Born in Manila, raised in Texas, educated in New York, and now based in Hong Kong, JJ Acuna of the eponymous JJ Acuna / Bespoke Studio supplements his design career with a blend of Asian and Western styles, and life influence.
Manning the JJ Acuna / Bespoke Studios behind creations of Tate Dining Room, HONBO, Four Seasons Macau, Elephant Grounds, Coffeelin, Castellana, and Heimat, JJ Acuna dedicated a decade of working in corporate architecture before opening his studio in 2015.
JJ has penetrated himself deep within the hospitality industry of Hong Kong and Manila, forming spaces that play lightly with dining and living experiences in both bustling capitals, in addition to projects in Macau, Myanmar, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand. We delved further into his story of forming JJ Acuna / Bespoke Studio.
Where does the JJ Acuna story begin in Hong Kong?
Born in Manila and raised in Texas, I lived in New York until 2005 to take up an internship with a large corporate architecture firm in Hong Kong. As a corporate architect for ten years, I began my work as an apprentice and eventually left my former company as a director overseeing projects within the entertainment sectors in design.
When I left corporate, I realised I wasn’t happy working really hard while creating projects that to me just felt too cold and impersonal, like shopping malls and super tall towers in China.
My growing dissolution with corporate life, in addition to having the urge to create more personal, intimate, and bespoke spaces directly for my client drove me to open my own practice in 2015. This whole journey has been so rewarding ever since.
Where has JJ Acuna concentrated within interior design in Hong Kong?
Being based in Hong Kong and travelling around Asia, we eat out a lot and through my restaurant journey, I started growing a palette for inventive cuisine. I started realizing that I loved hanging out at cool restaurants with chefs, restaurateurs, and sommeliers. I loved learning stories about where ingredients come from and what the Chef’s do that are unique to their concept. This transformed into a personal passion as a designer which formulated around creating focused and intimate interior experiences for the restaurants and cafes we eat at in Hong Kong and the region at large.
Tell me about your first year of operating JJ Acuna. How was the transition from corporate to freelancing?
Elephant Grounds on Star Street was my first project, in collaboration with Kevin Poon. At that time, I didn't define myself with any style or structure, I was a freelancer. I didn't even know I was going to enter hospitality with interior design. It was a hit the first year it opened and it still is to this day. After that, I worked with Chef May Chowto open Little Bao in Bangkok, which was also well received.
And after that I was then tasked to designed the beautiful Tate Dining Room in collaboration with Chef Vicky Lau- and that was a hit as well. It was then that I realised, oh, maybe there's something here with this kind of work, and that was pretty much how the studio was launched.
Do your manifold Asian and western identities and cultural knowledge help you to structure interior design in a different way?
Yes, but I don't like to say that we have a style because we are a bespoke studio, meaning that our concepts are based on the client's concept, narrative, or story. If you had to pull teeth, I would refer to what we do as relaxed luxury or bespoke luxury. We try to stay away from bling for the sake of, but instead focus on the client or the brand’s unique story, design nice details and concentrate on finishing touches.
Everything in our projects need an energetic reason to exist that move people in certain ways. I would have to say like the relaxed part of a project would be the Filipino in me, some of our millwork style is from my American upbringing, and the elevated touches would be my Hong Kong influence.
We like designs that are refined yet easy, super detailed oriented, and not too clunky, cluttered, or basic. We’ve been blessed to carve our own special niche in the market doing what we do in our own unique way.
What do you intend for diners in restaurants and residents in your homes to feel? What is the main theme and effort in your design?
Everything we do must be in honour of the client or in honour of the client's hopes and aspirations because they're the ones investing in their aspiration, and we’re here to support. I'm a true believer that anything that we do spatially has to make someone's life a little bit better or even better after they've been in that space.
Now we design residences, healthcare settings, and office spaces. We just finished a clinic in Hong Kong based on the concept of joy. When I look at a floor plan, finishes or materials, I try to think about how this could make people feel good and what about the materials can make other people feel better just by having these finishes around them.
I’ve been told that even though each of our spaces look different, one could tell that this project is by our studio because of a variety of reasons, either because our work is high quality, or it’s humanistic, or the daylighting is so special, or the way that plants support or is integrated into the space, or even the way the space has a certain flow and ease about it programmatically. That kind of feedback is great and makes me feel good.
What are some of the favourite projects that you've been working on?
I love all my projects the same! However, I do love Elephant Grounds. On Star Street, we really transformed that neighbourhood by creating a cafe that opened into the street corner, bringing the whole community together and creating a special vibe.
We also loved working with HONBO, an amazing local hamburger brand for three locations. We also brought a bit of the Hong Kong 80s aesthetic to Bangkok when we collaborated with Chef May Chow which that was fun.
There’s a café that we did in Happy Valley called Coffelin, where we brought Milanese culture to Hong Kong and that became an instant hit all over social media.
Our newest project was a collaboration with a menswear shop called Salvo on St. Francis Yard in Wan Chai, and we love that because the shop supports sustainable menswear fashion at good price points.
What are your feelings and opinions towards the state of design in Hong Kong from 2005?
In 2005, people were looking to elsewhere in the world for interior inspiration, everywhere but Hong Kong. I didn't think people were doing anything that really connected to a younger generation in any meaningful way.
Architecture and interior design used to be a very corporate back then. But these days, it's been a really wonderful landscape for design that has grown to a more elevated level with more nuances and unique viewpoints. Clients also want authenticity in their projects. They don’t want to just copy concepts from magazines, they want a space tailored fit to what they want, as a concept studio, this makes our job more potent because crafting high quality spatial narratives is what we’re good at.
What projects can you reveal that you’re working on right now?
We are designing a few new restaurant concepts in Manila, which includes a cool casual dining concept in BGC, as well as a fine dining concept in Makati.
In Hong Kong, we have finished a deli for Aberdeen Marina Club, a menswear shop for SALVO. Castellana, an amazing two-storey Piedmont Restaurant was recently just completed in Central’s Duddell Street. We also just completed Heimat, a German fine dining restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong Tower for Chef Peter Find.