Brit architect's feng shui approach to design
When Chris Godfrey started to design luxury houses in the Asian market about 10 years ago, the Englishman wasn’t quite sure whether his “less is more” or “refined” approach to luxury would work for his clients here.
But now the newly appointed president of the Society of British & International Interior Design (SBID), Global Principal of HBA Residential, has built up a strong reputation in the circle. The British architect also knows how feng shui (Chinese geomancy) would work for his Chinese clients.
Born in 1971 in Hull in East Yorkshire, Godfrey comes from an architectural family.
“My father was an architectural draftsman, and we lived in a very ordinary house. But the interior was very avant-garde,” Godfrey said. “Because my father would make quite unorthodox furniture pieces by hand, some of which were trompe l’oeil artworks. And the walls of the house was decorated with a collage of art, architecture, nude photography and industrial archeology. Looking back, it was a uniquely immersive and stimulating environment, which had a profound effect on me.”
Godfrey left school at 17 and joined an architectural practice as an apprentice, which initiated “his love for design.” He then went to study architecture at Glasgow School of Art and, only two years after graduating, he set up his first studio in London at the age of 29.
However, it was hard for him to get designs commissioned at the beginning — especially a young inexperienced man in a hugely competitive market.
“So I started by designing furniture and working on modest sized interiors for residential projects,” he said.
After honing his skills in London for nearly two decades, his eyes focused on the Asian market.
“Asia is incredibly rich and diverse; both physically and culturally. There is a rich cultural heritage and also a desire to embrace the new. These dynamics create a wonderful context within which to design and were part of the draw for me, ” he said.
Godfrey said he had a keen interest in the East, especially China and the Chinese culture, which is quite unusual for “someone from the north of England.”
Today Godfrey sees an increasing demand for subtlety, as opposed to being overtly ostentatious among his Chinese clients.
“There is more of a demand for the simple. Luxury can be reductive. You can achieve luxury through simplicity, not through ostentatiousness.
Q: What interests you about this job?
A: To me, it is a job that is constantly evolving. No two projects are the same; no two clients are the same; no two days are the same. The diversity and uniqueness of the people I am privileged to work with and the cultural exchanges this affords give me my passion, and are my constant source of inspiration.
Q: What have you done to acquire an understanding of Asian art and culture, such as feng shui?
A: Without question my being based in Asia and traveling extensively throughout both China and the continent (Asia) has hugely contributed to cultural understandings.
I am driven by a quest for learning and understanding; so naturally take every travel trip opportunity to try and experience, absorb and learn. I also read a lot and I am immersed by the arts; there is a natural and continual accumulation.
Q: How do you manage to achieve uniqueness in each project without repetition?
A: When I start a new project, there is no fixed view as to what the outcome will be. Experiences are naturally gathered. Each is an honest and unique response to the needs and ambitions of the clients.
There are three key components to the dynamic — my triangle.
Firstly, the person: How does the project represent his needs and aspirations? Secondly, the physical context: What are the opportunities that can rise from physicality? Thirdly, the cultural context, which will influence me and the client in creating the uniqueness.
The fact is that the more triangular interaction, the more unique a project will become.
Q: Are there times that you have to give up an idea to satisfy your clients’ needs?
A: Designing someone’s home is very personal, and sometimes it is a testing undertaking, and I am very conscious of maintaining the balance. The key is to listen, understand and respond with a design that demonstrably meets needs and exceeds any prior expectations. Then it can become a subject of style which can be developed.
I use the analogy of the human body: First we form the skeleton, ensuring everything is in its right place, straight and true and of the correct proportions. Then we flesh out the body and tone up the design. If this is done properly and in concert with the client, what we see in the end, the skin or the style, will be inherently beautiful. If the design is reasoned and the beauty integral; it becomes harder to refute.
Q: In your eyes, what are the basic qualities of an interior designer?
A: To be a designer one must have an open inquisitive mind, a resilient soul and a hand that can be both loose to generate ideas and steady to execute them.
To grow is to always maintain the spirit of questioning and challenging, to continue to absorb, disseminate and redefine; to widen horizons and never narrow one’s perspective.
Being a top designer is knowing that you will never reach the top. The day if anyone thinks they are there, it is over.
Q: Can you use three adjectives to describe your design? Any unforgettable cases?
A: I’d say thoughtful, meaningful and quintessential.
One example that typifies my approach is a 4,000-square-meter private residence in Mumbai. The owner of the house was highly interested and involved, which means its style responds not only to the site’s conditions and heritage, but also to his and three generations’ personalities and preferences. This home will be a family heirloom, a place that needs to accommodate large functions and also be a private, secure residence.
Another good example, which is currently underway, is the 5,000-square-meter new residence for a prominent fashion designer based in Ningbo, China. It is built on the land the client used to play around as a child. The residence is both a family home and a place where he can bring his colleagues for team functions.
Q: I’m curious to know what’s the design style of your own house.
A: My own style is simple and relaxed. My belief is that the interior design should form a neutral canvas or background of our life.
Home is a place where you can be yourself, and the interior needs to support that and never define it. What really matters is the essence of being at home; issues of comfort, security, family, stability, fun and health and wellness. They all prevail over style.
For me, apart from the family, personality and color come in the form of my personal possessions. Among other things, I collect art, modernist furniture and vinyl records and my home is about being surrounded by the people and the possessions I love.
Q: Who is your favorite Asian artist or architect?
A: Picking an artist is quite hard as this changes all the time. I am fascinated by the Chinese characters and have recently started practicing calligraphy. I therefore really appreciate the works of artists like Qin Feng, who uses traditional ink-wash painting techniques to create beautiful abstract art.
On a more contemporary tip, I also like the work of South Korean artist Do Ho Suh who, like one of my favorite British artists Rachel Whiteread, examines and catalogues elements of the interior to make us question space and identity — a pursuit that resonates with my own.
As for an architect, it would have to be Tadao Ando, who had a huge influence on me when studying. His Zen belief in inner spirit over outward appearance is something I subscribe to.