Lyndon Neri is one half of the architecture duo Neri & Hu, whose Shanghai-based 'design and research office' he founded almost a decade ago with his partner and wife, Rosanna Hu.
He is also a designer of products such as starkly minimalist tea sets made from zisha clay, found only in China's Jiangsu province, and furniture inspired by the country's humble street stools, made in collaboration with Dutch brand Moooi.
This year marks something of a milestone for the practice, which now employs 90-odd people in Shanghai, London and New York. The breadth of Neri & Hu's work is being featured in a retrospective at Mexico's Museum of Modern Art, which opened this week, alongside that of Mexican architect Luis Barragan.
The pair's research-driven projects are rooted in a sense of place, with local references often abstracted: Take Spanish shoe brand Camper's China flagship, a 'building within a building' inspired by surrounding alleyways, and a derelict Shanghai lane house transformed into an angular experiment in private versus public space, with glass walls replacing the structure's facade.
Most recently, the duo was behind the loft-like interiors of Hong Kong's Pentahotel, which Mr. Neri describes as a 'zero-star' hotel intended to regenerate the city's East Kowloon district. Over a cup of Hong Kong-style milk tea served in a Neri & Hu cup, Mr. Neri spoke to the Journal about redefining 'Made in China,' collaborating with his spouse, and being a modern-day Renaissance man. Edited excerpts follow.
WSJ: The label 'Made in China' still has negative connotations, and yet that's something you've embraced. What does the term mean to you?
A: I'm ethnically Chinese. I look at myself in the mirror and it doesn't matter where I went to school, it doesn't matter what company I work for, it doesn't matter how much respect I get in America, I am after all Made in China, through my DNA.
WSJ: You grew up in the Philippines, studied at Berkeley and Harvard in the U.S., and started your career in New York. Why did you move to China?
A: When I went to China I was very critical at first. At a certain point in time I was very critical of people spitting on the floor, wearing socks and PJs on the street. Then I really thought about it and I said, That could have been my uncle. That could have been my father. These people were not given opportunities that my grandfather and my parents were.
I was heading back to New York and I said, Instead of being critical, why don't I do something about it? When you look at history, during the Qing Dynasty, during the Ming Dynasty, the finest crafts were made in this region. I decided that it was time to come back and create something here.
WSJ: Both you and your wife, Rosanna Hu, worked for American architect Michael Graves before setting up on your own. What's it like working with your spouse?
A: We both have very strong personalities. The one thing we respect with each other is innately in both of us is a passion for culture, a passion for things that will leave a legacy and have a lasting meaning.
WSJ: In what ways do you complement each other?
A: Rosanna designs by writing. Conceptually she would say, ''I believe this house should be about transparency.' I design with my hands, by drawing. We both love to design. But my wife and I, there's a difference between the two of us. She's very good with public relations. I'm not. I'm good marketing but I'm very bad at PR. That's two very different things.
WSJ: What's your design process like?
A: Oftentimes when we do a project, first we will scout out an area and we will understand the history of an area. We don't just come up with a form and go, This is what we do. It's hard for people who are used to this 'Where's the front door? Where's the back door?' kind of mentality.
WSJ: Can you talk about a favorite product you've made?
A: There are these small cups, whose colors are natural colors from the soil. In Chinese it's called zisha. The sha is really purple clay, which is found in a particular region in China. They always use this color only, and the brown color, but never yellow and black, and oftentimes they put serpents and dragons all over the cups. It's rather ostentatious.
The first thing we did was to simplify. We're not celebrating the dragon or the serpent. We're celebrating the material itself, which takes on the flavor of the tea that you're drinking. That's why tea makers use it. We created a really simple cup that makes people go, what's the big deal with this cup? Then the story comes: It's the material.
WSJ: How did you become an architect?
A: I went to Berkeley for my undergraduate. My dad wanted me to be an engineer, so I lied to him. He was in the Philippines at that time. He asked, What are you studying?, and I said, Engineering, mechanical engineering -- when in fact I was studying art, painting, my first passion.
At the end of my second year my dad calls me and says, I think I need to be close to you guys. That's when I panicked. I went to the school and tried to transfer, but there was no way you could transfer from art to engineering, all the requirements are so off. Architecture was a happy medium.
WSJ: Did your father approve?
A: When my dad landed, this was the '80s, the real-estate economy was doing very well. I said, Dad, maybe I should do architecture, and he's like, Yeah, that's not a bad idea, because obviously he was just thinking that it would make money. Little did he know that I was more interested in different things, the more experimental aspect of architecture.
WSJ: Do you see yourself as an artist?
A: I'm foremost an architect. But I believe in the Renaissance. I do. I think when art and culture and architecture went from Europe to America, there was a need for specialization. So all of a sudden architects aren't architects anymore: There are architects, there are window consultants, there are door consultants, there are acoustic consultants, so every project merits 30 consultants, just to mitigate risk. By doing that all of a sudden you lose control.
I want to take back what was rightfully given to architects: what Michelangelo was doing, what [Filippo] Brunelleschi was doing, what [Francesco] Borromini was doing. There's a movement toward that.
Great architects like David Chipperfield, David Adjaye, they're all coming back to a more multidisciplinary approach.
Neri & Hu郭锡恩说："我们设计了一种非常简朴的紫砂杯，它会让大家纳闷这种杯子有什么了不起的？答案很快就出现了：它的原料。"
郭锡恩是建筑设计双人组如恩(Neri & Hu)的成员之一。大约在10年前，他与妻子兼合作伙伴胡如珊共同在上海创立了他们的如恩设计研究室。
对于如今已在上海、伦敦和纽约雇佣了90余名员工的如恩而言，今年算得上一个里程碑。他们广博丰富的作品与墨西哥建筑师路易斯·巴拉甘(Luis Barragan)的作品一同在墨西哥现代艺术博物馆(Mexico's Museum of Modern Art)的一个回顾展上亮相，该展览已在10月下旬开幕。
Derryck Menere图片：重新诠释“中国制造”前不久，这对夫妻档又操刀构思了香港贝尔特酒店(Pentahotel)那种类似loft的室内设计，郭锡恩称它是一家为复兴香港东九龙地区而打造的“零星级”酒店。此番他接受了《华尔街日报》(The Wall Street Journal)的采访，一边用如恩的杯子喝着港式奶茶，一边谈论了重新定义“中国制造”、与妻子的合作以及成为当代博才多学之人等问题。下文为经过编辑的采访节录。
我希望能重新获得建筑师理应得到的东西，像米开朗基罗(Michelangelo)所做的一样，像菲利波·布鲁内莱斯基(Filippo Brunelleschi)一样，像弗朗切斯科·博罗米尼(Francesco Borromini)一样。现在建筑界出现了一股向这个方向发展的动向。
比如戴维·奇普菲尔德(David Chipperfield)和戴维·阿贾耶(David Adjaye)这些杰出的建筑师，他们都重新以跨领域的角度进行设计。