Joyce Wang got her big break as a 27-year-old in Los Angeles, redesigning the interior of the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. After two years on the West Coast she moved back to her native Hong Kong in 2011, set up her own studio and now works for some of the city’s smartest restaurant and hospitality groups, such as the Mandarin Oriental. Last year she finished renovating her 10-man studio in Hong Kong and opened another in London with six more staff. She now travels between the two every month.
What was your first major project when you moved back to Hong Kong?
Definitely the restaurant Ammo. It’s a public space so people can see and appreciate the work. A friend of mine was struggling with this project, which already had another designer on board. I remember starting to sketch what we could do for him and he just said, “Let’s do it”. It was a design and build at the same time so I was on site every day for three months. I learned most of my lessons from watching passionate fabricators make my designs on site.
Have you got a method for successfully managing a team?
Family style. We hang out, work out and iron out kinks together. We take team trips every year. The reason we’ve stayed small is because I can personally communicate with my seniors in Hong Kong and London regularly. Having said that, being a leader is about being prepared to do things that others aren’t. For me, this includes taking out the rubbish. It’s about developing relationships – whether it’s with a fabricator or designer – and letting them become different things when the time is right.
What key business lessons have you learned over the years?
Business is not just about being in the office and signing contracts. After three years of doing projects for our clients we decided to do something based solely on what we want. We found this marble that looked like meat and thought it would be fun to create pieces of furniture, which we called Rare Tables. It felt empowering so we cleared out the whole office and staged a mini exhibition during Art Basel Hong Kong. A friend got us on the official programme and a few people came along, including the design director of the Mandarin Oriental. He thought it was really interesting and wondered what else we did.
Today, are you more manager or designer?
I like being both. Whatsapp is brilliant: it has allowed me to be creative in a flexible way. I can take photos on the street whenever I see something I like and can make myself heard in a very immediate way. What I’ve previously found difficult is getting 10 people to know about a material I like and telling them why it is great quickly. We are now adopting that online by creating our own digital library to log all the specific items we see at fairs.
What does your office design say about your management style?
When we moved here the atelier was in the back and the meeting room was in the brightest room in front so we flipped it around and put people centre stage. Having the nicest space for the people who will be spending the most time here makes sense. All the windows can open so it is actually really nice during the cooler months. It feels connected to the neighbourhood: people come by with their dogs and the team members have friends who pop in now and then. I normally float around. I don’t really need a permanent desk; it makes me feel like I’m not working.
Monocle comment: Separating business and pleasure is an old adage that most entrepreneurs quickly ignore. Hanging out with employees may not be everyone’s idea of team bonding – and could give HR nightmares – but Joyce Wang has built her business on personal relationships. Major clients have come through friends and she has worked hard at developing these close ties.