The Singapore-born architect, who recently won Designer of the Year at the country’s President’s Design Awards, runs the multi-disciplinary practice VW+BS Architecture and Design in London with Malaysian designer Benson Saw.
The studio recently completed a new cabin and bar design for Virgin Atlantic Airways A330 planes, which fly between London and New York, Delhi and Mumbai. The project, he says, was ideal for his burgeoning practice, as it allowed them to take control of a complete environment: “It brings together architecture, product and lighting design, and everything else we do, under one roof.”
Space within the back of the cabin and bar was
reorganised to capture the spirit of pop-up bars and the
new speakeasies on the ground, but with a futuristic execution – the sculptural, machined-aluminium bar stools are particularly striking, polished to reflect light and contribute to an overall theme of streamlined lightness and flight. The eight-foot cocktail bar, which is at the entry to the upper class cabin, is angled in such a way to create social spaces where passengers can mix in small groups or have a quiet drink alone.
The space itself is wrapped in a seamless skin, concealing the space needed for everyday equipment, such as oxygen kits, wheelchair storage and catering carts, and cutaways display spirit bottles and magazines. While the cabin has a neutral palette, recessed lighting can be used to set the mood or subtly highlight the Virgin Atlantic brand colour – red.
Working within the spatial limitations and safety
requirements of a wide-bodied aircraft was challenging, says Wong – but in a good way. “It was a three-
dimensional jigsaw puzzle, because there were so many spatial constraints, in every direction, as well as
technical ones. Without the modelling programs you use in product design, I don’t think we’d have been able to do it. Normally in architecture you have a drawing program where you start from a two-dimensional plan; whereas, in this case, it was a very three-
Wong originally moved to London to train at the
Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA),
and during the first half of the 1990s worked in Zaha Hadid’s studio. He subsequently set up his own architecture studio, which focused on small-scale residential and commercial work. In 2001, he met Saw, a trained engineer who had gone on to study product and furniture design at the Royal College of Art.
“We got talking, and Benson asked me if I wanted to do an installation with him. It was something I’d always wanted to do. Because architecture is such a long and, at times, frustrating process, where you often have to compromise, I thought product design would be a better way to express myself.”
While at first Wong continued to work independently on his architecture, in 2006 the colleagues decided to unite everything into a single practice, and were joined by a business manager.
“We knew both disciplines would benefit from the
influence of each other,” says Wong. “I started off looking at projects in an architectural way, but now the parameters of product design, and its production
processes and manufacturing efficiency have, conversely, influenced my architecture. So, the Virgin project has tapped into all the areas of knowledge we as a collective office have.”
While Wong still holds his Singaporean passport, he considers himself British in terms of his design output. “It’s very hard to pin down what Singaporean culture is, because it’s still changing and it’s a very young country. I’ve had most of my design training in London, and, since I’m Asian, I’ve always tried to avoid the idea that I should find myself some Oriental motifs, or use rice paper.”
In saying that, however, he and Saw have recently begun researching materials and processes traditional in Asia, such as the purple clay used to produce unglazed, matte teapots in China. “Perhaps because it’s an old material and an old process that it’s in my subconscious from my childhood and is something I want to explore,” he concedes, laughing.
As well as the London studio, VW+BS has offices in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. One of Wong’s recent projects has seen him develop an ‘architectural furniture’ solution for a hotel group in that region. As construction is fast-tracked, the room fit-out needs to be minimal.
“We are developing pieces where all you need is
a shell, and then you’d fit them in to perform various functions. They won’t need an electrician to wire
everything, because it’s built into the unit, and you won’t need lots of plastering because the cabinet has wood panels that cover the walls,” he says.
Finally, VW+BS has recently been commissioned to work on Virgin Atlantic’s much-anticipated 2014 launch of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the quieter, cleaner competition to the behemoth Airbus A380 that will, according to reports, open up more long-haul routes around the world.