Loose furnishings and cabinets are making a come back in Hong Kong after years of custom built-ins

The only thing certain is change. That argument may seem to contradict the adage that everything comes full circle. Yet in the realm of home furnishings in Hong Kong, it seems the more that things change, the more they stay the same.

Similar to the rest of the world, Hong Kong flats follow international trends—albeit sometimes there is a time lag for the movement to catch on here. In the 1960s, the clean lines and natural materials of Alvar Aalto’s Scandinavian furnishings were all the rage. The 1980s saw the rise of Italy’s The Memphis Group and its colourfully influential postmodern styles. French designer Philippe Starck gained a loyal following for reinventing European classics while making them affordable as the millennium approached. And today, vernacular stars such as Filipino Kenneth Cobonpue and Shanghai based team Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu derive inspiration from their culture and surrounding environments.

Hong Kong’s rising middle class coupled with the handover over the past two decades have added complex dimensions to the city’s furniture trends. Residences used to be on either end of the spectrum: either cramped shared apartments with communal kitchens and bathrooms (think Maggie Cheung’s claustrophobic room in Wong Kar Wai’s film In the Mood for Love) or grand, multi-storeyed abodes with deep balconies to welcome cooling breezes in an age before air conditioning. Successive improvement in public housing developments has fine-tuned how a large percentage of the city lives today. Despite the perceived housing shortage, more Hong Kong residents are enjoying a better quality of life than they ever had previously. And while spacious mansions may be fewer and farther between now, the Internet and social media have inspired everyone with lifestyles and subsequent products to aspire for.

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As homes become more compact over the years to appeal to a wider market, the trend was to customise furniture to fit the space. Developers used to offer finished apartments that were completely bare except for basic kitchen and bathroom fixtures—some still do. As bedrooms often barely fit a bed, built-in closets were often omitted to make them appear larger. It was assumed that buyers would renovate the space to suit their personal needs. As soon as the keys were handed over, contractors would swoop in to assist the naïve new homeowner to create a dream home with built-in cabinets, bay window benches, shelving and wardrobes. With Hong Kong apartments’ lack of on-site storage in the form of basements or attics, coupled with our propensity to acquire designer goods of all shapes and sizes, often a lot of precious real estate goes into storage. Yet the more fixed storage in an apartment, the less actual living space.

It is a rare trait for someone to know how they will live in a new space. It is a gradual process: adapting to how daylight filters through in the mornings, how much cooked versus take away food will be consumed, and other details in a new residence. When everything is built-in prior to move in, even something as simple as changing the orientation of a bed may not be possible. Bulky toy storage will not be necessary for the teenage version of a small child as his interest shifts from trucks and train sets to books and gadgets. A pantry with under counter fridge and microwave will not be enough of a culinary diversion for a new partner who loves to cook. Yet with the average Hong Kong flat clocking in at roughly 400 square feet, renovating an apartment after moving in is often difficult and expensive. And there is the dilemma of where to live during that frequently stressful process.

There is the added dilemma of sustainability. Construction waste accounts for a substantial percentage of our rapidly overflowing landfills. Built-in millwork ripped up and discarded during interior renovations should be given due consideration alongside the government-driven levy on plastic bags. While everyone has his version of a dream home, the propensity to disregard how much is wasted often prevails. It used to be that furnishings were cherished items that passed through multiple generations, and were lovingly taken care of. Cheap construction materials and the fast fashion mode of thinking have made furniture a disposable item in Hong Kong.

Happily, the tide is turning in recent years and loose furniture is making a comeback—along with Nordic design. Hong Kong’s low taxes and proximity to the world’s best millwork manufacturers make the virtually unlimited selection of international designer furnishings within easy reach. If you wish to invest in the contemporary classic look and craftsmanship of a Minotti sofa, all it takes is a browse through Andante in Ruttonjee Centre and you are on your way to owning an Italian stallion of seating. Concentrations of lifestyle shops such as in Shatin’s Home Square allow buyers to wander through shops from mass market IKEA to accessories and gadgets bonanzas like Homeless.

Alongside the international designers, local talents are creating small quantities of well crafted pieces to appeal to a niche market. Professor Ernesto Spicciolato is helping PolyU design students bring their products to market through its innovative programme SD Works. San Po Kong’s 1950 Furniture has jumped onto the current wave of modern classics with their catalogue of customisable retro pieces. And many Hong Kong based industrial designers such as Lee Chi Wing and Michael Young offer singular furnishings and lighting imbued with their singular viewpoints.

As we begin to value quality again over fast fashion, it becomes all the more apparent that loose furnishings allow for a more flexible home. If you wish to host a CNY eve dinner for a dozen family members, it may be a tight squeeze—but an extendable table, a few folding chairs and a little rearrangement will do the trick. Impromptu overnight guests can be accommodated on day or trundle beds that do double duty during the rest of the time. If you move, you can take everything with you and find a new home for your treasures while shunning the landfill. Furniture is just as worthy an investment as a designer handbag, as it is something that touches you every day. With all the choices at your fingertips, why not opt for flexible, functional and fabulous pieces that you can grow old with?