Partners at home and at work, Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu can be proud of a portfolio that includes interiors, product development, graphic design and architecture. Among their clients are Selfridges, Poltona Frau, Offecct, Camper and Le Méridien.

In Frame #113, Neri and Hu reflect on how coming of age outside their native China has allowed them to translate design ideas from West to East – and vice versa.

LYNDON NERI: ‘I’m Chinese, although I was raised in the Philippines. I grew up in a very strict Chinese family, and with the expectation that I would do well in business, the sciences or maths. Art was never mentioned, but I loved to draw as a kid. I learned to draw before I could talk.’

LN: ‘My dad sent me to the USA when I was 15. When I went to college, I enrolled as an art major – all along lying and telling him I was studying engineering. When he came to visit, I panicked. I couldn’t switch from art to engineering because the requirements were so different, but I figured architecture was a happy medium that would satisfy my father and me. He was pleased, because he thought of architecture as real-estate development, and I let him think that for as long as possible. I’m a strong personality when it comes to doing what I want and making sure I’m happy doing it. I never want to compromise on what I enjoy.’

I enrolled as an art major, telling my dad I was studying engineering. When he came to visit, I panicked

ROSSANA HU: ‘I’m Chinese, and I grew up in Taiwan. My family moved to the USA when I was finishing elementary school. I was like any other kid, going to school, doing what I was told, showing an interest in a variety of subjects. One thing I never really touched on as a child was visual arts – it was considered a side subject.’

RH: ‘When I was ready for college, I knew I wanted to go to UC Berkeley, but the question was: which major should I take? I chose architecture because, I thought, it uses both sides of the brain. I started my undergraduate degree at Berkeley without really understanding what architecture is at all. When I was deciding what to do at college, I had a real conversation with Lyndon for the first time. He gave me lots of advice.’

I chose architecture because, I thought, it uses both sides of the brain

LN: ‘I had an ulterior motive. I’m three years older, so when Rossana was going through her options, I was already a junior at UC Berkeley. When she was choosing a college, I knew I didn’t want to lose my opportunity and let her go to another college and meet another man! I made my opinion clear and wooed her with my beautiful drawings – she saw those drawings and believed they were what architecture is about. When she started studying, though, she quickly realized that architecture isn’t just an artistic pursuit.’

RH: ‘In my first encounter with the design studio, I was drawing, putting what I was thinking down on paper in a different format – not just solving equations or writing. That process was new and fascinating to me. In high school, I was in a rigid, highly academic setting, but at college the creative side and the thinking side came together, and it was really amazing – like heaven, I thought. All through college I was having the time of my life.’

RH: ‘We started dating in college. Then Lyndon was off to the Harvard Graduate School of Design while I stayed on the West Coast, finishing at UC Berkeley. After that, I worked in San Francisco while he finished his degree. Then we got married, and I began graduate school at Princeton. Meanwhile, Lyndon worked for several architecture firms in New York before joining Michael Graves.’

LN: ‘Later on we worked at Michael Graves together. I was there for ten years, longer than Rossana. We always worked together, even in school; we have complementary skills. We have arguments, obviously, but they’re constructive and healthy. We have a lot of respect for each other’s ability. In many ways, we need each other. Rossana is “together” in the office and a basket case at home. I’m the opposite.’

We always worked together, even in school; we have complementary skills

RH: ‘We have different ways of looking at things and different architectural talents. We complement each other quite well, whether we’re tackling management issues at the office, pursuing a project or working on a design. We’re both very conceptual but not in the same way. Lyndon is formalistic and visual, whereas I’m theoretical and historical. At the beginning of a design concept, we brainstorm together. I use words – I like to write things down and research ideas – whereas Lyndon, even at the very beginning, is always drawing. The elements are formed by me talking and him drawing – we act like one person.’

LN: ‘Rossana is more logical, and I’m more emotional. Nothing really fazes Rossana. Everything fazes me. In terms of management and organization or thinking through a problem, she’s the rock and I’m the basket case – constantly coming up with too many ideas, changing my mind and being dissatisfied. I don’t know how to stop sometimes.’

LN: ‘We’re fortunate that Shanghai has been our base. When we came here 11 years ago to set up Neri&Hu, this town was booming. We were thrust into a place and a time filled with projects that we would never have had the chance to do in the West – interiors, product design, graphic design, architecture: all the things we loved. Some people might have been intimidated by the demand, but Rossana and I were young and foolish. We took it upon ourselves to do something experimental.’

RH: ‘China was a different place back then. We were innocent and idealistic, exploring the issues we were interested in, usually associated with the projects we were asked to do at that time. We were ignorant about how to run an office. We had one purpose – to get the project out there. Now that we’re older, we realize why nobody does things the way we did. We managed to survive, though, and we did some interesting work.’

LN: ‘We are both Chinese, yet at that time – looking at the country as virtual outsiders – we heard criticism about the Chinese destroying their own cities, copying others and not doing original work. We would go to Milan and people would say, ‘You’re Chinese, don’t take a picture!’ It provoked a sense of urgency in us. We thought we had to do something about the situation. Although not yet representing the country we’d left as youngsters, we believed that by doing small things we could start to change some of the perceptions out there. Look at China’s past – the Ming Dynasty, for example – and you’ll see that lots of beautiful things were produced, but a time came when that stopped. What was important to us was to have a sense of identity as Chinese creatives. That passion drove us, augmented by the boom. Everybody was in a frenzy, and something beautiful emerged from all that chaos.’

Now that we’re older, we realize why nobody does things the way we did

RH: ‘When it comes to the projects we do, our exploration of architectural issues deals with themes such as the relationship between public and private, matters of cultural interpretation and memories of things past. We’re interested in the history that people live with and in how, in Chinese cities, an entire street can be demolished almost overnight. People’s childhoods are being erased. What do we do, as architects, in a city like that?’

LN: ‘It’s not an accident that we’re in this city. We’re fortunate enough to have been given a platform, and we believe God gave us this platform. Our practice has yielded many young practices, and we’re happy to see that happening. We started with a passion for showing that Chinese creativity exists. I like to say to those in our generation of architects that we’re just bridges. Hopefully, the next generation can use this bridge to get to the next level.’

We started with a passion for showing that Chinese creativity exists

RH: ‘We’re a bridge between different generations and cultures. A big part of our education took place in the West, but the core of our identity is Chinese. We often act as interpreters, not just of the language but of cultural understanding and nuance. We like to unearth what’s not obvious. We are architects and designers, so we love beautiful things but want the beauty to be a little bit hidden. With our projects, people see more the longer they stay, and each time they return, they find something new.’