Neri&Hu's Lyndon Neri reveals how he and wife Rossana Hu combine a thriving practice with raising three children, and sheds light on the controversy at this year's Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair
It's a crisp Saturday afternoon in Shanghai, and one of the salons in Neri&Hu's Design Republic Commune retail concept store is being prepared for the evening's events that will include speakers Brigitte Shim of Shim-Sutcliffe Architects and Andrés Jaque of Office for Political Innovation. The talk is part of the Festival of Design 2019, hosted by Neri&Hu and including the likes of Konstantin Grcic and Zhang Ke. It's not as if Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu don't have enough to do: they are active across the discipline of design from furniture and lighting to architecture and installations. Along the way, they have snapped up numerous awards, including seven at Perspective's A&D Trophy Awards 2018. They also have three kids.
"This is the fourth year we are doing Festival of Design," says Neri, casually dressed in designer sweats and trainers. "Four years ago, we looked at Design Shanghai. We were really happy with the fair, but we thought we could provide a different point of view to augment the show and at the same time bring in lectures that are more multidisciplinary – and probably less commercial. The lecture tonight is here on the third floor, which can fit about 150 people. The main show downstairs fits around 800 people."
I would say that I am more additive and Rossana is more deductive. I am constantly putting something in and she is constantly taking it away.
Established 16 years ago in Shanghai, Neri&Hu Design and Research Office is regarded as one of the best practices of its kind in the world. The founders are the thinking architect's architects: passionate, cerebral, socially driven and tirelessly devoted to upholding excellence. At the same time, they complement each other – Neri's passion sits well with Hu's natural diplomacy. Neri says they make the most of this by playing good cop, bad cop – not only with clients, but also with staff.
"I would say that I am more additive and Rossana is more deductive," muses Neri. "I am constantly putting something in and she is constantly taking it away. She thinks with words and she designs by thinking, by writing. I tend to just draw. We are very different. Sometimes she would verbalise something and staff would agree, just out of fear. They would draw it, panic and come to me to say it doesn't work. And I would say, I think this is what she means. And I would draw it. Then it goes back to her and she says, wow – brilliant! And at night I would say it was because I drew it. It doesn't mean that she doesn't draw or I don't write but we fall back on our main kind of communication."
A week before the Festival of Design, the pair lectured at The University of Hong Kong to a standing-room-only crowd. A month before that, they were at the Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair to check on their Unfolding Village project – their installation as Guest of Honour. This fall, they will teach at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. They are at the point in their careers where they can pick and choose the projects that mean the most to them. Working with 100 staff members, they fielded 419 requests and took on 15 jobs over the past 12 months. "We are very grateful," Neri admits. "It is really important for us to select the projects we want to do."
They are clearly having the time of their lives: it is evident in the playful banter of a couple who have devoted most of their lives to each other and to the same cause. "Our kids being away at school has been a drastic change for Rossana," Neri explains. "We manage to spend more time with them in the States than when they were here, as we have been teaching in the Boston area so much. We are always hectic here. Even when we were at home, our heads were in a different space. So, things have changed. Now, we will be in the office until very late together. It's kind of fun.
"It was not that Rossana didn't have major input [before]. She did. Even when she was at home, she made sure that her voice was clear. She is a very temperate individual who doesn't insist her way [is right] but she is very clear about what she wants. If a client doesn't want something, she doesn't say: 'we're going to quit'. She'll say: 'This is my opinion – I just want you to know.' She will put it in writing and be very clear that she takes a different path. I don't just say yes. I will persuade them. I will come up with five or six different alternatives. At the end, if they still refuse, I will threaten to pull out (laughs). No! But I am a bit more emotional."
A few notable projects completed in recent years are New Shanghai Theatre, Tsingpu Yangzhou Retreat, Alila Bangsar and Aranya Art Center. New Shanghai Theatre is an in-between public space separating the theatre from the city, serving as a stylishly minimal buffer that transitions people from the busy street into calm. Tsingpu Yangzhou Retreat, the Best of the Best winner in the Architecture category at Perspective's A&D Trophy Awards 2018, is a series of multiple courtyards that explores ancient craftsmanship, with all the walls constructed entirely from reclaimed grey bricks. Alila Bangsar is a resort south of Kuala Lumpur's CBD, with an open air rooftop stepped pool landscaped to capture the panoramic views. Aranya Art Center in Qinhuangdao, China, was designed around an outdoor amphitheatre at its base, with a spiralling path taking visitors on a journey through the building. Their efforts to revive the vanishing structures and lifestyle of Chinese cities that are now looking more and more like each other resulted in The Unfolding Village, their installation as Guest of Honour for the Stockholm Design Week in February. It is also where they were accused to being divas, with their appalled reaction to their design's manifestation famously published in online magazine Dezeen.
Neri sets the record straight: "The Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair comments were shared in confidence with Marcus Fairs, editor in chief and founder of Dezeen. Did we threaten to pull out? We did. I was shocked. I saw wood that was warped or nails that were sticking out. There is a preconception that anything made of wood coming from Scandinavia is perfect. It isn't. It's easy for people to say, oh come on, the Chinese are just prima donnas. They can say all that they want. We are skilled. We are living in a society where we are fighting a mountain of prejudice and stereotypes. The fair was very supportive – they were not the problem. The problem was with the contractors. And I can't blame them either – they were doing a lot of things. The cafe next door was perfectly done. It had a higher budget; they were paid well. You have to understand that Rossana and I practice on the ethos that we have set standards and we try to achieve them. That's the message we are trying to bring to the next generation of Chinese. I'm not trying to be dismissive and arrogant about the whole thing. In many ways, I was happy that it happened. In the end, of course things were fixed and completed, but at our expense."
It's easy for people to say, oh come on, the Chinese are just prima donnas. They can say all that they want. We are skilled. We are living in a society where we are fighting a mountain of prejudice and stereotypes.
Neri admits that the couple finds it difficult to switch off: "Some people say, 'Lyndon and Rossana – you just don't stop'. It's not that we don't stop: it's just that ideas come to our head. We won't do a food festival, for instance, or a music festival – I don't think we have the bandwidth to do that. But as long as it is within the very core of what we aspire to do, we will aspire to do it."