Many interior designers will tell you that working in Hong Kong is tricky, constrictive business. Building code dates back to the early 20th century and has yet to be updated, mechanical and electrical departments hold sway on what can be implemented in the SAR and are painfully out of touch — some would say anti-innovation. Then there’s the space issue, which is set to get worse if developers increase supply by making residences smaller.
Into this fray comes Tenniel Tsang, founder and director of Novus Penetralis. Known for having a unique interpretation of what constitutes function, Tsang and Co’s commercial (retail, restaurants, offices and hotels), institutional and residential work does its best to re-imagine what a space can be regardless of limitations. A graduate of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, Tsang holds fine art, architecture and design degrees, and started the idea-driven studio in 2004 with a mandate for “innovation and crossing new boundaries.”
Tsang, a native of Hong Kong, was drawn to design first by his own affinity for art and painting and secondly by the fundamentally mass nature of interiors. A few lucky people will be able to enjoy a painting; thousands can enjoy good interiors. With influences ranging from fashion to film and legends like Richard Meier (Los Angeles’ Getty Center) and Shin Takamatsu (Kirin Headquarters, Tokyo), the one concept that never fails to insert itself into Tsang’s work is father or skyscrapers Louis Sullivan’s belief that “form follows function.” Novus Penetralis’ goal is never to forget that all design should be people-oriented.
Tsang will also admit that Hong Kong can be a challenging design landscape to work on. Every space and every project will have its unique hurdles, and so like any good designer Tsang values clear communication with clients. Maximising space and efficiency is crucial, particularly when existing conditions can be constrained. Often, improvements are the best Novus Penetralis can do. And those improvements range from person to person, organisation to organisation, giving Tsang and Novus Penetralis every reason to be flexible in style. Tsang is quick to deny he or the studio has a defining aesthetic, and argues that would be counter-productive. The guiding principles are to be subtle, to avoid subjectivity and steer clear of any kind of “standard.” For Tsang, standards set boundaries and go out of style. Fast.
A few things that haven’t gone out of style are Hong Kong’s aforementioned building codes, which restrict innovation. On top of that heritage preservation is weak. But it’s not a hopeless cause according to Tsang. With upwards of 400 fresh interior design grads emerging each year and demand for design unwavering, there’s room to grow. Additionally, the government has been aggressive with developing the creative industries, and has recently launched more heritage preservation programmes. The combination of the two bode well for Hong Kong’s constructed future
And that is where Tsang is looking. Technology is on the verge of radically shaking up the design industry if it hasn’t already. 3D printing is going to be the next major game-changer as he sees it, and could very well be the key to realising previously unrealisable ideas. Also coming into play is discipline hopping, wherein interior design, graphics, fashion and others start mixing and matching in unprecedented ways. Personally, Tsang is flirting with more hospitality work and perhaps furniture design, either in partnership or as his own standalone brand. Ideally, that’s furniture for thousands to sit on and eat from.