How Story-Driven Design Has Shaped AB Concept’s 20-Year Career
When Ed Ng and Terrence Ngan founded their design and architecture firm AB Concept 20 years ago, finding inspiration was often an arduous task.
“In the old days we had to sift through magazines or books,” remembers Ng. “I tell the young designers that we didn’t have the luxury of the internet back then. Now, you type in a keyword and you get hundreds of images. There are thousands of references to look at.”
What hasn’t changed, Ng says, is the need to filter those references and take away only what’s essential. What helps him and his team in deciding what’s essential is having a strong narrative behind every project. Developing the story of a space is a crucial aspect of AB Concept’s work, which includes hotels, restaurants, bars and residences across the globe.
In their recently-released first book (Assouline; $195) Ng and Ngan give a detailed look at the narrative behind some of their most stunning projects. Take for example EeDaLe (a play on the phonetic pronunciation of “Italy”), an Italian restaurant in Hong Kong. They started with a fantasy about an archetypal “Italian mama making hearty food.”
From there, they took the traditional themes associated with the idea of an Italian matriarch—warmth, rusticity, strength—and translated them into a glamorous dining room with billowing lampshades trimmed with undulating crystals and burlap-clad banquettes set against walls upholstered in burgundy leather. The effect is homespun glam.
“We use design to tell a story,” Ng says. “A strong narrative gives you a sense of why this red and not that red or why this texture and not that texture. Because everything is being driven by the narrative. It tells you what goes in and what goes out.”
A developed narrative also allows Ng to create spaces that are truly memorable, a skill that’s become more and more valuable in the age of social media, when every new restaurant needs to double as a backdrop for the perfect Instagram.
“When I think back to when I started my career, my boss was telling me ‘what’s the money shot?’ When the photographer goes in, what’s going to grab the focus? So, it becomes a question of what do you remember after your dinner? What do you remember a few weeks later? A few years? What stays in your memory? So, when you’re talking about something that will stay with people for years, that’s now what we’d call ‘the Instagram moment.’ I think the name has changed, but I think in general the thought process has always been similar.”
While much of AB Concept’s work has been in Asia (the firm counts offices in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Taipei), in recent years their reach in the West has expanded. The book showcases Mei Ume, a stunning restaurant Ng and Ngan designed at the Four Seasons Hotel London and an Asian-influenced residential project on the Côte d’Azur. The firm is currently working on a project in Portugal and a high rise across from Central Park in New York.
Despite the ever changing locales of their work, AB Concept stays true to their signature style and aesthetic. Ng compares it to being a chef.
“Working on a project in Portugal, I would not bring the same materials I’d use on a space in China,” he says. “A chef would go to the market in the town and see what kind of special produce do they have? What’s unique to this area? And then you use your creativity to take the local ingredients and to use your culinary skills to create a new taste of the local cuisine with your own talent and through your own lens. It’s the same with design. The chemistry you bring to it is going to be different and it’s going to give it a distinct look.”