At Home & Work with Tony Chi
Friday, November 11th, 2011
by Jennifer Brunner
photos by Jacob Pritchard, Ana Maria Lopez, and Michael Moran
Since starting his interior design firm Tonychi and Associates in 1984, Chi has wowed the hospitality world from Chicago to Shanghai. The worldly designer gives us a look inside both of his artfully arranged homes and shares with us his style philosophy—or lack thereof.
How did your upbringing influence your current approach to design?
I’d have to go back to when I was a child living in Taiwan in the early 1960s. Life was very difficult then; people were still rebuilding and recovering economically from World War II. A few times a year, our family would go to special ceremonies, like weddings, which would be held in these beautiful, ornate hotels. It was such a contrast to what I’d see everyday, and consequently made a huge impact on my life. The experience awoke my sense of fantasy and awareness.
How would you describe your personal style?
“Style” is something I have never understood, but I can describe my behavior! I think that my behavior is a balance between science and art. Function and form. I have a particular fondness for science and the order and focus that it requires. On the artistic side, I tend to focus on redesigning the ordinary, like something as simple as a shower head. I like to imagine how to redefine a closet, bedroom, or bathroom to make the use of space more efficient and, ultimately, more enjoyable to use. I like to manipulate human function without their knowing it, but only in the most positive way, of course!
“It’s about the journey—not the beginning or the end, but what is in between. The journey for me has always been the most fascinating part of any project...and in life.”
If we were to look inside your home, we’d find….?
I have homes in New York City and Buenos Aires, and both are very similar aesthetically, so no matter where you are, it always feels like home. I call it my “continuous home.” Both spaces are very open and airy, and there is really no definition of a room, except the bedroom. I like to think of the bedroom as a private place to be in your unconscious mind. A cocoon. The other areas of the home are for conscious living.
What made you pick Buenos Aires for your second home?
I chose this home based on area and space. During my search, I looked at several houses, but felt more comfortable in a smaller, apartment setting. My apartment is in Recoleta. The neighborhood is vivacious and not as structured or as disciplined as other nearby areas.
Have you noticed any significant differences between living in the US and South America?
South America is a continent not affected, nor corrupted, by globalization. The culture is truly colorful and authentic with strong traditions found in its people, food, and family life. Not only do certain elements of the culture attract me, but there is also a strong connection between past and present.
Do you prefer to keep work life and home life separate?
In my own opinion, as a designer, there really is no clear distinction between work and free time. Designing is a lifestyle that is immersed into my life holistically. One can find inspiration in a current project by simply taking a stroll in the park on a weekend morning.
You’ve traveled the globe for your many far-flung projects. Where do you find inspiration when working on a new concept?
Any place. Any time. Right now! You have to become aware of the unexpected, to look through the layers of an ordinary day. I observe a lot and interpret what I see differently than others. People and culture are a source of many inspirations. I do not look for something in particular, but instead an interpretation and knowledge of how people and culture interact with each other. I must admit, when I’m tired or having an off day, inspiration is a lot harder to find.
Are there certain cultures in particular that are inspiring to you?
The cultures that are the most inspiring are those that not only have a visual appeal, but can also be experienced through all five senses. Bali is one place that comes to my mind as an inspiring place. On the same accord, the fast-paced energy of New York could equally be inspiring. Essentially, anything one can see, eat, smell, and hear can be inspiring.
In what ways do you think you have evolved as a designer since you started your firm 27 years ago?
When I started out as a young designer, it was all about the “look” of design. It took me a while to discover what I now call “invisible design.” Invisible design refers to the sensation you get when you first walk into a space, the undetectable subtleties, how it engages all of one’s senses, not just focusing on how something “looks,” but how it actually feels. Since discovering invisible design, I have become more courageous in my work.