Interview with Mathew Lui: hotel as home

Mathew Lui

Company men are hard to find these days. Many in the competitive field of interior design will jump ship if offered better salaries, benefits or opportunities—or else start their own studio. Yet Hong Kong born and bred Mathew Lui has only had one job. Apart from a short stint at another firm in the mid-90s, Lui has made a career at HBA since 1992. As one of two partners in the Hong Kong office, he handles both design and business development for the Santa Monica-established hospitality design specialists. Though a quarter of a century at HBA may seem unusual today, Lui has four colleagues who have served longer tenures.

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Hotel design

Growing up, Lui’s best subjects were in visual arts. “I remember at a high school career fair, a lot of my classmates were interested in engineering,” Lui states from a meeting room with panoramic harbour views at one end of HBA’s office in Quarry Bay. “I was the only one looking at design-related disciplines. At the time I joined, HBA was the most successful American design company in Asia. We had no competitors. I compare my path at HBA to hiking a long trail in the forest. At first, I only saw the trees and path ahead of me. Then I observed a wider view of the landscape and could see the big picture. I learned what design was all about. I learned how important a certain level of quality was to a project. But there is a danger in thinking you’re the best. You start to become complacent. That’s the start of the fall.”

Meeting room

To keep things fresh and everyone on their toes, Lui instills a team approach and encourages designers to work to their maximum potential while being their own worst critic. “A lot of new clients have this bias that a big corporation like ours cannot meet their specific needs,” he explains. “They prefer working with smaller, more detail-oriented companies. The size of our office is corporate, but we offer studio services. Each of our teams has its own character. We do everything in-house—we have rendering, lighting and art consulting teams. It’s like Lane Crawford, where there are different collections, from Adidas to Tom Ford, depending on the type of products you want. Like Lane Crawford, we have design services to offer anyone from Li Ka-shing to Leon Lai. All those different services come with the same consistent quality.”

With approximately 50 percent of projects being residential, Lui is seeing how hospitality and domestic interior architecture is merging at the high-end level. “Two of our biggest residential clients, Sun Hung Kai and Henderson, diversify by investing in hotels,” Lui observes. “Their expectations have changed. Sun Hung Kai often asks me: ‘Are we the first to have this design?’ They want to sell a home that is unique—that has exactly what a buyer wants and which cannot be found anywhere else.”

Show flat entry

For high-end homes, such as their residential clubhouse design for Ultima, a Sun Hung Kai development in Ho Man Tin, a strong yacht concept became the driver of the design. “We need to have stories attached to design,” Lui believes. “At Ultima, the chandelier was inspired by Victoria Harbour’s reflection. The billiards room was based on James Bond, where you can imagine all the guns hidden behind beautiful wall panels. People will remember these types of stories during a property tour.”

With his wife taking care of their 16-year-old son, Lui feels that he has a comfortable home life that allows him to concentrate on further developing HBA. “I want my colleagues to be proud of their work, but also earn a decent living. If they feel it’s just a job, they won’t love what they do.”

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