New Perspective on Emotional DesignMelbourne-based Kerry Phelan Design Office has had a good deal of success applying its singular design philosophy to hospitality, retail and residential interiors around the region for four years. Where do an interior designer and architect with almost 50 years combined experience go for a challenge? Hong Kong naturally. Squarefoot meets KPDO’s Kerry Phelan, founder and director, and Stephen Javens, director of architecture.

So, why here?
Phelan: When you come to Hong Kong you feel a palpable sense of energy, at least we do. And in talking to people you get a sense they really understand the creative process and are willing to trust that process. For me, trying to move ahead with a design direction is increasingly harder in Australia. Here, people tend to trust that you know what you’re doing.

So is Hong Kong’s casual acceptance of design a symptom of a sophisticated market or poor fundamentals?
Phelan: You’ve got a big international population here, and the younger generations of Hong Kong designers are extremely design savvy.

Javens: People are travelling more but design media is also so omnipresent. People are more visually aware because there’s so much media.

Not many people would rank Hong Kong’s creative environment above Australia’s. Are Australia’s environmental standards a hurdle?
Phelan: It’s not that at all. In fact in the two projects we’re doing here we’re applying some of the Australian standards to both. That’s not an issue. Javens: We hope to pick up on this new kind of zeitgeist here, which about being respectful of old buildings. We’re passionate about adaptive reuse of old buildings and one of the projects we’re doing in Kennedy Town is a refurbishment of a 1940s building. That’s what we get excited about.

Phelan: A lot of those buildings don’t exist anywhere else in the world. They’re just so gorgeous.

But demand for housing can trump aesthetics here.

Javens: Oh it’s true but there’s a healthy balance somewhere. You can’t just have one argument and in this instance we’re the counter argument [that] if we’re not careful and preserve what we have we’ll have a shiny new city all the time that keeps reinventing itself that loses its character. It’s the crafts that go with these buildings too, and many of them don’t exist anymore … Pull down the bad ones.

Phelan: The Kennedy Town building has a staircase with a central handrail and balustrade made of this gorgeous yellow terrazzo. You don’t see that anywhere anymore. It doesn’t matter that it’s not perfect. It matters that it’s still there.

So what is KPDO about?
Javens: I suppose it’s a freshness. This is a personal service — we work on people’s homes — and we hope we’re engaging people in the process and helping them create spaces that enrich their lives.

So you’re believers in the connection between interiors and exteriors.

Javens: A lot of practices see architecture and interiors as different but we see it as a more holistic approach. I don’t start off the building and have Kerry come along and fill it in. It is about understanding summer and winter, morning and evening. Phelan: We try really hard to concentrate on how the interior connects to the external spaces. A space feels different in the morning than it does in the evening. It’s a lovely transition that should be connected to the house

Can you describe your process?
Phelan: We create an architectural background … People’s lives don’t stay static. If you’re in a home for 20 years and children grow up, you travel and bring things in, the family can grow and the background can remain elegant and classic and it can take on changes … I’m of the understanding that not many people do what we do here, which is a highly creative process. What we bring to the table is a collection of where we get our creativity from: art, fashion, movies, history. It’s about understanding what resonates from the past, finding out how to distil that and make it contemporary, make it something else. It’s worked for us so far.