East Meets Best

At last year’s Salone del Mobile, the highly influential design fair in Milan, one of the star attractions was an exhibition that showcased Asian design. Walking through a series of coolly chic white rooms, the world’s designerati gazed upon some of the most exciting work coming out of Asia today. However, there were no glossy lacquered pots or bamboo screens, no metal teapots or hand-painted wallpaper. Instead, Chinese designer Naihan Li displayed her striking wardrobe made from rosewood and steel, its angular shape resembling two skyscrapers fused together. Gunjan Gupta from New Delhi presented her Gada Cycle Throne, a beautiful armchair with a seat made from bicycle saddles, the back of a series of rolled-up silk mattresses held in place by leather straps. And hanging sculpturally from the ceiling was the work of Filipino designer Gabriel Lichauco, who took oyster shell and scorched it to make a set of pendant lights that are as unusual as they are lovely.


The exhibition, called alamak!, has big ambitions. At a time when Asia is turning itself into an economic powerhouse, alamak!, which after Venice and Berlin can be seen in New York and LA, aims to be a driving force for innovative modern Asian design. “Alamak! is a southeast Asian expression that means ‘Surprise!’, and that underlines the spirit of the exhibition,” says Yoichi Nakamuta, the Japanese-born, Singapore-based co-curator. “Through the show we hope to change the perception of what design in Asia is, when seen from the West. Its ambition is to be the creative movement from Asia, much like Memphis and post-modernism were creative movements of ’80s Italy, and Droog was of ’90s Holland.”


The exhibition features the work of ten designers from across the region, and while the products are wide-ranging. there’s a common theme: the exploration of traditional craftsmanship. However, it’s no longer just about replicating what has been done for thousands of years, but applying these ideas to create objects that are very much of the 21st century. “Traditions are what have informed the here and now, and have shaped the artists and designers working in these regions. But the designers have given them a new twist,” says Nakamuta. For instance, Jo Nagasaka has taken a traditional Japanese idea of repairing broken porcelain but used 3D printing not only to repair the break, but also to give birth to two vessels from one broken one.


Award-winning Filipino designer Kenneth Cobonpue is not featured in alamak!, but he, too, champions this new thinking. The clientele for his elegantly curving pieces of furniture, made mainly from rattan and palm, includes royalty (Queen Sofia of Spain, Queen Rania of Jordan) and celebrity (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bought Cobonpue’s Voyage Bed for their son Maddox). “Today, designers like myself are using modern forms, traditional craftsmanship and natural materials to reshape and change the definition of Asian design,” he says. While Cobonpue made his name with natural materials – Time magazine called him “rattan’s first virtuoso” – he has begun working with carbon fiber and resins, and these modern materials are coming into play across Asia. “The fusion of natural materials and synthetics, and the fusion of the machine-made and the handmade, is the future,” he says. “Natural materials have issues regarding strength and durability, and these issues can be offset with synthetics.”


Coponpue’s change in direction has in part been inspired by his work with some of the West’s most on-trend designers, such as Britain’s Tom Dixon and The Netherlands’ Marcel Wanders. For Wanders, Cobonpue helped produce the Carbon chair, the seat and frame hand-woven using black strands of epoxy-soaked carbon fiber around a mold to create a design that’s both visually and physically light. “When it comes to weaving, we’re second-to-none,” says Coponpue. “We’ve been doing it for a long time, and have experience in weaving almost anything from bamboo to carbon fiber and composite materials.”


Like Coponpue, who studied in New York and worked in Europe before returning to the Philippines, André Fu, one of the region’s most celebrated designers, was born in Hong Kong and schooled in the UK. The pair’s fusion of East and West is another component of contemporary Asian design. Fu’s work is pared back; wood and polished stone are teamed with a palette of quietly rich shades, such as warm gray, green tea and deep purple. “An appreciation of the different cultures remains core to what I do,” he says. “It’s not so much the stylistic adaptation of things that are visually Asian that speaks to my heritage, but of giving a space a sense of balance and calm. Key to this is the sense of relaxed luxury that’s effortless and solid, not superficial and driven by style or a high level of ornateness.”


Fu believes that the surge in hotels in the East – St. Regis will open an additional ten hotels in this part of the world in the next few years – is seeing a commensurate burst of creativity in interior design. “The volume of hotels, combined with increasingly sophisticated global travelers, means designers are doing things differently, experimenting with stronger personalities to create better and more interesting products,” he says.


Bensley, the Bangkok-based design studio behind the landscape architecture of The St. Regis Bali, certainly took an unusual approach, using the famous Japanese-American designer Isamu Noguchi as their inspiration. “We designed 300-plus original pieces of art, many carved from black marble, while some were cast in bronze,” says founder Bill Bensley. “All the sculpture has one underlying DNA that helps keeps unity among the tropical garden ‘rooms’, and that is. ‘What if Isamu Noguchi had lived in Bali in the 1950s? How would things Bali have influenced him?’ Noguchi has a pared-down, Japanese way of creating modern forms – I thought if I used his way of looking at Balinese forms, we might be able to create a fresh body of work.”


Similarly, the penthouse of The St. Regis Bangkok contains a mix of old and new Thai design. Along with a striking glass wall of beautifully colored traditional Benjarong pottery are a number of modern pieces that include a sculpture of stylized lotus leaves by the artist Mongkol, and, on the balcony with stunning city views, a 5ft elephant, painted with Thai letters and numbers and symbols in an abstract pattern by Manop Suwanpinta. “Modern Thai design is coming out of the box,” says Kathy Heinecke – the wife of William Heinecke, CEO of Minor International, which owns the St. Regis Bangkok – who designed the luxe penthouse interior. “It’s embracing its heritage, but also expanding on it with a fresh aspect.” In Thailand, and across Asia, it makes for exciting times.


Your address: The St. Regis Bangkok;  The St. Regis Bali


High life

The penthouse at The St. Regis Bangkok (above) contains a stunning mix of old and new styles





Lights fantastic

Pescador pendant lights, made from oyster shells, by Gabriel Lichauco (above left); detail of an ornament in The St. Regis Bangkok penthouse (above right)





All in the detail

A door handle by André Fu (above left); a Nebbia Interactive wall light, made by nbt.Studio from recycled electronic waste (above right)



Kitchen Confidential

Oscar Portal is the innovative head chef at The St. Regis Mexico City, where he oversees six restaurants, from the King Cole Bar to private dining. Prior to moving to Mexico, he was pivotal in transforming the gastronomy scene in Madrid, while one of his first projects at St. Regis was creating a refined fish-and-chips pop-up called Krug & Chips.


What do you eat when you’re home alone? Because I cook so much at work, when I’m at home I often eat takeaways: pepperoni pizza, cheeseburgers, sushi, and Chinese dishes like vegetable spring rolls, rice soup and dumplings. If I cook, it’s only because my two-and-a-half-year-old son has to eat well. What I eat is not good for my health!


What would you order from your own menu? Clarified chicken broth or fish broth, then short-rib glaze [roasted short ribs] followed by Parmesan ice cream.


What is your favorite dish to cook? Anything with fish or seafood. These dishes are a real challenge to cook, because their taste – particularly turbot – is so delicate.


Any local food that particularly inspires you? There’s a really spicy dish I love from the coast of Mexico called aguachile – thinly sliced shrimps, lime and vegetables, which can be cooked in different sauces. I also like mole, an ancient Mexican sauce that’s really complicated to make; some recipes use over 100 ingredients.


The proudest moment in your career? The first was when I was working in a restaurant called Pinera in Madrid and the newspaper El Mundo voted us Restaurant of the Year in 2010. Considering how many restaurants there are in Madrid, this was a huge achievement. The second was moving to Mexico City and becoming executive chef at St. Regis.


Which dish are you most proud of? Smoked eel salad with tomato gel, watermelon and prunes. It’s molecular cuisine; I created it at Pinera in Madrid and it’s as beautiful as it is tasty.


The most delicious thing to eat in Mexico City? Taco al pastor. You can find it in local taquerias, but it’s best bought as street food. You should buy it the minute you arrive. For simple, tasty food, there’s nothing better. I particularly like the corn tortillas filled with marinated pork, curry sauce, onion, pineapple and coriander.


Which meal would you have again, if you could? One I had with my wife when she was pregnant with our first son. We’d been apart – I was working in Mexico while she was at home in Madrid – and we reunited in San Sebastian during Holy Week at [our friend] Martin Berasategui’s restaurant. We ate lobster salad, hake in green sauce and chocolate mousse. It was one of the best meals of my life.


The secret to running a restaurant? There’s no magic formula, but you do need to make sacrifices: you work long hours and you give up holidays. If you don’t love it, there’s no future.


What was your favorite food as a child? A soup my mother used to cook, cocido madrileño, and my grandmother’s meatballs. I could eat these foods every week and never get tired of them.


What reminds you of home? Every Saturday, my whole family gathers around my mother’s table. I go home twice a year and we still do it. Sitting around that table makes me feel like a boy again, and brings back memories of helping my grandmother in the kitchen when I was little.


Your address: The St. Regis Mexico City


Oscar Portal


Jewels in the Crown

From the slums of Mumbai to the palaces of Rajasthan; from the technology hubs of Bangalore to the spiritual mecca of Varanasi, one common thread weaves its way through India: an enduring love of jewelry. No one sub-continent’s cultural, geological and historical makeup is so entwined in the sourcing, manufacturing and self-adorning as this great land mass – from the excesses of Mughal royalty to the traditional nose-rings, hand jewelry and stacked gold bracelets worn by millions. Characterized by yellow gold, strings of beads, carved emeralds and bold color-combinations, its influence in varying degrees has crept into Western jewelry design, a process that can be traced back to the early 20th century.


As the great jewelry houses of Paris – Cartier, Van Cleef and Boucheron – made stone-buying trips to India in the early 1900s, their paths inevitably crossed with the maharajas of the time who, seeking a more Western, refined aesthetic, commissioned the maisons to re-make their jewels, replacing the traditional yellow gold with finer, less visible, platinum settings. One of Cartier’s biggest ever commissions occurred in 1925, when the Maharaja of Patiala handed over his crown jewels for total re-modeling, a job that took several years to complete and proved key to an East/West cross-pollination of styles. The Indian tradition of long, beaded necklaces that covered the chest morphed into the fashionable sautoirs of the 1920s, while engraved emeralds (carved in Jaipur and often the centerpiece of ceremonial jewels) became a staple of the art-deco style running concurrent at the time.


Cartier incorporated these stones into a genre that’s still firmly part of their house style: Tutti-Frutti has carved, unfaceted emeralds, rubies and sapphires in leaf and fruit motifs set against the sparkle of white diamonds – a combination considered daring and avant-garde at the time. (Cartier has never stopped making Tutti-Frutti pieces; last year the house showed the largest piece in this style it had ever made: the aptly named Rajasthan, featuring a central carved emerald of 136.97 carats.)


Boucheron’s love affair with the Subcontinent started in much the same way. Its recent Bleu de Jodhpur high jewelry collection is a riff on the “Blue city”, mixing Indian motifs and materials (such as marble from the same quarry used for the Taj Mahal) with Indian jewelry styles, underlined with the ever-present sharp execution of a Place Vendôme jeweler. East meets West in a mix of ancient custom and contemporary savvy.


While Surat in Gujarat is famed for diamond cutting and the mines of Golkonda have produced some of the world’s most legendary diamonds, it is Jaipur in Rajasthan where the cutting of colored stones and the centuries-old techniques of enameling are still practiced.


Western jewelers such as Bulgari source many of their signature candy-bright gems from the ancient city, with creative director Lucia Silvestri making frequent trips to oversee the process. She concedes that these visits have informed the house’s rainbow palette. “I love the colors of the saris the women wear in Jaipur,” she says, “and how they clash orange and pink, blue and red, in unexpected combinations. It gives me fresh ideas for designs.”


Less mainstream jewelers are also harnessing the centuries-old expertise of Indian workmen. Alice Cicolini, for instance, uses their enamel workshops to create exquisite hand-painted rings, and cult jeweler Noor Fares created her Navratna collection after a trip to Varanasi. Hanut Singh, great-grandson of the Maharaja of Kapurthala, who was a famous patron of Cartier, has spent ten years honing his signature fusion of old and new. Singh shows at private trunk shows and attracts a cult following from the likes of Madonna, Beyoncé and Diane Von Furstenberg.


Although India’s influence has always been present in the West, one development from a particular jeweler marks a significant change. Nirav Modi is the first Indian jeweler to combine Eastern motifs and themes in a thoroughly Western way. Unlike Indian brands like Amrapali, whose core designs are dominated by yellow gold and large colored stones that resonate with its Indian clientele, Modi has expanded his modern designs, attracting high-profile fans like Kate Winslet and Naomi Watts. Although his designs are Western, his Indian inspiration is still there. His Mughal range features diamonds cut to mimic petals, the shape inspired by 18th-century paintings of Mughal gardens. And his Maharani necklace with strings of emerald beads owes everything to its ancestral roots yet looks entirely at home in the window of his New York store.


Progression is everything; from an aesthetic that originated in the coffers of the maharajas to a style now gently disseminated throughout Western jewelry, India’s influence continues to dazzle, a century on.


Your address: The St. Regis Mumbai


Romancing the stone
Haut diamantaire Nirav Modi (niravmodi.com) blends Indian and Western influences to create exquisite pieces like his “Emerald Maharani” necklace (above) and his “Flamingo Embrace” bangle (below)



Fit for a Maharaja
Below, left and middle: “Gothikas” earrings and “Ebony Triangles”, both by Hanut Singh (hanutsingh.com). Below, right: Indian-made enameled pieces from Alice Cicolini (alicecicolini.com)




Master of the Universe

Nebulas burst before your eyes, galaxies mingling with divine light. Some are rose-gold like sunrise; others are inky and bruised like a rainy evening sky. In the large-scale paintings of Nepalese artist Govinda Sah “Azad” (b. 1974), the many faces of the sublime in nature can be found – from bursts of energy exploding like volcanic eruptions to swirling, smoky cloudscapes. “Nature is a force far bigger than us,” he says. “What I try to do is immerse myself in the elements, meditating, reflecting on the interconnection between clouds, the landscape and weather.”


As a boy growing up in southeast Nepal, Sah always knew drawing was in his blood. His refusal to give up his passion – much to his parents’ frustration – earned him the nickname “Azad” (or “Freedom”), and by the age of 15 he had made his way to Delhi, where he found work as a billboard painter, before returning home and enrolling at art school at Nepal’s Tribhuvan University. Daily sessions painting outdoors at dawn allowed him to experience the splendor of the sun rising over the majestic Himalayas, while his experience as a sign painter gave him the confidence to go big.


With exhibitions in countries from London and Krakow to Kathmandu, he has ample opportunity to travel and draw inspiration from the awe-inspiring scale of nature. What he sees there often goes beyond the physical. By painting clouds as repeated drops of water and light, he says he has come to understand “why the cloud is the visual symbol of spirituality in nature, that we can see transcendence against gravity”.


While his main palette is paint, it is not his only medium. The master also often adds sculptural interventions in the form of burnt holes in the canvas or small tears, as well as physical objects such as hair and pearls. He also sometimes paints with smoke, the blackened charred strokes creating a sense of delicacy, as if the marks were made from air itself.


Next, he hopes to create even bigger, oversized paintings that are contained yet burst forth from the frame. “Who knows?” he says. “I let art take me where it wants to go.”


Govinda Sah “Azad”’s work will be exhibited by the October Gallery at Abu Dhabi Art 2017. Your address: The St. Regis Abu DhabiThe St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, Abu Dhabi



Reflection, 2016

“In my early works, there was a sense of 3D and of illusion,” says Govinda Sah “Azad” (below). “You had to come up close, almost to touch it. I like this idea of touch, like connecting your eternal self to the universe. I’m still playing with the relationship between 2D and 3D, trying to see how we understand the notion of ‘infinity’ by connecting with the night sky.”






Wondering in Dark, 2015

“In Wondering in Dark (above), you can see the influence of the great British painter Turner, who I came across in my early studies. I love his paintings of seas, water and storms; they really move me. I love his use of light, how he creates reflections of light and color. I want to capture that energy in my own work, that energy of nature.”





Tactile Universe, 2016

“I use a special breathing technique while painting. That might come from my Eastern culture: making art and painting is like a meditation in everyday life. I’m trying to make the emotion I feel visible, tangible in the painting. Tactile Universe is a good example of that. The closer you get, the more you want to touch it – to make emotion tactile.”