ACTS Studio founder Carl Gouw never stops redefining luxury – and nothing is black and white when it comes to his designs.
Carl Gouw’s office is not the easiest place to find. Tranquillity, coupled with a laid-back attitude, the ACTS Studio office is tucked away in one of his own works, ACTS Rednaxela, a serviced apartment situated on the mezzanine floor in Central, far from the bustle of SoHo.
I arrive on a sunny spring day for the interview where the plants at the entrance are perfuming the air, but behind the door lies another world.
It’s poorly lit here, almost pitch-black, with only a dim light coming out from an array of tungsten lamps on one of the walls. From the ground floor up to his office on the third, the entire interior is clad in black, brimming with a chilling muted atmosphere.
The ambience may look grim to many, but this cold black mood perfectly reflects the character of Gouw – today he is in a black and white ensemble, looking faintly aloof and utterly calm with a bland face.
With a particular fondness for hotels, Gouw has loved designing since he was a boy. His interest in space traces back to the influence of his first employer through an internship – Simon Jackson – a renowned designer who was also a client of his parents in 1994.
“I’ve always been fond of design, particularly with hotels. Hotels have a holistic combination of architecture, interior and luxury. It’s charming,” the award-winning designer says courteously.
He completed his first design project at 18. After years of experience working on design projects surrounding hotels and luxury residences, he founded ACTS Studio in 2005, focusing on hospitality, offices, residential and retail.
Among the most luxurious projects include Nathan Hotel, FC Residence and a number of residential projects in premium areas, including Mid-Levels, Aberdeen, Stubbs Road and Tai Hang Road.
A veteran of three decades in luxury design projects, he has developed a unique interpretation for luxury.
“A luxury design means truly understanding why certain needs appear in the market, instead of just designed to address the needs, otherwise the result could be very commercial.”
Apart from interior designs, the prolific ACTS team plays multiple roles for property developments from being a developer, contractor, building supplier to a marketer.
“By delivering all these services we get to know the frustrations and limitations these parties are facing. This holistic approach allows us to enhance the experience design and styling of a space.”
This is proven in this very workplace, which is also his proudest project in Hong Kong in collaboration with reputable designer Gary Chang from EDGE.
The interior, shrouded in darkness, is subtly studded with tiny, but impactful details that breathe life into the space.
After a long walk in the gloomy hallway on the ground floor, you are brought into an elevator filled with a melodious classical piece that comes from a digital screen showcasing a pair of hands dancing on the keyboard. The piece has been slightly moderated and trimmed to create a seamless loop.
Upstairs in his working area, the cool modern space, just as murky as downstairs, is prominently festooned with a raft of vintage decor, retro toys and black-and-white portraits that looked like they were taken decades ago. I tried to find out the stories behind this unique little corner, but Gouw appears reluctant to share more.
Instead, he seems more eager to talk about his latest turnaround project of a residential house on Moorsom Drive at the premium Jardine’s Lookout.
The mansion is inherently modern in its architecture, highlighted by a double-height dining room and floor-to-ceiling windows. The spacious dining area is designed for an easy indoor-outdoor flow.
“Apart from interior design we also serve as a developer and marketer to package the house for the market. This allows us to align focal points in the property as we also handle its landscape.
“The design principle is simple. We keep the interior as clean and modern as possible, completed with earth tones on many décors to further enhance the outside-inside connection.”
His next plan is a revitalisation project, aiming to give rebirth to a 93,000 square feet undeveloped site under the Kwun Tong Bypass, commissioned by non-profit group HKALPS.
Adjacent to the Kwun Tong Promenade, the site is designed to be an alfresco art space with about 40 to 50 refurbished containers scattered on a sprawling green lawn, slated to complete next year, he says.
To support the project, the government will pump some HK$20 million into the construction, while HKALPS is expected to chip in HK$2 million.
His success is, albeit not unprecedented, rare in Hong Kong.
Many passionate young designers in Hong Kong face hardships due to limitations of an educational opportunity. Their dreams to become interior designers fade at a very early stage in favour of careers that are commonly considered more “practical” such as finance or marketing if they failed to enter university.
While he admits that limited educational opportunities in Hong Kong is partly the reason for this, he insists that doesn’t mean a dead-end.
“Both designers and architects have to be self-taught. Many overseas universities, particularly from the US, don’t provide architecture courses until master level.
“You cannot learn space design, architecture in particular, from books, you need to practise.
“Success doesn’t depend on your education level, it depends on your sense and interest with space and, of course, hard work.”