Invisible Design with Tony Chi
The maestro behind Rosewood London and soon-to-open Rosewood Hong Kong talks his urban inspirations, and what he looks for most in a hotel room.
When Yutang Chi moved to New York City from Taiwan at age nine, his English skills were sparse. When a teacher asked him to write his name on the first day of school, he wrote the only thing he could think of—a phrase he recalled seeing above the boarding gate at the San Francisco airport, “TO NY.” The name stuck.
It’s fitting that Tony Chi’s adopted moniker is anchored in wanderlust, as if it were prophesying the career path he would later follow—trotting the globe designing elegant, beloved hospitality spaces.
Chi grew up in midtown Manhattan, where Central Park was his backyard and he recalls riding his bike up and down a deserted Sixth Avenue. “On the weekends I could basically lie down on Sixth Avenue and take a nap and no car would hit me,” he recalls. After his junior-high art teacher noticed his creative inclinations, she encouraged him to enroll at the High School of Art & Design, where he spent four years honing his artistic skills. But while he admired his fellow students’ perspective on the world, he soon realized that they took things far more seriously that he did. “They found painting to be their own little solitude,” he says. “I didn’t need that.”
His gregarious nature proved to be better suited to the odd jobs he would do to earn pocket money, including working as a delivery boy for a small charcuterie, and as a waiter and bartender. After studying interior design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Chi dabbled in corporate and retail design work and luxury home interiors. “But,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I hated them all.” He eventually found his calling, somewhat by accident, when he took on a job as a restaurant designer with Charles Morris Mount, a mercurial Southern gent who was both a chef and an architect. “I remember he had a big mustache and a bow tie and tweed jacket—that wasn’t something you saw in New York in the ’70s,” he says. “I was only planning to hang out there a few weeks, and I ended up staying a few years.”
The experience not only broadened Chi’s taste buds, but also his eye for design in the hospitality industry. After his boss passed away in the early 1980s—a golden era for restaurant openings in NYC—Chi, who was one of few hospitality designers at the time, found himself being offered all sorts of work. When the jobs began to dry up after the stock market crash of ’87, he turned his focus to Asia, where he opened up several food and beverage spaces, before expanding into hotel design.
Three decades later, his portfolio includes restaurants for the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Alain Ducasse, as well as a stable of luxury hotels including the Rosewood London and the upcoming Rosewood Hong Kong, due to open early 2019. The hotel, in the burgeoning Victoria Dockside arts and culture district on Kowloon’s waterfront, will rise 65 stories over Victoria Harbour. Chi describes the experience in Hong Kong as being at an elegant estate—albeit a vertical one, in this case. Many of 413 rooms and suites will feature sky gardens and private plunge pools, and the hotel’s public spaces will include landscaped lawns and terraces. “If Rosewood London is your city house, Rosewood Hong Kong is your country house,” he explains.
Chi’s signature is a design experience that is perceived rather than seen. “I’ve learned that hospitality is about invisible design,” he says. “It isn’t about what you see anymore—and if you do see the design, maybe something is wrong. It’s like if a chef decided to make a plate overly sculptural, you might be so distracted that you forget about the taste of the food.”
An inveterate traveler himself, Chi has high expectations when it comes to hotels. “For me, the most important aspect of a hotel is privacy,” he says. “There are too many hotels that make sure you notice them. I like a smaller lobby with more intimacy—things that aren’t too grand and overwhelming.”
Another essential? “I like a fluffy bed—I want it to say, ‘I’m waiting for you to fall into me.’” But what he values most is something that many designers view as a mere necessity. “Bathrooms are so important to me,” he explains. “They’re a place to refresh, reflect, recollect.” His own penchant for drinking coffee and reading the paper during long soaks in the tub is the reason that each tub at Rosewood London has a reading light next to it. And he always makes sure a bathroom has a comfy chair, for times when “you just want to sit down and relax your feet.”
Hotel guests may never actually notice such thoughtful touches, but that’s all part of Chi’s philosophy. “Everything is about the emotional experience,” he says. “I’m looking for a way to inspire you.”