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5 Minutes with JJ Acuna

The architect, designer and founder of theWanderlister+ has been busy lately. Tamsin Bradshaw grabs coffee with the man-of-many-hats to find out about his new studio, and to hear what’s happening in his world.

JJA Bespoke Architecture

BY Janice Seow

September 15th, 2016

Most people know JJ Acuna as the man behind design and travel blog theWanderlister+ and sometime writer for Indesignlive.hk. These days, however, he’s donned a new hat, acting as Creative Director for his own boutique studio, JJA Bespoke Architecture.

It’s not a totally new realm for him, because he has been a corporate architect and interior designer for the last decade and more. But it is a new approach; one that is seeing him focus more on the lifestyle details that he has studied so closely in his role as theWanderlister+.

His blog’s not disappearing anytime soon, either: as Acuna points out, it feeds into his work as a designer, inspiring him and providing a network of contacts for exciting work with restaurants, workspaces and more. Here’s what 2016 has been all about for the architect and designer.

Little Bao Bangkok
One of JJA Bespoke Architecture’s first projects, Little Bao, in Bangkok

Why did you decide to leave the corporate world to set up your own thing?

I left corporate architecture because what I was doing was large-scale projects. We’re talking less about bespoke services and more about copy-paste, copy-paste developments for blue-chip clients by a top-listed architecture firm. Which is fine, because I always serviced the lifestyle touchpoints of that business.

When China shrank a year or two ago, though, all that [work] disappeared. I was still a director of that company, but when less and less of that work was available, I started to get really antsy. I had dreams of setting up my own company. I’d been in corporate for 10 years, and I decided it was time to parachute out.

JJA Bespoke Architecture
Villa D in Makati, Manila

How’s JJA Bespoke Architecture going so far?

I established my company in February. I would never have expected that just seven months later, I would already have completed a couple of projects, namely, Little Bao in Bangkok and Elephant Grounds on Star Street.

Plus I have some parallel projects on the way, in the Philippines, where I have half my studio. And I’m also working with [chef] Vicky Lau. She has a Michelin-rated restaurant, Tate, and she’s moving into a larger site, the Space. Her new space is four times larger than the old one.

Star Street
Fresh vibes at Elephant Grounds on Star Street, Wan Chai

How has your work on theWanderlister+ influenced your work for JJA Bespoke Architecture?

For the last five years, I’ve been writing about travel, design, places to go, places to eat. From my perspective, I have a 360-degree approach to writing about a place because theWanderlister+ is a personal blog. It’s less about hype and more about design concepts and the branding that goes into a hotel, a restaurant, and so on. In a way, theWanderlister+ became my looking glass for research.

When I quit my corporate job, the people who were most interested in working with me were my blog networking contacts. They already knew me, and they found out I was free to work with and collaborate with, so I got my business through the blog.

Lingan Greens, JJA Bespoke Architecture
The clubhouse at Lingnan Greens in Foshan, designed by JJA Bespoke Architecture 

Tell us about Elephant Grounds and Little Bao Bangkok.

These were both interesting case studies, because they were version 2.0 of an existing brand, an existing concept, with very sharply focused founders. Kevin Poon of Elephant Grounds has a very specific aesthetic, and Chef May Chow [of Little Bao] has a very strong sense of brand.

With Elephant Grounds, it was about putting the concept within the context of a different neighbourhood. With Little Bao, it’s about presenting the restaurant in a very international way in a different city, without it being too pastiche, and without it being too amusement-park in terms of the Hong Kong-ness of the place.

All I had was neon sign, stainless steel and some colour tones. I decided to take that as the base and then think about how we think about Hong Kong’s built environment. Usually we think about tiles – most of the buildings here are clad in tiles. We also think about the market and spaces on the street. So if you look at the façade in Bangkok, there’s this blue mesh with the long white lights of the markets. When you go in, it’s filled with these pink and teal tiles that represent the colours of the buildings of Hong Kong. The globe lights also remind you of the diners here. Mix it all together, and you’ve got this nostalgic diner concept.

JJA Bespoke Architecture
Little Bao version 2.0 has a nostalgic, Hong Kong diner feel to it

What do you have planned for Tate’s new space?

It will open next spring, and it’s going to be a very tactile space. It’s a female-oriented project, with mostly female clients. The touchpoints are therefore about tactility.

Right now the existing site doesn’t have any coverings and the acoustics are pretty bad. They had an exposed ceiling and concrete floors. But Tate is a high-end project, so we’re going to cover every surface – draperies, carpets, wallcoverings – and that will help a lot with the acoustics.

It’s exciting to do something with a bigger budget; something that’s lush and hospitality focused, and where we can really pile on the materials.

You’re a bit of a mobile architect these days. It’s a big change from corporate lifestyle – how are you finding it?

After 10 years working corporate, I’m happy to be perceived as a mobile architect. I have a private office in a co-working space, WeWork, and the tenants around me are all finance and technology. I’m really interested in having those offbeat juxtapositions and having those offbeat networks, because you really never know where your next project will come from.

And I divide my time between the Philippines and Hong Kong. Having a mobile office and relying less on a big, fixed office allows you to be more receptive to what’s going on around you, in a very low maintenance way.

JJ Acuna, JJA Bespoke Architecture
Acuna’s design for the fresh, dynamic lobby at iLAND Tower in Taipei

I feel more architects and designers should break out of the traditional space, and really live in many cities and work in a mobile way, so they can understand there’s more to the built environment than white boxes and forms.

I think the future will see us move towards a more connected world, in which you carry various computers with you everywhere you go. The future will allow us to have unfixed living and working environments. If you are interested in that lifestyle, it’s so easy to do it – even today.

For more on JJ Acuna and his mobile approach to the many aspects of his working life, check out this video.

JJA Bespoke Architecture