When Lyndon Neri and Rosanna Hu broke out of the comfortable cocoon of Michael Graves’ New Jersey practice in 2003 they had no clear vision of the meteoric career that lay ahead. Starting with a showroom in Shanghai, they quickly moved into product design, then interiors and finally and probably inevitably, into architecture. They now have over ninety staff.
This weekend they were in London’s fashionable Soho House to celebrate their hard-fought win of the WAN Interiors and Design award for their stunning Shanghai Waterhouse hotel. They had just come from the opening of Jason Atherton's highly-anticipated new restaurant, Pollen Street Social and were bursting to tell us about another major new project that they have just won in London but hasn’t been announced yet.
I ask Lyndon about those early days, how did it all start? He takes a deep breath and explains that he felt his work in the US was getting suffocated by the increasing use of specialist consultants. “There came a realisation when on one small project, I was looking at a room full of about 25 consultants, that at first we had felt reassured by their support but ultimately realised that before we had even started and after they had all said no, no, no… you can’t do this or that, there wasn’t much room left for design, for creativity.”
Around that time Lyndon was working for Michael Graves in Shanghai and explained: “We had become very critical of bad workmanship, bad design and copying. This was disturbing for the Chinese; they were used to criticism from the West but not from one of their own.” This was much harsher to accept…
Inevitably, they reacted saying: “It’s easy for you guys, with your big salaries, jetting in here, being critical and then flying back to your one a half acre New Jersey home,” and finally they threw down a challenge: “Why don’t you try living here and try and make a difference…Come back to your own home, to your own heritage and see what you can do!”
That is exactly what they did.
It wasn’t easy of course. “We were in our late thirties and I panicked. Leaving Michael was very hard. He’s such a nice man; he was like a second father to me… It was very emotional. Very emotional. Michael took my resignation letter,” Lyndon scrumpled an imaginary piece of paper up in his hands threw it in an imaginary bin, “then he said, let’s talk again.” Lyndon laughs now at the memory: “It took me three hours!”
But China was calling. Six months into product design we were referring people to David Chipperfield, so we started interiors and then about five years ago we started architecture. The first two years were crazy, the speed in China… ”
At this point, Rosanna reflected on their diverse activities: “If we had to do just one thing, it would have to be architecture,” and Lyndon puts forward his view that the paradigm (in design) is shifting: “It all moved from Europe to America, now it’s stifled with regulations and specialisation and now it’s moving across to China.” Rosanna expands on this, “It’s perhaps because of the lack of a mature system, both in building design and education, its open ground for you to create whatever. I think a lot of architects feel that way.”
Lyndon wraps up by telling me: “It’s something I always tell young architects now, those that have been fortunate enough to have been educated in the West, it’s now time to give back.”
Editor in Chief at WAN