A Fine Pairing
The craft of making good products and good relationships has led to neri&hu being the latest brand to come under De La Espada’s umbrella.
It’s an early evening in October and the showroom of furniture retailer DREAM is packed to the brim. The crowd of mostly architects and designers have gathered to hear Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, one of the most celebrated couples in the world of contemporary architecture and design, speak about their new product line for Portuguese furniture manufacturer De La Espada.
Based in Shanghai, the founders of multidisciplinary design studio Neri&Hu Design and Research Office (NHDRO) are known for their forward-thinking spatial design comprising the multi-award winning Waterhouse boutique hotel at Shanghai’s South Bund and a host of F&B establishments including Pollen Street Social in London. They have also put their stamp on furniture for international brands like Moooi, Gandia Blasco and BD Barcelona.
Alongside these projects, there is also neri&hu – the studio’s in-house brand of furniture and objects that has, until now, been used only in their own projects and sold in their retail emporium Design Republic in Shanghai. The neri&hu for De La Espada collection marks the ninth brand that has come under the latter’s fold since its establishment in 1993.
Founded by Luis De Oliveira and his wife Fatima De La Espada (Fatima’s family owned the previously small architectural joinery business in Spain), its unique model of growing whole collections by individual designers and design studios, as opposed to commissioning one-off pieces, has furthered the fame and careers of names like Autoban, Studio Ilse, Luca Nichetto and Matthew Hilton (Benjamin Hubert, Soren Rose Studio and Leif.Designpark has since been dropped). Its expertise in well-crafted woodwork has created a library of products that exude timelessness and soul, while its design collaborations provide variety and brand authenticity. This radical way of working was what got Lyndon Neri agreeing to the collaboration, as he shares in an interview the day after.
“I knew of De La Espada because four years ago, there was an article in Financial Times that was very controversial. I told myself ‘either this guy is a visionary or he is a lunatic’…he has a very unconventional way of doing things in the sense that he [grows] your brand for you. De La Espada has, over the years, proven to be a good collaborator and creation of brands,” reflects the designer.
Their first meeting was an interesting one. “Initially I thought Luis was trying to sell furniture to Design Republic. In fact, he only knew of neri&hu as an architectural practice,” he laughs. Ironically, this collection is now retailed in Design Republic, which makes it the first time De La Espada has a distribution in China.
That it took a while to pin down the busy couple did not daunt De Oliveira, who is known for his stealthy determination and focus. After all, these are qualities that has led the company to where it is today – an international brand that is retailed in over 20 countries.
His ethos is, and always will be, about developing good working relationships with his collaborators. “I call neri&hu sand slipping through my fingers. I might catch Lyndon for ten minutes, his wife for an hour…time is a precious commodity but because the relationship is stretched over such a long period, it’s okay because I’ve got a long-term project and these minutes and hours will add up.”
This patient method runs counter to the way the furniture industry functions today – brands fighting for the same up-and-coming designers to churn out new as many new designs as possible every year. De Oliveira critiques: “The roots of the design industry actually came from some very high quality relationships, something I feel has been lost.” This relationship building is crucial to De Oliveira. It also helps him in his role to market the story of each brand under his belt. With a long-term relationship, he can trace their design development “and tell a story around it. This is not fashion; it’s not one year and we hit it. We get to know the people we work with and when the relationships are sound, they go a long way.”
Neri agrees. “Eight other brands wanted to carry our products, but it would be like a one-night affair,” he illustrates. “Luis was the first one that came just chipping very consistently in a way that through time answered a lot of our concerns, which is admirable in a world that is so immediate, and about sensationalism…he knew that we were in a world of superfast and so he used time to give us that sense of comfort.”
On the collection, De Oliveira was drawn to the neri&hu’s distinct design language: clearly contemporary in the authenticity of materials and brevity of form, but informed and layered by the couple’s obsessions with their Chinese heritage and their adopted homeland.
The Platform sofa, for example, was inspired by opium beds commonly used for lounging in China since the Tang dynasty, but is updated with deep arms that function as useful shelves and side tables; the Tray vanity and study desk is a set of stacked lunch boxes writhe large and featuring a secret compartment for hiding jewellery; the ubiquitous bamboo ladder, used to hang objects and clothing in Chinese homes, is given a tribute in the form of the Extend mirrors as well as the Zhu Zi (bamboo) occasional table, with the shape of the latter taken from the cross section of a bamboo shoot; meanwhile the curvaceous Solo chair, which is inspired by the Eames’ popular Shell seat, has its conceptual origins from America, but fits in perfectly into the collection.
Hence, ‘East-meets-West’, while clichéd a phrase, is totally fitting to describe neri&hu’s philosophy and designs. The conceptual rigour that drives the Harvard and Princeton graduates ensures the cultural influences are subtle, meaning the collection fits right into De La Espada’s catalogue of modern, simple elegance alongside the modern aesthetic of the other brand.
With this collaboration, the wooden pieces, previously made in China, are now manufactured in De La Espada’s factory in Portugal. It’s a move Neri is particularly pleased with for the improvement in the products’ quality. “Consistency is really, really hard [to achieve]. It’s taken me 20 years to get anywhere near consistent,” says De Oliveira regarding this.
More than just consistency in quality is the consistency in the effort De La Espada has put into being a reputable, trusted curator of good design and firm working relationships. De Oliveira reiterates: “People are always curious how we came to neri&hu and how they came to us, and I would say nothing is inevitable. I like that it happened because it’s the right personal relationship.”