Founder and project manager of the year-old MPlus Interior Design, Billy Au studied design in Washington and made the unconventional decision to come home after six years. The Macau native bypassed Hong Kong too, opting to take a chance on his blossoming hometown and become something of a trailblazer in Macau’s design infancy. Square Foot chats with Au.
Why did you come back?
To be honest by the time I graduated the unemployment rate in the States was horrible. The economy in Macau is growing fast and people are getting wealthier and they’re starting to put an effort into designing their homes.
Where are you working from in Macau? Are the buildings solid to begin with?
I think the market is growing. An interest in design has existed for a while in Hong Kong but it’s quite new in Macau. I think the basics are better here than in Hong Kong, the floor plans are better. There are no diamond shapes or curves. So we don’t have to spend a lot of time knocking down walls or making the space more useable. Apartments are still a little bit bigger too. But people here concentrate on the appearance of the home.
Do you have a preference for new or old structures?
I do both. The older ones are more difficult to work in. We don’t have those post-war walk-ups, but we have worked on those low-rise buildings, sometimes a 20-storey building and occasionally I find it isn’t in as good shape as I expected. There’s water leakage, “old” looking interiors, beams and columns everywhere. It can be quite challenging. But in new buildings there are no poorly placed beams and no odd shapes. The spaces are more useful and very often the ceilings are higher. You mentioned developers in Hong Kong who renovate the old buildings but here they tend to tear them down. I like the older buildings but they’re hard to find.
Is there such a thing as Macanese design?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I wouldn’t say there’s a unique style yet. The culture is a little bit different and that grand European style doesn’t work here, that’s for China. People here like to keep it simple and they care about privacy. No one wants to be on a TV show or have their picture on the Internet. They just don’t want other people to know what’s in their home. It’s a space for living, not for showing off their wealth. It’s a cultural difference but not a style one. Not so far.
But style is related to culture and I think Macanese style is fading as Chinese bring in their own culture, as Hong Kong brings its own. Local culture is getting weak and that’s reflected in design. I don’t even know what Macanese interiors are, though architecture is still strong. I don’t see it in interiors but I try to do it in my work.
Is there a style that defines MPlus or you?
I think I’ve developed a style around certain colours — black, white, grey, sometimes red, some wood. That defines me: simple and contemporary. But the reality is sometimes I can insist on my position and sometimes I just do what a client wants, no questions asked, no suggestions. It really depends on the client. And here clients trust the contractor more than the designer too … There needs to be more awareness of what a good designer does. Most people think we’re contractors. If you stress function over appearance no one pays attention.
How is the process here?
Sustainable design is not that common yet, and accessibility is an issue. I can only do lighting for sustainable design because there’s just nowhere to purchase the right materials. In most cases I source everything from Macau, unless it’s a very special, specific material.
You do mostly residential. What would you like to try?
A restaurant. I think I could get crazy. Restaurant owners have open minds and don’t mind intense design. Drop ceilings don’t work so well in homes. And I’d try a project in Hong Kong if someone wanted me to. Why not? China’s home sales saw a strong pick up in June, with monthly transaction of residential floor area breaking through the 100 million square meters level for the first time this year to 109 million square meters, representing a monthly increase of over 30 percent. The value of homes sold also climbed 24 percent month-on-month, from RMB 503 billion in May to RMB 624.4 billion in June. The housing market in the first half of the year saw a strong growth due to a low base last year, with total home sales surging by 34 percent compared with the same period a year ago, totaling 555 million square meters. Home sales in first-tier cities also reached the highest level this year. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen together sold over 5 million square meters of residential floor space in June, up 36 percent from the preceding month. Among which, home sales in Shanghai rose near 90 percent month-on-month to 2.47 million square meters, accounting for nearly 50 percent of the total home sales in first tier cities during the month. Beijing and Guangzhou also saw their home sales rise 18 percent and 22 percent respectively. On the other hand, new home price appreciation has slowed down as fewer cities saw rises in new home prices in June. According to the data released by the National Bureau of Statistics, 63 out of 70 major cities across the country reported monthly gains on new home prices, compared with 65 cities in May. The growth pace also appeared to be easing. New home price in 70 cities grew an average of 0.78 percent in June, slowing down from 0.86 percent and 0.9 percent gains in May and April respectively. With the Central Government’s efforts to cool home price, the growth paces of home prices in first-tier cities were mixed. Month-on-month growth of new home price in Beijing remained unchanged at 1.3 percent in June, while Shanghai edged up from 1.4 percent to 1.8 percent, and in Guangzhou, the growth slowed from 1.5 percent to only 1 percent in June.