In this edition of How to Succeed, we speak to leading architect and interior designer Steve Leung.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Leung has been accoladed with over 130 global awards to date, and was given the venerated gong of the Andrew Martin International Interior Designer of the Year in 2015 — considered the ‘Oscars of the interior design world’.
To attain such a mammoth prominence in the industry, Leung has, unsurprisingly, got fingers in every pie, so to speak. A master ability in multi-tasking that he attributes — as he explains to us during a recent light-hearted chat — to his zodiac sign.
Anyone who has paid the slightest attention to the world of property and interiors in the region will recognise Leung’s name, which is attached to some of the world’s most opulent private residences, commercial properties and hospitality projects dotted across the region.
Leung also designs furniture and hardware solutions that make the most of Asian design philosophies — a quality that makes his aesthetic especially sought-after in this part of the globe. Last year, Leung was also invited to transform the interiors of two superyacht models for Italian yacht builder Sanlorenzo, further solidifying his design reach across land and sea.
Leung officially founded his eponymous practice in 1987, which he later restructured in 1997 into two separate arms focused respectively on architecture and design. Fast-forward 33 years, Steve Leung Design Group is a 600-person-strong firm, recognised as one of the largest and most prolific in Asia, with offices across Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
Some of the firm’s latest projects include the interiors for Yoo8, a branded serviced residence located in Kuala Lumpur’s 8 Conlay, the world’s tallest twin residential skyscraper developed by KSK Land; as well as The Address Harbour Point — billed as the most prestigious hotel and servied residence in Dubai.
In recent years, Leung was also elected as the president of the International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers (IFI) for 2017 to 2019. As the association’s first-ever Chinese president and passionate about promoting Hong Kong design, he spearheaded the IFI Global Awards Programme, which took place this February in Dubai, as a way to champion design exchange across borders. It’s now considered to be the highest honour celebrating exceptional design all over the world.
Fresh off of completing his term as president, we speak to the decorated designer on his journey from a Hong Kong architecture student to becoming one of the most distinguished figures in design today. Exuding an affable sense of curiosity for new ideas, people and places, as well as for solving problems — qualities highly pertinent for any designer — we learn what it takes to succeed in his field.
There are two parts to this: My uncle was an architect. When I was young, we lived in the same house, so we saw each other very often. My uncle often brought his work home, and I always watched him work on drawings and sketches. My uncle’s wife was an engineer — she was always working on her computers, her figures and calculations, which I didn’t like. I wanted to be creative, artistic, and that’s why even at age seven or eight, I knew I wanted to be an architect.
A lot of people know that I trained as an architect and now work as an interior designer as well as a product (especially furniture) designer, but I joke that this is not really true — I started as a product designer, then an interior designer, then eventually became an architect.
That’s the second part: When I was very young, I was already working with my own hands, making small things, even knitting, sewing. As a student, I started designing my own apartment, I was making furniture, even doing wiring works. In a way I became an interior designer even as I was studying.
When I was applying to university, architecture was my only choice. If they didn’t admit me then I wouldn’t know what to do, but I had no regrets. Fortunately I was admitted to the University of Hong Kong’s department of architecture.
“Even at age seven or eight, I knew I wanted to be an architect.”
It’s an interesting development. When I first graduated I had a lot of passion about architecture, I trained as an assistant in an architect’s office. Then I opened up my own office at the age of 30, in 1987. After that, I started to build up my own company. After 10 years, in 1997 at the age of 40, I asked myself, ‘what should I do?’ I wanted to spin off and do architecture and interior design at the same time. Looking back now, it’s interesting that after 33 years, I’m working mostly on interior design, and my company has grown from one person to now 600 people.
My experience is that when I was managing my company on a full time basis, day-to-day work, I was very very busy. But now because I’ve delegated a lot of work to my team and my senior management, I’ve been able to release myself and reserve more time to do some interesting projects. I’m only working on the projects I’m interested in — those are small projects, even the unprofitable projects or even where it’s more about product design. I’m very happy with what I have now.
When I was younger, I was very excited to receive high profile awards. But after working for such a long time, I’m not as excited — whether you get an award is not only about how good you are, the timing of it is also very important.
If you asked me which award I really cared about? That would be the Andrew Martin — regarded as the ‘Oscars of the interior design industry.’ Every year, they will shortlist around 20-30 designers all over the world, and out of all these, they will select one: the designer of the year. And I was shortlisted for the Andrew Martin award for 15 years. After 15 years of hard work, I was finally awarded the designer of the year in 2015.
It’s all about timing. They have different judging panels every year, and maybe that particular year the panel particularly liked my work. Just like film directors, some have been shortlisted for years but they never receive the Oscar for best director, other times someone is nominated for the first time and they win.
Locally, I would say [a major turning point in my career] was in 1997, when I did my first show flat unit for Symphony Bay, by Sun Hung Kai Properties. I was interviewed by a lot of local newspapers and magazines, and I was recognised in Hong Kong for the first time.
I only switched to doing more interior design in 1997, and before that I practiced more on architectural projects. But as you know, architecture is a lengthy process, and people are not that interested to know the architect behind the building. The developers do not promote the name of the architect, yet they promote interior designers — people seem to understand interior design better as it’s more accessible.
To me it’s simple: I’m a Gemini.
Geminis are good at thinking from different angles and also doing different things at the same time. To be successful, apart from having a creative mind, you need to be also very analytical. I always stress on logical thinking — I don’t think many people can do it that well. I’m the kind of person who always wants to plan ahead and make decisions.
For my career or my company’s development, I always have a one-year, five-year and 10-year plan. I enjoy making decisions — something that some people tend to be afraid to do. Making decisions is not as simple as, for instance, picking between red or green, you don’t just make a choice just because you like it. You have to analyse the situation and judge whether it’s best for you or your company. You have to be able to back it up with logic.
I think I can learn different things from different projects, to be very honest with you. I cannot recall one single project that I have had particular difficulty with. I’m an optimistic person, I always want to be challenged, but every time I face a difficulty, I will try to find a way to overcome, or even excel.
I learned something from every project I’ve done — we’re bound to make mistakes, for example, we selected the wrong material, the wrong contractor, or even the wrong client. Then I will never do it again in the future. When I look at it, the most difficult thing [possible] is human relationships — working with people. It’s important to be able to mediate between different people. Sometimes we have to stand very firm, sometimes we can give in. As a professional, you need to be very clear on your boundaries.
[If you’re ever stuck on a problem,] I would say, stay calm, don’t get too excited, be analytical. I start from the fundamentals: then you can see again what is important or less important. You have to stand firm on your fundamental principles.
Very good question, because I’m a person who is very concerned with productivity. As I said, I’m a Gemini, I always want to do tons of things at the same time. Time is always precious. My tip for maintaining good productivity is to think clearly before you start work.
A designer should not start drawing without logically understanding the problem, understanding what the client wants, or what the limitations of the project are. Not only in design, but in whatever I do, I always think before I act. Don’t waste your time and effort. Don’t try your luck — luck is not with you every day. That is the crucial thing to improve your productivity.
I don’t have a ‘typical’ work day. I always want to do different things on different days, but one thing I can say is I’m a very disciplined person. I always go to bed before midnight, I get up almost every morning at around eight o’clock. I need good rest. Every night before I go to bed, I get my clothes ready and I think about what I’m doing the next day. Everything is in my cell phone — my diary, my meetings are scheduled on 15-minute intervals. I’m happy to say I can manage my time quite well. It’s interesting, as I said I’m a Gemini, born on the 10th of June. I found out during a trip to Japan about 30 years ago that the 10th of June is considered a national ‘Time Day,’ [a day used to promote punctuality in Japan, commemorating the first use of a water clock by Emperor Tenchi in 671 AD]. It’s like I came here to be a time manager.
I enjoy travelling. I always travel for work, but at the same time, I always try to squeeze some time out of my business schedule to enjoy new hotels, new restaurants, whenever I visit a city again. Apart from that, I also enjoy driving very much, especially when I visit Europe, it’s such a pleasure. Even in Hong Kong, I always drive when I go to and from work — I own a few cars, but I can barely use them — I use my driver during the day, so I always insist on driving my car to work and back home.
I also enjoy boating. [My recent collaboration with Sanlorenzo] was a very exciting project. I had never designed a superyacht before, and Sanlorenzo is one of the world’s best brands in superyachts, so I enjoyed working with them very much. I especially like water sports. I’m a scuba diver, I can do some snorkeling, swimming, anything. I also always live close to the water. I used to live in the Southern district — from South Bay to Stanley to Chung Hom Kok. Now I live in Clearwater Bay.
These days, I spend my time golfing. But I must say, golf is not my favourite sport, because I’m not a patient person. Geminis have that problem: they’re quick thinking, but they can’t concentrate on one thing for a long time. With golf, you need to concentrate for at least four hours, and do the same action many, many times. It’s hard to keep my attention, but I see it as a form of training.