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Interview: Material Men

Rebecca Lo • August 17, 2018
Photography by Alex Chomicz, Graz Lam, and Khoo Guo Jie

Photos: Recent Projects

Simon Laws had been working in construction since the age of 17, and though the native Queenslander never formally trained as an architect, he started designing and building houses just two years later. He went on to establish Hong Kong-based Anthill Constructions, working primarily on highly customized houses before a trip to China in 2010 sent him on a different journey.

While there, he met British antique dealer and furniture extraordinaire Timothy Oulton, who had transformed his father’s shop, Halo Antiques, into the renowned furniture company known today. The two hit it off and began working together on Oulton’s Foshan showroom, which is covered in 2,000 antique French oak doors that he collected over the years. Laws stood out, Oulton says, because he “just never gave up. It’s not easy to get things done in China, especially as a foreigner, but not only did Simon bring in projects on time and budget, they were beautiful and demonstrated a deep appreciation for the local context, as well as the unique skill set we had cultivated in the furniture business, marshalling these forces into something new.”

For his part, Laws saw Southern China as “an amazing candy shop for designers,” he explains. “You can make anything there.” He spent those early years working on the solid prefabricated timber and sustainably built Dome Home not far from Oulton’s four-level, 40,000-square-foot showroom. Nestled in a lychee garden complex and surrounded by seven brick-clad Round Houses, the construction feat—boasting a completely self-supporting shell—serves as the anchor of the artist compound, built as a place for Oulton’s team and international designers alike to engage in candid and inspirational conversations. “These projects were both very inspiring, taking the company’s design well beyond furniture and into full spatial experience,” notes Oulton. This led the pair to formally set up Timothy Oulton Studio in 2015, with Oulton “working on new materials and techniques for the business,” and Laws taking “those ideas and realizing them into concrete project outcomes,” he says.

Though Laws is in Hong Kong, he still makes the three-hour journey to mainland China three days a week because “things are made there like they were in the height of the British Empire,” he explains. “The skills and complexity required can only be done in China. We see projects as puzzles, and we formulate solutions as a team. We anticipate what our clients want, and always give more.”

Recently, the studio has concentrated on taking on more boundary-pushing projects like Singapore members’ club 1880 from locally based entrepreneur Marc Nicholson. With the quay undergoing a massive redevelopment, “it was paramount to ensure 1880 had a clear identity—elements that help convey uniqueness and strong differences next to the contemporary corporate aesthetic of the rest of the building,” Laws says. That starts at the entrance, where an escalator set within a dramatic kaleidoscopic-like tunnel of pinprick lights in a geometric motif leads to the reception area, which is dominated by an internally lit 1.5-ton monolithic slab of translucent rock crystal from Madagascar (one of only three in the world) that emits a welcoming glow reflected in the mirrored ceiling. “We wanted the design to inspire conversation,” explains Laws, with each piece having a story to share. For example, the reclaimed parquet flooring was salvaged from old buildings in the UK and cleaned by hand. “It brings character to each of the rooms in which it is used,” he adds.

Two F&B outlets, the Members’ Lounge (also part event space) and all-day dining Leonie’s (with glamorous chandeliers, antique Thonet chairs, and screens made of zeros and eights) offer complementary aesthetics. The former features a bar backed by a gray wall of locally reclaimed bricks depicting a phoenix tail in relief, while its front is clad with metal teapots collected by Oulton, blurring “distinctions between past, present, and future,” Laws says.

Looking ahead, the duo is seeking partners “who share our vision for creating something unique that touches people,” Oulton explains, noting that “the kind of projects we do is more important than the number of projects.” At the end of August, they will take on another ambitious design, opening a global flagship store in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood in a 7,000-square-foot former car showroom. Here, a reclaimed mahogany floor will mix with theatrical elements such as an aquarium and antique pieces. “We are a good match,” Laws says of his relationship with Oulton. “Tim is a collector of antiques, and he loves the stories behind things. He has an amazing eye. I tend to lean toward rustic and minimalism. Where we intersect is that we both feel strongly about honesty in materials.”

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