Career Advice Working Women

Toying with the impossible

Virginia Lung Wai-ki, co-founder and director of design studio One Plus Partnership, might have made a career out of dazzling the world with her state-of-the-art style of architecture, but there was a time when she thought her prospects in the field looked decidedly grim.

Lung dropped arts and crafts as one of her subjects in secondary school because, like many local art students, she worried about her future prospects. Later, while studying a higher diploma in interior design at the Lee Wai Lee Technical Institute (now IVE (Lee Wai Le)), she realised that her passion for the subject overruled any future concerns.

“I would work late into the night on assignments but would not feel stressed at all because I was doing what I loved,” she says.

After graduating with an architecture degree from the University of Oregon in the US, Lung worked in Singapore for a year before returning to Hong Kong. “In Singapore I was involved in school-renovation projects. I went around and saw many different school buildings, which was a unique learning experience,” she says.

Always thinking about doing things differently, Lung’s return to Hong Kong was spoiled by working for a boss who cared more about budget than creativity. She moved to another company but ended up being more involved with project management than design.

“The company was a US firm trying to establish outlets on the mainland. My boss did not speak a word of Chinese so I accompanied him on business trips. I visited many places on the mainland but as more of a project manager than a designer. From a business point of view it was a great learning experience, but as a designer I couldn’t really contribute,” she says.

She moved to Steve Leung Designers, where she met her husband and co-founder of One Plus Partnership, Ajax Law Ling-kit. Sharing similar design philosophies, they decided they wanted a platform to more freely express their creativity.

“Both of us wanted to contribute to design and do things with style. We came to a point in 2004 where we though there was no boss that we wanted to work for so we decided to open our own business,” she says.

Lung doesn’t find working with her husband a problem as they both share the same thoughts on design. “I am very lucky because my husband and I seem to see things the same way. A staff member might ask for our opinion on a design project separately, but we will give almost identical answers. It freaks people out,” she says.

She believes designers have to dream big. “A designer must be able to think of things that others think is impossible. It is tough but you have to keep trying. Design has to always be a part of your life. When I read a book, go shopping or visit places, I am always able to find inspiration. When my husband and I are watching a movie, we pay more attention to the furniture settings and building design than the plot. It sounds crazy but this is how I live as a designer,” she says.

Since starting One Plus Partnership, Lung has become very popular on the mainland. Her landmark projects include the Palace Cinema at the IFC Mall in Shanghai, the Wuhan Pixel Box Cinema, the Chongqing Mountain & City Sales Office, and Shenzhen’s Aix Arome Coffee Shop.

“I enjoy doing design projects on the mainland because there is so much space for me to work with,” she says.

“I like my designs to have a theme. The theme for the Shanghai IFC Mall Palace Cinema, for example, is cloud. The entrance, the corridor, the open spaces and every piece of furniture is related to clouds because I think movies are like clouds – they can take any shape and have no limits. It is one of my favourite designs.”

Being a pioneer does have its price, however. Lung admits that it is not easy to work for her because her designs are so unique.

“Everything we do is one of a kind. There is no point of reference. My staff need to work extra hard to try to understand my design concepts and this would not be possible if they were not as passionate as I am about design,” she says.

“We started off with two people and now have 13. Looking for people with the same attitude towards design as ours is really hard.”