They also recently won a competition to design an arts center in Kuala Lumpur. Plus, they have a hotel for developer Craig Robins’s Miami Design District in progress and are working with a well-known hotelier in New York City on a yet-to-be-disclosed project.
“It’s hard to define what success is,” Hu says. “We definitely don’t think that if you’re more famous, you’re successful. For us, at least personally as designers, we would be very happy if we have a collection of really good work.”
All Photos: courtesy Neri & Hu