You haven’t seen nothing yet.
Forgive the double negative but that’s what a tourism consultant from Singapore told me the other day referring to the number of Chinese tourists the world can expect to welcome in the coming decades. Apparently, fewer than 1% of Chinese citizens are currently travelling, and some Western destinations are already panicking. There is no question that in the next two decades we will see a massive increase in hotels, restaurants, and retail facilities catering increasingly to Chinese tastes.
There is no need to panic. We have been here before: when the Arab world discovered the West, and again when Japan got onto JAL and ANA flights and visited the capitals of Europe and the US.
Despite the racial stereotypes, Chinese travellers do not necessarily expect traditional Chinese-style restaurants and a Tang dynasty hotel ambience when they go abroad. Many of them are extremely sophisticated and purposely seek out contemporary interpretations of architectural styles and design elements. It is modern China they want to see reflected, a China of international clout and technological prowess.
So, faced with this rapid rise in demand, how do we as designers respond? Do we abandon Western minimalism or any specific style we believed in for so long, and return to classic Chinese elements?
My answer is a resounding no.
In fact, we get asked these questions at every press conference: Where does your inspiration come from? What style do you adhere to? Why have you done this design in this specific way?
The problem is that design is not about the designer. It is not about our vision or our design philosophy. It is about the spirit of the locale, the message we want to send here and now, in this particular location. We are but interpreters of something that is already inherent in the site. We do not force our own vision on a hotel, restaurant, spa, or private residence: we absorb what is there – the character of the place, the city, the country, even the owner or the guests who will patronise a particular establishment.
Ed and Terence and the entire team at AB Concept believe that the age of nationalistic, style-bound design is well and truly over. Good design should always reflect the spirit of the location, rather than any hypothetical cultural sensibility or personal bias. As designers we do not simply transplant a specific style regardless of the local history or tradition – we aim to create something unique and precious that does more than just please a specific segment of the world population.
In other words, we will not design for the next wave of Chinese tourists. We will design for a global audience, with a local flair, in a style that reflects our commitment to understated luxury with a universal appeal.
Let me give you three concrete examples. When we took on the project of Mei Ume, an Asian restaurant at the Four Seasons Ten Trinity Square, London, we tried to take full account of Asian sensibilities in a location that has a long and rich Asian tradition: it was here, in the former home of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs that for centuries traders from the Far East unloaded their wares like silk and tea. The style of the restaurant is therefore not just a nod to modern design influenced by Asian elements, but also a reflection of the building’s history. You can see this in the details of the decoration, a mixture of various Asian cultures (the very name “Mei Ume” is Chinese and Japanese for “plum) while the architectural features of the building were left intact.
The same is true of our work at the Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur, where we mixed traditional colonial elements with Malaysia’s rich tradition of luxurious outdoor dining in the design of award-winning Yun House and the Bar Trigona — understated elegance that does not only appeal to Chinese tourists, but to locals and visitors from around the world alike.
These are but a few examples of the type of culturally sensitive design philosophy we have embraced in the past decade. We no longer speak of “East meets West” because the time of “meeting” each other is long gone. We are now merging different cultural elements into a global design sensibility that surpasses the boundaries of local concepts of beauty or aesthetics. I truly believe that this form of design is the future: the amalgam of styles into a universal aesthetic of luxury you can feel in every detail.
In that sense, the future wave of Chinese tourists, by increasing demand for more Asian-style venues, will only underline the appeal of a modern hotel and restaurant design concepts. We are moving away from national ideas and a segmented, exclusive and restrictive realm, onto a global stage where everyone, regardless of their aesthetic background, can experience the subtle beauty of true luxury.