Though the Hong Kong interior design industry is flourishing, the city currently faces a dearth of well-trained interior designers – and this looks set to continue as work from emerging markets in the region is on the rise. The pinch is being felt across the industry, with even the larger interior design firms finding it difficult to recruit designers.
Offering an explanation for the shortage, Logan MacWatt, managing director of Aedas Interiors, points out that the majority of skilled designers are essentially all fully employed.
“Even though the schools continue to churn out more qualified interior designers, there are not enough to keep up with demand. So it is difficult for us to find the right staff, and the right specialists and experienced staff that we need,” he says.
Ilija Karlusic, co-president Asia-Pacific for HBA, is feeling the squeeze at his firm too and, although the shortage has worsened recently, he points out that it has always been difficult to find good designers in Asia.
“Recruiting highly qualified designers has always been challenging in this region. It is possible that if there continues to be a shortage of qualified interior designers in the market here, the cost of salaries and packages – especially for expatriate employees – will become extremely high and expensive,” Karlusic says.
The salaries and skills of Hong Kong designers are in fact already some of the highest and the best in the region, and designers here are some of the most sought-after in Asia, another factor driving the shortage. As evidence of this, MacWatt points out that the busy Hong Kong design industry has long functioned as a conduit to other countries in the region.
“In Asia, at the moment, there is a lot of investment which requires interior design and architectural services. There is plenty of work in China and other emerging markets such as Vietnam, Indonesia and India. This work is all being channelled through Hong Kong and this is what is fuelling the demand [for interior designers]. Even though we have offices in Shanghai, Singapore and a presence in Vietnam and the Middle East, Hong Kong is our busiest and largest office from which we do a lot of major projects for some of those countries,” says MacWatt.
These views are echoed by Lucy Richardson, managing director of the Hong Kong branch of the specialist design recruitment agency Bespoke, run by ex-industry architects and designers.
“Though the architecture industry here is currently quite tied to China, interior design is not so, with designers here working on interior projects throughout Southeast Asia, with big resorts and hotels being built in India, Thailand, and elsewhere,” she says. “Interior design work in Hong Kong is going nuts.”
Continuing her comparison to architecture, Richardson points out that 60 per cent of the hiring done in her firm is for interior design, with jobs for the major architecture projects having slowed down recently.
The busiest area is hospitality, with commercial interiors coming in close behind, largely because Hong Kong is a retail destination, Richardson says. Some of the bigger architecture practices have even been trying to build up their hospitality teams recently, she adds.
“We have been very busy with hospitality interior designers. We are also suddenly starting to see multidisciplinary architectural practices beef up their interior design teams in response to this kind of work, which shows where the market is. We have even had cases of trained architects moving into interior design,” she says.
As hospitality specialists, HBA has experienced the surging interest in hospitality firsthand and Karlusic confirms this, stating that, in addition to their usual work on hotels, spas, and residential projects, the firm has also been developing its retail design arm as this is as an expanding area.
Offering an explanation for the sudden increased demand and interest, MacWatt says companies are paying more attention to, and seeing the value of, interior design which can help the bottom line and the project’s value.
“We find that after we do an office project, the staff attraction and retention rate for that particular company increases,” he says. “Retail figures also show that visitation numbers increase a lot with better interiors, and this is the same in hotels with a great interior resulting in more repeat guests.
“Recently, we have noticed a growing request for ‘styled’ interiors and we have seen more time spent on FF&E [furnishings, furniture and equipment] as people want to present themselves in the best possible light,” MacWatt adds.
However, FF&E designers are hard to come by, as Karlusic from HBA reveals. “Even if a higher salary package is offered, FF&E designers are extremely difficult to find. As this region has so many major interior design projects currently underway, the availability of FF&E designers is a concern to all design firms.”
Nevertheless, while the situation may be testing for design firms, the environment in Hong Kong and the region still looks bright for skilled and novice designers alike. “There are no limitations working in Hong Kong because one can get very wide exposure to different types of clients and projects,” MacWatt says.
Karlusic echoes this sentiment, saying that there are more opportunities in Hong Kong and China for interior designers than in any other part of the world today. “Hong Kong has a long history and experience in design concepts,” he says. “A complete system has been in place for a long time, established on concepts incorporated in the Western world.”
Originally published in South China Morning Post, May 2012