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Lai Siew Hong Marks A Decade Of Running His Studio

The award-winning Blu Water Studio has many achievements to be proud of

First and foremost, congratulations. Tell us, what was the premise of Blu Water Studio at the beginning?   

Thank you. Having left the corporate world, we wanted to control our destiny. I’m a believer in specialisation, so Blu Water was set up to pursue our dreams in hospitality [design]. That path has been guiding us, and we’re happy to have a number of hotels to our name. We have 12 projects on hand right now, finishing in a year or two. We also do condominiums, where clients want that hotel- and resort-feel, an injection of lifestyle. A condo is not just about your box of living; it’s about the spaces beyond your own apartment.

Is the studio fully focused on interior design?

One hundred percent. I was trained in New York, then came back in 1991 and joined Axis Identity Group. When I left Axis, branding was something I was connected to, and on some projects, we do embark on that route. For example, we are working on a very interesting project in Penang’s heritage zone, where we are crafting the whole storyline and brand positioning, including finding the right hotel operator for the client, and of course, designing the interiors. We believe in storytelling, because once a story is crafted, everything just flows. The whole team knows what to do.

What is your proudest achievement to date?

One project we feel proud to work on is the Equatorial Hotel, or EQ as it is now known. This was one where we managed to craft the entire narrative based on a theme of timeless heritage chic. The story is about borrowing traditional elements, and refashioning and modernising them in a contemporary way. We don’t believe reflecting Malaysian heritage is merely through putting up a carving or a piece of songket. Rather, we take the songket pattern, the silver thread, and transform the material into something else. That emulation you will see throughout the hotel, from the lobby to the glass, to even the wallpaper print in the guestroom.

Outside of practice, what industry contributions have you made?

Personally, I spend a lot of time in the Malaysian Institute of Interior Design (MIID), and have been on the board for 3½ years. What I’m very passionate about at MIID, aside from elevating professionalism and design, is the (annual) REKA Conference, of which I’ve been the chairman for about four years. It is where we pull the best Asian talent to share their thought processes, to know how they develop their concepts, and to learn how their designs are built.

What is your view on the state of Malaysian interior design?

It definitely has improved. I think there is only a small group though, the new blood, that are pushing design to another level. There is quite a big pool that are [just] content; from one café to the next, you see the same style, the same materials and furniture being applied. This is why I want to bring all these great designers together and show them (the big pool), “look, there are a lot of things you can do”.

Lastly, what is your aspiration for the next 10 years?

My hope is for Blu Water to become a leading design house in Asia. It is about giving all the people here - the designers with the same aspirations - a platform to learn and grow, to feel a sense of belonging and to strive for a higher standard. 

This story first appeared in Issue 115: April/May 2020 of d+a.

Nizar Musa
05 June 2020