Career by design: Woods Bagot director Stephen Jones says near-failure opens up opportunities
Some careers follow a relatively straight course, but Stephen Jones readily concedes that his own journey has included a number of bumps and detours along the way.
As the Hong Kong director of architecture and interior design firm Woods Bagot, he now oversees an extensive portfolio in big cities across Asia and beyond. He runs a 100-strong team in Hong Kong, is on the group board of the US-based holding company and, as a “design doctor”, leads the group’s project management services around the world.
But for quite some time, reaching such heights was a distant dream. Growing up in Sydney, there were the usual questions about which path to pursue, complicated to some extent by the multiple distractions of Australia’s famous outdoor lifestyle.
Later, there were periods of reflection and soul-searching, prompted by borderline academic results and thinly-veiled warnings about not making the cut at university.
And, as things progressed, there were the inevitable struggles, uncertainties and moves that go with gaining a foothold on the corporate ladder in a notoriously competitive profession.
The first signs of an innate talent for design and an aptitude for devising practical solutions were apparent in his early years growing up in Sydney.
“As a kid, I was always making things,” says Jones, who comes from a family of hands-on engineers. “At the age of 14, I attempted to make my own car out of timber. In high school I developed a keen interest in sailing and began building full-size boats, as well as racing 12-foot skiffs, catamarans and keelboats in Sydney harbour. And I was heavily into ceramics for a number of years, using natural earthenware materials and primitive firing techniques.”
On leaving school, he began a sail-making apprenticeship, to the initial “disgust” of his father. However, using the subsequent income helped to pay his way through the first two years of a bachelor of design degree at Australia’s University of Newcastle, a precursor to qualifying for further studies in architecture. The different experiences and course-required art projects reshaped his outlook. and ambitions.
“My attitude to creativity is that it’s about inventiveness and a rich pragmatism,” he says. “I’m also interested in the concept of appropriate technology, something that is beautifully simple but powerfully effective. That characterises my attitude to design and beauty.”
Even so, the first couple of years studying architecture proved tough. Barely scraping through and facing outright failure, he was forced to look in the mirror and take stock. “That was a seminal moment in my life,” he says. “Things weren’t going the right way; I didn’t have the application and discipline. So, I took time off, went surfing up and down the east coast of Australia, and reflected on what I wanted to do.” Inspired too by a six-month spell in an architectural model-making studio in Sydney, he developed a new sense of purpose and resolve.
“A colleague there, who became a life-long friend, showed me what the role of an architect could be, the joy of making places for people and having a human-centred design ethos. I realised what the profession is all about.”
Back at university to pick up where he had left off, Jones held on to these insights. He worked hard and came to appreciate how near-failure can open up opportunities, making it possible to move forward faster. When necessary, that is something he now reminds others as a coach, mentor and parent.
Despite a heavy course load and occasional “all-nighters”, he also took on shift work for a home nursing agency. It meant getting up at 5.30am five days a week and attending to clients who were paraplegics, had MS (multiple sclerosis), or were suffering from dementia and other difficulties.
“It taught me about dealing with all sorts of social circumstances and emotions and seeing strengths within people in incredibly challenging conditions.” Jones says. “My mother had been in the health care profession, which is why I was interested. It was inspiring, and that aspect of care and working with people in an authentic way taught me a lot about dealing with teams and family and friends.”
On graduation, unlike many contemporaries who headed overseas, he opted to stay in Australia, believing there was still much to learn about the country’s social history and urban landscape. Beneath this, though, lay a conviction that, in due course, he was destined to travel extensively.
“I thought it was best to first get the professional expertise and competencies that come from working in a large, diverse commercial firm in Sydney,” Jones says. “Within a couple of years, that led to involvement in major master planning projects in Malaysia and infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia.”
A switch to a nearby firm brought work on the city’s Conservatory of Music, the redevelopment of 18th century harbour-side warehouses, and an assortment of contemporary lifestyle developments.
In 2004, the chance came to move to Beijing to establish an office and work on projects in the build-up to the subsequent Summer Olympics. Two years later he joined Woods Bagot in Hong Kong, initially as design director helping clients to articulate their concepts.
He has since been involved with a number of key projects in the region, including Cubus, a retail and commercial building in Causeway Bay; the Plaza 353 entertainment centre in Shanghai; and Hughes Road, a residential development in Mumbai.
“From a thematic point of view, my life has been on foreshores and islands,” says Jones, who remains a competitive sailor in his free time. “I’m a passionate advocate for the development of Hong Kong’s foreshore environment and contribute to forums on the economic value of waterfront cities.”
Jones talks about succeeding as an architect
Broaden horizons “One of the best things about architecture is you never stop learning. As a profession, it supports ongoing and passionate curiosity and keeps creating challenges and opportunities because the dimensions are so broad.”
Evolve digitally “The sector is on the cusp of transformational change. We are just beginning to understand the depth of the digital opportunities, to integrate and leverage data about construction and fabrication into desktop design. Being able to analyse, optimise and predict design outcomes through computational systems will make a huge difference.”
Extend your view “The flip side is that Architecture is also a profession where a person 60 years old is young. It is an area which allows for very long careers.”
Contend and triumph “Hong Kong is a terribly competitive environment with a great selection of competent, energetic individuals. If you can succeed here, you can do it anywhere.”
Think holistically“Good design can change the world. I’m interested in smart buildings, pragmatism and the way spaces go together to support people.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Career by design.