Urban Explorer Series: Interview with JJ Acuna
Page Common Journal
11 October, 2022
“An urban explorer adds to the dynamism, the flavour, and the communication with the city and the world around them. It is a nice symbiotic relationship.”

Our Urban Explorer

Could you please introduce yourself to our guests?

My name is JJ, I am the founder and creative director of the hospitality, residential, and lifestyle design studio, JJ Acuna / Bespoke Studio. We operate with a base in Hong Kong and another base in Manila. Our wide breadth of projects is located everywhere in Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, and Japan. We are about to celebrate our 7th anniversary and we could not be happier with our contribution to the design space and community overall.


What is your fascination with interior spaces?

I studied Architecture, so in general, I have always been fascinated with the built environment, not just interiors. I love art, and I was an artist myself at one point- however, I feel that Architecture and Interiors is a kind of art, a spatial art. Designed spaces have the ability to affect how we live, how we feel, how we grow and enrich ourselves, how we align ourselves, and how we respond to day-to-day life. We are not shy or afraid to say that we are in the business of aesthetics and beauty – because we feel that the world needs more design, and not just that but spaces that are meaningful, in addition to being useful. That is what we do, that is what we provide.


How did you get into this “space”?

I have been practicing Architecture in Hong Kong for a decade after graduating post-graduate at Columbia University in New York City, and before that, in the Architectural programme at Cornell University, and I burned out. I felt that I was not affecting people, changing lives, or touching lives in a more intimate way through my corporate work. So, I quit the corporate world and started working with small business owners for a cafe here, and acclaimed Chefs for restaurants there, and suddenly, I built a practice creating spaces, directly collaborating with owners and end-users, and this kind of work really saved me. The ‘creative’ me. While I am skillfully and technically ready – I sort of fell into the studio and fell into this job just by trusting my gut and letting go of the corporate approach to design and being more aligned with clients on a grounded and foundational level through smaller, eclectic, and unique concept projects.


Coffee Lin

Enjoying work that stems from our passions and gives meaning to our lives is not always easy to find. Could you always foresee that you would be running your own architecture and design studio one day?

Weird question – I am doing that now! We have a team of 6 people in Hong Kong and 4 people in Manila. We are very much a regional design studio helping clients with their projects all over Asia.


What does a day in the life of Mr. JJ Acuna look like?

I wake up around 7:30 am – I mean, I’m not a morning person at all. I aim for earlier, but it is just impossible because my best ideas come to me at night. Anyway, I have started to make myself ceremonial cocoa in the morning as I find it gives me the right kind of buzz that coffee has, plus the added benefit of magnesium and iron. I do a 5–15-minute meditation to get aligned in the right way. I usually get to work around 10 am. We do lunch around 1 pm. I do another 5–15-minute meditation before or after lunch. Work after lunch. Then I do a 5 or 6 pm gym training or classical pilates session, then go home and make dinner or have dinner or drinks with friends somewhere. Then I write 3 pages in my journal, do a night-time meditation, then go to bed. There may be an episode of a television somewhere in there, but I try to not do that. Haha!


What does “urban explorer” mean to you, and how do you think you fit into this term?
I think an “urban explorer” is someone who takes a keen interest in their community, in their town, in their city, and is open to the various ways that the city can inform them from an educational or discovery standpoint. Someone is open to take inspiration from all the things the city has to offer for art, culture, wellness, hospitality, and intellectual pursuits. And by participating in any of these things, the “urban explorer” is adding to the dynamism, the flavour, and the communication with the city and the world around them. It is a nice symbiotic relationship.



Architecture of Happiness

The design allows a world of different possibilities, letting you express yourself through various materials, textures, and colors. What do you enjoy most about your work?
You’re right, the reasons why I love Interior Design is that I can be spatial architecturally, but I can also obsess over a corner, or an edge, or a side of something, or the way light can play with a wall, or how a decorative light can give a new reading of a room, or wall paints or wall textures can add dimensions to a flat surface, or how an artwork or plants can give a space a new vibration. This intimate focus on the minutiae of the moment is really what drives me on the scale that I work on. Every little intimate design move can really add dimensionality to a spatial experience.


Where does your inspiration come from?

Oh, we do concepts! Whether it is restaurants, cafes, bars, or residences, we always go back to a narrative or a story that is always related to the owner or end user’s aspirations, dreams, or pragmatic goals. We always take it narratively to a new book or tale. Sometimes, we are inspired by cinema, art, or a street in some European city, or sometimes the owner gives us their inspiration and we run with it. We have recently completed a menswear store, called Salvo on St. Francis Yard Street, and the owner told us to listen to a song called, “Vienna” by the pop artist, Billy Joel. So really our work is defined by a story. Stories are the underlying foundation of our work.


How do you think your designs relate to Hong Kong?

My team is a Hong Kong team. In the team of 6, 2 are Filipinos, including myself. So, you know we are from here, and we have all travelled plenty. I am not from here, but I’m an adopted son of Hong Kong I think because I moved here in 2005. Just being here, soaking in the energy of the place, the city, the people, it already redefines our work. Our clients from all over Asia like the fact that we have this local yet global perspective. With Hong Kong being an intersectional city in our region, that energy already informs our concepts and our design directives.


Is there a process you go through when designing a space for a client?

We, of course, meet the client, and we have a really great conversation. The dialogue is formal, but we try to approach everything in a more meaningful way. They tell us their aspirations, what they need, and what they want to do with the space, and we have a great back and forth. We go beyond storage and basic requirements, and we talk about music, books, travels, what they love about food, what they love about service, their favourite hotels, what they hate, what they find is missing in the city, etc. and through these conversations, we can begin to build a structure of which to write a story of how we want to move forward with design work.


Looking back, how do you think your design aesthetic has evolved over time?

We have always created high-quality, considered, and humanistic spaces ever since we designed our first projects, Elephant Grounds Coffee on Star Street, Tate Dining Room on Hollywood Road, and Little Bao in Bangkok. That has not changed. What has changed perhaps is scale – we have worked with five-star hotels like The Four Seasons Hotel in Macao, and we are about to design the interiors for the Philippines’ tallest residential tower. If you focus on high quality, considered detailing, and humanistic spaces, then these ideas and ways of working are always scalable. So, what has evolved over time is probably scale but the foundation of the way we do design will always stay the same.


You have created countless memorable experiences for both commercial and residential clients, but what we really want to know is what design elements you incorporate into your own dwelling.

For my homes in Hong Kong and Manila, I always value fresh air, sunlight, great art, great books- great pops of colour, and selecting choice authentic pieces. But surprise, we do these for our commercial and residential projects too. What we do for our clients, I do for myself- this is how the work remains authentic overall.


Amongst your past works, which would you say you are most proud of and why?

It is hard to pick a favorite child among all the kids. Haha! But I think Elephant Grounds Star Street in collaboration with Kevin Poon, its founder, will always have a dear place in my heart because he gave me chance, and I gave myself a chance, and it truly is a transformative space and transformed that wonderful corner in that neighborhood, Star Street. I love Carissa House, a house I designed in Manila for my sister and the family because we were able to celebrate the joy of Filipino Design and craftsmanship with that project. Those are just two of many projects we have done that hold a dear place in my heart. I mean they all do.


What are your views on Hong Kong’s design scene and are there any other design studios that you admire in the city?

I think Hong Kong’s design scene is getting more and more sophisticated and elevated every year. I admire the work of BEAU Architects as well as the work of NAPP. They are friends of mine, and they do amazing things in the art and cultural space. I also love the work of Batten and Kamp. They make amazing furniture and lighting that verge on the side of sculptural work. They are a brilliant duo.


Travel Inspiration

What role does travel play in designing interior spaces?

Travelling as a muse for designing interior spaces is great for getting inspired, especially when we try to think outside the box in terms of texture, tone, and pattern. A corner of a painting in the Musée d’Orsay, or stonework on the side of a building in Milan, or perhaps a nice rattan lamp I have seen somewhere in Bali – it could really do a lot for creating a mental mood board. Ship-lap on the side of a boat or a door detail in Boston – these things really come into play when inspiration is needed.


What destinations are on your bucket list?

I would love to visit South Africa, Mexico, Russia, Iceland, and Morocco. So many places I have yet to see in this life.


Having lived in other various parts of the world (Philippines and US), what were your first impressions of Hong Kong when you first arrived? What about now?

I loved Hong Kong because it has this “Can-Do” attitude. You can get so many things done in one day in this city. It is amazing. Also, everyone loves business and is willing to do business, no matter who you are in life and where you come from. Also, Asia is 4 hours away from Hong Kong in all directions, which is great for my business because we are a regional design studio.


Have there been any challenges and learning of living in this city?

The last 2-3 years of Covid have been quite horrible in terms of travelling. Sourcing and getting things in on time has been tough. Rent is still very expensive. That really affects our overheads. Politically, things are shifting as well so it will be interesting to see how that affects business and creative pursuits. So anyway, we are rolling with the flow of life and cannot wait to see where this all takes us.


When you are not working, which areas of the city do you enjoy exploring most?

I love going to Hong Kong’s beaches and now that I am older, I just like nature. I like taking walks in nature. Not a lot of people know of Hong Kong’s beaches, nature trails, and many islands, they really should do more to publicise these outdoor locations and destinations we have here. For urban destinations, I love the newly opened M+ Museum, Hong Kong Palace Museum, and Tai Kwun for culture.


Which 3 words would you use to describe Hong Kong?

Speed, Opportunity, Brilliance


SOURCE: Page Common Journal