Robb Report/ The Master of Mise en Scene

Interior Design, Uncategorized
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Issue 82 February 2016

The Master of Mise en Scene

The bespoke spaces created by Robert Cheng of Brewin Design Office offer sensual and timeless living with their rich details, layered narratives and well-composed sceneries.



When one thinks of Fat Cow, the popular contemporary Japanese restaurant in Camden Medical Centre, it is not just the exquisite cuisine that comes to mind. The finely crafted interior, with a distinct cloud of interlocking timber cubes that floats above the central space and cascades down the walls, also leaves a deep impression.

This is the work of Brewin Design Office, helmed by architect and interior designer Robert Cheng. His approach is characterised by an artisanal nature, rooted in experimental fabrication techniques and refined detailing. An underlining conceptual rigour also provides an originality and gravitas to the multi-textured palette, put together with a well-curated eye. This methodology stems from his education in the art-focused Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), as well as the mentorship of his architecture-trained father, and architects Calvin Tsao of Tsao & McKown and Jean Nouvel, with whom Cheng had worked under after graduation.

For Cheng, there is no boundary between architecture, interior design and product design. Like a renaissance artist, all three disciplines inform one other and much effort is put into the design of both big and small elements to conceive of a seamless whole. This is most evident in several residential interiors he has completed in Singapore.

For instance, in an apartment in Hana Residence designed by architect Kerry Hill, Cheng drew from the building’s contemporised Japanese influences of screening and symmetry. There is a bespoke coffee table of stacked solid Iranian red travertine slabs that brings to mind traditional Japanese structures, as well as a custom-designed shelf with delicate proportions and lines subtly referencing the Kyoto Imperial Palace.

In another example, the Home of an Art Collector housed in Ardmore Residence, Cheng has created a tableaux inspired by American artist Donald Judd’s utilitarian art language. In the living space, a Mies van der Rohe Barcelona Daybed is juxtaposed with vibrant paintings by Florian Maier-Aichen and Oscar Murillo against the backdrop of soft silk carpet underfoot and a ceiling of smoky grey metal sheets.

In these bespoke environments, Cheng weaves together narratives about history, material, form and space. “To me, an environment that is bespoke is eclectic, in the pairing of old with new, or affordable and expensive…it is moulding the space in the manner of a set designer, by combining various pieces to create a setting that is unique to the space, and in certain cases, resembles a style that the designer exudes naturally,” Cheng describes.

For sure, the worlds he creates are luxurious. But it is a luxury that goes beyond the visual and the tactile, such as expensive gold or exotic marbles. Cheng’s definition of luxury holds deeper meaning. “It is when a mindset has been customised to one’s own philosophy. This idea of luxury is very romantic and is characterised by a quiet subtlety,” he reflects.

Such a mindset cannot be bought. Rather it is acquired through one’s unique experiences. For Cheng, much inspiration comes from the craft-laden environs of RISD. “A stroll through the school compound would take you through painting studios that reeked of turpentine with their paint-smeared walls from floor to ceiling, jewellery production stations with their endless collections of minute tools to exact the most meticulous constructions, and the massive looms of partially completed tapestries in the textiles department…” he recollects.

He cites other inspirations, such as ambles down Paris’ Rue de Seine with his father where he had discovered the passion and stories of storeowners and their antiquated products. “I draw influences from every experience that is memorable for its ability to surprise and teach me something new – from art, fine food and travel,” says the connoisseur. In fact, Brewin Design Office is, as he expresses elegantly, “an engine through which I attempt to ‘exhaust’ these experiences.”