Designing custom furniture to facilitate a memorable dining experience provides many challenges and rewards for veteran architect Andre Fu, writes Rebecca Lo

These are exciting times for hospitality designers. Owners and operators see the benefits of properties that offer bespoke design by star architects and give them more creative latitude than ever before. Consequently, due to excellent craftsmanship and advances in technology, designers can push the envelope and realise concepts previously only imaginable. The trend translates to outstanding furnishings that integrate seamlessly into the overall aesthetic package.
Yet designing furniture for hospitality purposes is a different animal altogether. Unlike those for residences, hospitality furnishings are used by a variety of different people, of all heights, weights and proportions, for short and intense bursts of time. Customers all have different goals – in a restaurant, for example, the main point could be lounging, dining, drinking or conversing.
Usually, it is a combination of many different activities within the course of an evening. The high traffic and constant wear and tear of hospitality furnishings mean materials must be durable, practical, comfortable and beautiful, with high criteria for safety. Just think of all those open kitchens with flames or establishments where smoking is still allowed, and the upholstery or drapery’s fire retardant rating immediately raises flags.
Hospitality furnishings are servants of the design theme for the space. As the pieces are only utilised for a limited amount of time, they can also be much more theatrical. What may quickly become blasé at home can form a lasting impression if part of an overall dining experience.
All of these factors have encouraged custom furniture designs rather than specifying off-the-rack products, particularly in Asia. With high quality custom manufacturing in many countries being quick and affordable, it is the route that makes the most design sense.
Hong Kong architect Andre Fu is no stranger to designing memorable spaces and furniture to suit: 95% of his firm AFSO’s projects are hospitality ones. Trained in London, Fu initially worked for minimalist John Pawson before establishing his own firm in 2000 with Stephane Orsolini.
Fu has gone from strength to strength as he honed his craft, with significant projects under his belt for Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, Swire Hotels, W Hotels & Resorts, Capella Hotels and Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, the latest being a restaurant in London’s Shard for Shangri-La.
Another of Fu’s recent projects is Summer Palace in Jing An Shangri-La, the group’s flagship property within greater China which opened in May. The hotel is part of the Kerry Centre and has been 20 years in the making, with star designers including the Atlanta branch of HBA, Avroko, Super Potato and Shigeru Ban.
“Summer Palace is an important restaurant because it is in Shangri-La’s flagship hotel,” explains Fu. “It gave me a chance to redefine Shangri-La’s hospitality offerings. The challenge came from how people perceive the brand: Shangri-La’s Chinese restaurants are viewed as formal, traditional, with an almost palatial look and feel.”

Individual ambience

The food concept at Summer Palace has traditionally been Cantonese cuisine; at Jing An, that changed. Instead, Fu had to incorporate three different zones: an open kitchen for its dim sum and noodle bar, a clay pot and local delicacy area and a formal dining area. Each zone has its own ambience with different furniture requirements, spread across a large 1,400 square metre floor plate with 300 seats.
“My concept was that of a journey,” Fu notes. “The noodle bar starts off the journey with a casual vibrancy that is the spirit of Jing An. The clay pot zone is approachable and residential with an open kitchen. And the formal area caters to corporate entertaining. The three areas are contained into chambers, and part of the excitement is arriving and being taken around from one chamber to another.
“I tied it all together with patterns and textures, with the original inspiration being Shangri-La’s Chinese paintings and imagery for each property being its own destination. I reinterpreted the spirit of the peacock I saw in the paintings and used its feathers for my palette: tangerine, olive and aqua.”
For the informal ambience of the noodle bar, Fu designed a combination of long communal tables and square ones that function without tablecloths. To give the space dignity, he included high back wing chairs with a pull handle on the back to allow for ease of movement by both patrons and wait staff.
The additional privacy that the cocoon-like chair provides help instill solo diners with their own little enclave. Other zones contain lower chair backs, some in leather and others with a stylised peacock pattern. A combination of banquets and individual chairs allow for flexibility and create different pockets of spaces throughout the restaurant.
“The proportions of the furniture have to work with whether the space is primarily used for dining or lounging,” says Fu.
“In lounge seating, the seat heights of chairs drop since people are semi-reclining, which means the table heights drop to reduce the gap. The dynamic of the restaurant changes when people are seated differently. Creative spaces allow for different seat heights so that some people can find intimate corners while others can choose to be part of the overall vibe and action.”
I by Inagiku at W Guangzhou also opened earlier this year. It is another property that boasts an international roster of celebrity designers including Yabu Pushelberg, Designwilkes and Rocco Yim. Fu’s design for the Japanese restaurant is much more edgy and theatrical than for Summer Palace.
“My inspiration was a dreamscape based on the kabuki theatre story,” he elaborates. As with Summer Palace, he broke the restaurant down into various components and gave each its own identity complete with custom furnishings. “It’s about the different moments as you walk through the spaces and how different areas are intertwined and fluid for an organic sequence of spaces.”
The mobile above the sushi counter is a fragmentation of a kabuki show, forming a focal point for the main dining area with its series of oval and circular shaped furnishings. Another mobile floats above the sake bar and is balanced with black and white backless bar stools in a similar upholstery pattern for clean, dramatic effect. Traditional Japanese motifs are gently alluded to through plum blossom upholstery and cut-out handles in cabinets.
Fu advises that for bistros and cafes where the tendency is for faster turnovers, tables are smaller and gaps between them narrower. “The furniture doesn’t have to encourage people to spend hours conversing, as diners will spend a shorter amount of time there.”