The pandemic has redrawn the lines between work and home and few people understand the changing dynamics better than interior designer, creative director and art collector JJ Acuna of JJ Acuna / Bespoke Studio.
“Anywhere you spend a lot of time needs to have a touch of domesticity. Whether it’s work or home, both places should be designed for comfort, for longevity, and to uplift your spirit,” says Acuna. “That’s what I did here,” he adds, referring to his rented, 1,200 sq ft (111 square metre) studio in Chai Wan.
Functioning as somewhere for Acuna to work on his designs, as well as a place to inspire and entertain his clients, the studio feels more like a lifestyle space than a traditional office. With a wide entranceway and 3.7-metre-high (12-foot) ceilings, it is large enough to house substantial pieces of furniture and numerous works of art without feeling cramped.
Originally an empty white void, the unit was transformed with the addition to the rear of two black-framed glass partition walls, which also create an area for storage and exercise. Acuna tiled the bathroom wall, added a sink and vanity outside the toilet, and fitted a small open kitchen. Wooden floors and large windows keep things light, flexible and houseplant-friendly.
“You don’t have to be in the creative industry to have a workspace that inspires you. Try to break away from a cold, commercial environment by bringing in warm lighting and warm materials like timber and lush greens. Display books that excite you. Throw in a drinks cart,” says Acuna, standing next to his well-stocked 1950s Gio Ponti drinks trolley. “And fill it with art that you love.”
Although he doesn’t like to label himself as a collector, Acuna has an enviable trove of contemporary Asian art, personally selected from artists’ studios and auctions, galleries such as Osage and Para Site, and art fairs, including Art Basel and Art Central.
Raised in the Philippines and Texas, in the United States, Acuna feels a personal connection to every piece, and is often inspired by childhood memories and the 1986 coup that ousted Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos.
“I grew up in a strict Catholic household and while I’m not practising any more I still have a fondness for Virgin Mary iconography. When I saw this piece was available I had to have it,” he says of a first aid box stuffed with glow-in-the-dark statues of the Virgin Mary by Filipino artist Norberto Roldan.
Other artworks Acuna couldn’t resist include an abstract drawing of Marcos by Pio Abad, an oil on canvas portrait of two men by Allan Balisi, and a watercolour by Roberto “Bobby” Chabet, who is often referred to as the father of Philippine conceptual art.
“I just buy pieces that I like but now I have so many that I have to store some of them – otherwise it would be too claustrophobic,” says Acuna. To solve the problem of an expanding collection, Acuna introduced overhead storage and rotates his works every year in line with the advice of his feng shui adviser (see Tried + tested below).
“My artworks have different tones and colours. This year is supposed to be all blues so that’s why those two blue collages are front and centre. I like moving the art around as it helps it to perform in different ways and stops it from becoming stagnant.”
Wherever you look there is something to admire, with smaller prints pinned to window frames, jagged raw crystals on tabletops, and flexible bookshelves functioning almost as a gallery wall displaying colour-coordinated tomes and auspicious artworks.
There are also a number of places in which to work, relax and socialise, from brainstorming on the black leather sofa or Dedon chair, to laying out plans on the American cherry wood dining table, to collaborating at a round table positioned by a window.
“More people are now working from home and are redesigning their workspaces but we also have people who are going back into the office and that can feel quite jarring. So now, we’re also going to see a trend of rejigging the office,” he says. “I hope this project shows people that you can work anywhere and it can still be celebratory of your personality and aspirations. The main thing is to make sure that we’re inspired every hour of the day.”
Artworks on the shelf (from left) include: Sans Titre (2000), in yellow, by Colette Brunschwig, from Galerie Jocelyn Wolff; a black-and-white print by Yuk King Tan; Vista Series Plate no 10 (2020), by Ryan Villamael, from Silverlens Galleries; two 2018 collages by Gary-Ross Pastrana, also from Silverlens Galleries; watercolour works (between the two collages) from Isola Tong’s Cellular Cartography series (2020); a photograph by Trevor Yeung; Untitled #1 (2012), a watercolour by Roberto Chabet; and sculpture First Aid Made in China XXX (10 Hail Marys) (2019), by Norberto Roldan, also from Silverlens Galleries.
As well as his artworks, JJ Acuna often rotates his furniture, selling pieces that catch the eye of his clients. Currently, his studio features a black leather and walnut sofa from Commune, a sunburst rattan chair from E. Murio, an Mbrace rocking chair by Sebastian Herkner for Dedon and a Palette table designed by Jaime Hayon for &Tradition. The cushion on the rocking chair and the throw came from H&M Home.
Living area detail
Untitled (Malakas) (2017) featuring the decaying head of former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, by Pio Abad, is positioned above a collage work by Filipino artist Jel Suarez. An oak, brass and walnut mirrored screen reflects the artworks into the room. On top of the Chinese cabinet gifted to Acuna is an ink work by Peter Yuill. The small wall mirror came from H&M Home.
Acuna acquired his 1950s Gio Ponti walnut drinks trolley through Brand Equity many years ago. Hanging above is an acrylic portrait by doongapako, which Acuna purchased directly from the South Korean artist.
Only the kitchen wall has been painted, in blush pink. The mortar and pestle are flea market finds while the acacia wood chopping boards were bought from Anyroom at The Jam Factory in Bangkok.
The Arts and Crafts-style American cherry wood table and chairs were from the Nichols and Stone collection at Stickley. The table is dressed with a bowl from Muji, a wax kerosene candle from Hay and a glass oil pitcher from Eligo. The Indian kilim rug was found in a flea market.
Acuna chose a round Blu Dot table from Archetypal to create a collaborative workspace. It is accompanied by a Verner Panton hard foam chair in red from Vitra and two 1980s chairs from Tonon Italia, which he found on Facebook Marketplace for a miraculous HK$100 each. On the left is a print by Sylvain Margaine, from urban exploration site Forbidden Places. On the right hangs an oil on canvas by Allan Balisi acquired through West Gallery in Quezon City, in the Philippines.
The brass mirror and black and white granite countertop were custom made by JJ Acuna / Bespoke Studio. The stone table lamp was from Tom Dixon. Art pieces include mango wood totems by Craig Anczelowitz; and a framed yellow print, which Acuna picked up at Rod Fai night market in Bangkok, Thailand. “I wanted to make washing my hands something contemplative,” says the designer.
Tried + Tested
JJ Acuna used the studio’s high ceilings to add storage and a safe space for his art “to rest” until he was ready to see it again. Rather than opt for expensive fixed cabinetry, he chose to screen the area with curtains. Matching material was then used to shield off the rear glass-walled room. “Curtains are an effortless low-cost way to hide storage,” says Acuna. “And they’re easy to replace if you want a change.”
The calligraphy, reading Iya, is by Japanologist Alex Kerr, who in the 1970s bought and restored a 300-year-old house in the Iya Valley of Tokushima prefecture. It was the first of many projects by Kerr to save old Japanese houses.