Interview with designer Aldwin Ong of Wilson Associates
A Principal Designer at the Singapore hub of Wilson Associates, talks to PALACE about his passions for cuisine, photography and the diversity of cultures and how they contribute to designing projects with soul
In his own words, Aldwin Ong started his career in design from humble educational beginnings. However, he was always pushing the envelope in where he gained his inspiration. From outside passions away from the industry, to attending classes unrelated to his field during university, his thirst for knowledge has given him a different insight. Based in Singapore with Wilson Associates, he has worked on diverse hotel projects such as the Four Seasons Serengeti and the New World Hotel in Beijing, experiences which give him an excellent viewpoint on the changing design landscape of the region.
What inspired you to take the leap into the industry?
Early on in my career, I had the pleasure of meeting a client who wanted to create the “best” hotel in honour of his late wife. It was his legacy to her. The tides were against him; time, the Asian financial crisis, and family and friends who did not share the same faith that he could complete his dream. Every single detail was scrutinised as I toiled with him for 18 hours a day to make his dream a reality. The experience I felt when we successfully opened the hotel was immeasurable. This further spurred my drive to give each project my ultimate effort.
What is a driving force in your design ethos?
I’ve always been fascinated by relationships and diversity. It is remarkable to see such a range of worldly cultures and yet to find a homogenous connection between them too. One can see it when travelling to remote destinations, only to see a familiar corner, or smell a particular scent that gives a sense of belonging. Best of all is in the common denomination of how food culture is experienced. The spirit of hospitality in every culture is communal; it has no divide. I’ve always wanted to capture that experience, so hospitality design was a natural inclination for me. I want to create designs with a soul.
Do you have a particular mentor who challenges and inspires you?
Architectural visionaries such as Mies Van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Tadao Ando; industry design leaders as Tony Chi, Yabu Pushelberg; and gastronomy mavericks like Heston Blumenthal. Each of these individuals do not compromise on the quality of their work and fight hard (despite obstacles in life) to aim for their ultimate goal; achieve the highest possible level of quality, and breaking boundaries.
Where do you draw your ideas from?
Design should be organic and unrestrictive. It does not mean that we do not conform to standards or rules, but guidelines need to be challenged. It is important to engage the client in this process and see how far we can go. By drawing upon stories that surround the locality– a colour, perhaps a game or even the direct opposite of what is expected– we take the client on a journey to discover and unravel layers in our design. We like to re-invent, and we like to play with contrasts; calm and frenzy, nostalgic and provocative, black and white. Lastly, details, details, details; I’m a self-professed control freak. I’m still under therapy for this!
Away from the studio, you are a prolific chef. How does the gourmet and the designer combine?
There is a fascinating symbiotic relationship between a chef and a designer. Both are passionate about their creations, take immeasurable time and effort to search for the perfect concept, then test, re-test and finally craft the “dishes” to solicit the ultimate response from the guest. It is interesting to see how chefs and designers hide in the background, hands clenched just anticipating how their work will be received.
Just like in design, I do not have a signature style or dish. I let my inspiration, audience and the moment influence what I create. When we conform, it makes us victims of cookie-cutter techniques.
You are also a keen photographer. Do you draw on this passion in your “day job” too?
Photography, for me, is a way to capture feelings. In another life, I would be a portrait photographer as I find human emotions the most fascinating subjects to focus on. I draw on both of my passions and many many other influences every second I am conceptualising my designs. My culinary and photography obsessions guide me to study material or design proportions carefully as an incorrect furniture size or scale can destroy an entire space. It takes a while to ensure every piece fits the puzzle.
What will have the greatest impact on architectural design in the near future?
Interconnectivity is key; areas need to be multivalent. Spaces are becoming a prime commodity so they need to be multi-functional and able to fold and unfold into varying functions. Social media is dictating social behaviour. People do things at the same time and in shorter periods, so design needs to reflect that. I try to go beyond skin-deep approaches in design by trying to study social trends and human behaviour and so I need to integrate these social developments in my projects. Technology has, and always will be, a major factor in how humans interact and that dictates how we sculpt spaces. technology will be more integrated so we need to work out how to innovate this. Architects are supposed to be social sculptors and are often asked to create utopia. We may not be able to predict the future, but we can anticipate the wants, desires and needs of the people.
This article was first published in Palace 19.