Robert Cheng, the founder and design director of Brewin Design Office, reveals his design philosophy — to continue the integrity in design

It has been four years since we last interviewed interior designer Robert Cheng and during our chat, he quickly brought us up to speed. Firstly, his firm Brewin Design Office — which is based in Singapore and Hong Kong — has expanded in terms of people and projects.  He says: “We have moved forward from private homes and other private spaces, we started to work with developers, funds, hospitality owners and operators and cultural institutions such as the National Gallery Singapore”.

The projects may have gotten larger but for Cheng, the fundamentals of the studio remains. That is, to continue to take a stand to further the integrity in design in an uncompromised way, while retaining the same level of depth and quality of work that clients have come to know.

Now in his mid-40s, Cheng was born in the US but moved to the Singapore at age four. Over the years, he has amassed an impressive curriculum vitae showcasing an equally impressive body of work. Cheng says he approaches his portfolio of design work and construction from a craft-oriented position. Taking his understanding of tectonics in construction — specificity of materials and infusing it into his design process — Cheng possesses a design principle that is closely related to “the making of things”, ensuring the basis for conceptual design discourse and procedure is ever present in his work.

He admits to being an “obsessive workaholic, and depend on my passion to fuel the energy and focus I need to attend to all things big and small. I also depend on a great team of designers that work with me like a hand in glove”.

Now, he has his own furniture line which he says is designed more as bespoke pieces for the interiors of their projects and focus on singular pieces that border on being “design pieces” — a cross between sculpture and furniture, if you like. He adds that he is in touch with galleries in Europe to possibly showcase some of these pieces to be sold as edition work produced in limited numbers. 

In 1999, he graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture from Rhode Island School of Design, and pursued a Masters of Architecture in Urban Design at Harvard University. He spent his formative professional years working at Tsao & McKown Architects in New York City as an apprentice to architect Calvin Tsao, later joining Atelier Jean Nouvel in Paris. In 2012, he founded the multidisciplinary design practice Brewin Design Office, after two decades of living and working in cities such as New York, Paris, London and Rome.

His work are varied in terms of design style and size as seen in his recent projects: OMA by the Sea, Keraton Residence and Conservation Pied-a-Terre. OMA by the Sea is a 500-unit condominium project on Castle Peak Road in Hong Kong, developed by Wing Tai Properties. Brewin Design Office was appointed the interior designer for the clubhouse, lift lobbies and all public spaces. The brief was for a design that prioritised the usability of public spaces, innovating sub-programmes for residents to be relevant in a fast-changing contemporary and millennial culture with increasing expectations. The project is 75% sold and construction will be completed next year. 

Meanwhile, Keraton Residence is a 4,000 sq ft full-scope project for a private home in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. The owners took possession of the unit completely bare and Brewin Design Office was responsible for everything from space planning to the eventual procurement and custom design of bespoke furniture pieces. 

Finally, Conservation Pied-a-Terre is a 1,750 sq ft conservation row of houses in Singapore that was poised for an overhaul. The brief was to transform it into a serene secondary abode for hosting. The residence was designed to be minimal and unembellished to allow the qualities of the space and materials to speak for themselves, carefully balancing fragments of the existing condition of the house with the new intervention. 

Haven finds out more about his ideas and views on the latest design concepts and trends.

Which is more challenging to do, residential or commercial? 

Each [project] presents its own set of challenges. We started our firm doing residential projects for private owners, which remains a passion of ours — working with clients who understand and believe in our process, being able to be explorative creatively, giving the project due time to be fully developed. For such projects we enjoy taking on full scoped interiors, designing the interior envelop from scratch and eventually selecting and designing all furniture pieces, letting us create a full environment aligned to an initial concept. This can be a lengthy and onerous process and as a result we have become more selective when taking on private commissions in recent years. 

Residential projects for commercial clients is an area we are doing more work in. As an extension of our expertise in single-owned homes, we are working with real estate developers on ultra-luxury condominium projects in Hong Kong and Singapore, and collaborate from the early stages. We use interior design to strengthen the usability of the building/space, and the foundational narrative of a residential development. Being engaged early allows us to be involved in space planning of individual units, shaping the most important aspect of the condominium, as well as ensure the product is fully aligned with the messages embedded in the marketing of it. 

When it comes to commercial projects, the challenges presented are different – there are more budgetary, administrative and regulatory requirements to meet, but it is more common to have clearer objectives so decision making is normally faster. We enjoy working on these projects as we have to cater to a wider audience, designing projects that shape the evolution of typologies. We are currently working on 2 large scale office towers from lobbies throughout all floors, and are taking the opportunity to assess where corporate and office interiors are shifting to. 

What is the current trend in the design space? 

Design, like art, has been defined by movements, by periods, and by geographical regions that inevitably are influenced by history and prior movements as they transform and evolve. 

Since the 2000s, the rise of the internet, technology and software has enabled people to design in very different ways, and allows people to be led by their own choices rather than to follow a trend that is defined by period design or a historical movement. 

Today’s transformation is also being led by popular demand, through powerful and hynoptic applications like Pinterest and Instagram. People are being schooled through images, designing subconsciously through imagery. 

For every transformation there will be a response, and this opens up opportunities for the design industry and its leading voices to rethink, redefine, and anchor styles based on a system and foundation that backs its evolution. 

How do you see the future of design changing over the next few years as we recover from Covid-19? 

There is certainly a lot of potential at bay, and while there is a lot of discussion around this subject, there is also a lot of underlying hope and anticipation that things will quickly go back to normal once a vaccine comes out. Designers are still waiting to see what settles to become the new norm. 

What has been apparent however is that Covid-19 has only increased the importance of interior design, and accelerated other themes that had just started to take shape. 

When it comes to residential projects, people are spending more time at home and realising how important it is to invest in good interiors that put you at ease, make you feel comfortable, and that you enjoy. People are becoming more aware of how a space affects our moods, and our ability to live and work effectively. 

When it comes to commercial and hospitality projects, there is a heightened awareness of how to strategically plan a space, to circulate and to redefine traditional programs and functions. 

New precedents that rely on independence and autonomy, where offices are spatial results of a way of working that merges traditional principles with flexibility and autonomy, and remaining globally connected in a remote setting. Certain programmes like co-working spaces were already starting to transform the workplace, and the pandemic encouraged a tweaking of those principles that already existed. The role of designers in this context is to design environments to support these adaptations. 

Other areas to keep an eye on would be on advancement of prefabrication in construction, and software development — not just in the advancement of software technology-wise but its ease of use in supporting remote design work. With technology today, more than ever, we should be able to design for a site half way around the globe and not have to be present at all. 

What are some of the most exciting opportunities in Singapore in terms of design, architecture and interiors? 

Singapore is still a nascent city in terms of design. It has moved in some ways, and the government is a lot more supportive through groups like DesignSingapore Council. There has been a surge of small firms, many of which are budding talent, but we are finding a voice within a society that is itself trying to find its voice in design. 

It would be great to see even more interaction between design firms and government bodies like URA, DesignSingapore Council, National Arts Council, and other government-linked institutions like Singapore Arts Museum and National Gallery Singapore, as well as learning institutions like the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), where new foundations for future growth have really only started being laid in the last five years. 

It is wonderful to see the activities and priorities of institutions like DesignSingapore, where a chief mandate is to promote the search for a Singaporean voice in design, internationally.