Visitors would find themselves in a scene out of a sci-fi movie as they set foot in the Jinyi International Cinemas at the ICON Mall in Guangzhou City. They would be stunned by a large-scale meteor shower in the lobby. Long rectangular-cuboid decorations extend from the ceiling, mimicking the motion of a meteor shower streaking through the sky. The cuboids point at two directions to enhance the 3D vibrant atmosphere, and the edges are slanted to create an illusion of speed. When entering the auditorium, they would find the meteor shower is presented in another form in corridors; it is transformed to flat rectangular shaped-stones, which look as if they are growing from the ground. The movie hasn’t even started, but the audience has already embarked on a surreal, magical journey into a cinematic universe.
The dramatic design, seemingly detached from reality, was crafted by Hong Kong’s One Plus Partnership, Ltd. Headed by interior designers Ajax Law and Virginia Lung, the company is known for its theme driven design. Recently, their works in spatial design for movie theaters have garnered international recognition, winning one Golden Pin Design Award after another, with the Jinyi International Cinemas (Guangzhou ICON Mall IMAX branch) claiming the Best Design in 2017. Thus far, the company has received the iF Product Design Awards and the Red Dot Design Awards in Germany, the Design and Art Direction in the U.K., among more than 500 other accolades.
Blurring the Lines between Realism and Surrealism
Since 2009, Law and Lung as a team have worked on more than 60 movie theaters, making designing cinemas their forte. From the stunning visuals of overlapping disks at the Wuhan Wushang Mall International Cinema 9F, to the mysterious atmosphere of the nostalgic gallery at the Hubei Qianjiang Golden Bridge Mall Cinema, or the grandeur of the complex red-pipe structures at the Nanjing Insun Feeling Cinema (Laomendong branch), these designs, though visually striking and seemingly distinct in form and in style, share the same underlying design principles.
Moviegoers are usually the ones who want to escape from reality and forget about everything else. What sets movie theaters apart from other businesses and public venues is the immersive cinematic experience they offer. With this in mind, Law and Lung decide to create an atmosphere of wonder and mystique never seen before in other cinemas with standardized designs. The results are cinema spaces that blur the lines between the surreal and reality, thus providing a perfect warm-up for the cinematic journey that the audience is about to embark on.
Of course, the inspirations behind these creative designs did not just appear out of thin air. Rather, they are deeply rooted in all things cinema. Take the Wuhan Wushang Mall International Cinema 9F for example, the disks actually take after the shape of a traditional film reel case. The circular disks of various sizes were carefully arranged with great ingenuity, creating a focal point in the theater. Law and Lung drew from traditions, yet created something futuristic and sci-fi-esque.
The design of the Hubei Qianjiang Golden Bridge Mall Cinema is modeled after the layout of an art gallery. By transforming the theater into an art exhibition, moviegoers can walk through the hallway and reminisce on the olden days of cinema and the charm of classic movies. The Wuhan Xintangwanke Mall International Cinema is a deconstruction of the meanings of a movie script. With Chinese “radicals” (the underlying graphical components of Chinese characters) as the basis, elements of the Chinese language are scattered across the theater’s walls and ceilings, prompting the audience to reflect upon cinema through a cultural microscopic lens.
And there is the Jinyi International Cinemas at ICON Mall. From the hall to the walls, and even in the signage, artistic renditions of meteor showers can be found throughout the theater, giving the venue a fluid and ever-changing character. Meteor is a shortlived but beautiful astronomical observation. One might think that meteor showers and cinema have nothing in common. They do, however, evoke the same imagery—meteor showers can only be seen in the dark, just like movies. The fleeting lights and shadows that flow across the silver screen are also reminiscent of shooting stars that streak across the night sky. Law and Lung want to pay tribute to filmmakers through the design of this cinema, to remind the audience of the years of hard work behind their relatively short enjoyment.
Theme-Driven Design Principles
One Plus Partnership’s works always feature a distinctive central theme. According to Lung, theme-driven design “is of the utmost importance,” she says, “It’s like a thread that strings together scattered pearls, presenting the whole picture in a beautiful necklace.” Therefore, every project of theirs is based on a unique theme that blends the brand image with local culture and environment, without losing sight of the functional aspects of design.
A prime example would be the series of concept stores they designed for the venerable jewelry chain Chow Tai Fook (CTF). With valuable gifts such as gold and jewels as the source of inspiration, and the idea of “reciprocity” and “heritage” in Chinese culture as the central theme, they decorated store ceilings and cabinets with a boxy design that encompasses modern aesthetics and evokes the imagery of actual gift boxes. With such a simple core element, they successfully transformed CTF’s brand image into something modern and stylish.
Unlike conventional CTF stores, these concept stores feature western-style interiors, but that doesn’t mean they do not contain elements of local culture. Here are a few examples: The Hefei store incorporates embossed designs of Hui-style “horse-head walls” on the walls and patterns of the “Huangshan Greeting Pine” on the floor. In the Dongguan store, traces of Yulan magnolia can be found on display cases, in the seating area, and on the floor. These little details and nuances create a local identity unique to each store.
When designing for commercial properties such as movie theaters, storefronts, or convention centers, Law & Lung focus on the conception of an innovative central theme that can take on a life of its own, limited only by the size of the building. “The way we approach ‘space’ is that it should not only provide an enjoyable experience,” says Lung, “but also serves to bring constant surprise and awe to the people inside.” Hong Kong may be the place where the East and the West meet, but the city, rather small in dimension, has many quirks when it comes to design, most notably its obsession with feng shui. In Mainland China, on the other hand, people are drawn to traditional Chinese styles and cultural elements. These regional preferences might prove challenging for many designers, but not Law and Lung, who take every challenge as an opportunity to realize their creativity.
Speaking of their earlier works, the two partners concede that communication with clients wasn’t always smooth sailing. “Our works are unprecedented. There are very few references in the real world, and our clients often find it difficult to conceptualize our design. It takes a lot of imagination to visualize what the place will look like when the project is completed.” Before Law and Lung, probably no one has ever thought that movie theaters can have such a dramatic and immersive atmosphere. As the Chinese film industry continues to grow, the designer duo is determined to break new ground and pioneer their own path. The revolutionary cinemas that they designed have now become prominent landmarks, attracting audiences back to the theaters in this era of video streaming.
About Ajax Law & Virginia Lung
Ajax Law and Virginia Lung co-founded One Plus Partnership, Ltd. in 2004, a Hong Kong-based interior design firm focused on a variety of projects, including cinemas and other venues such as restaurants, retail stores, clubhouses, sales offices and commercial offices. Over the past 15 years, One Plus has been awarded 620 international interior design awards globally. In 2012, One Plus was the sole winner of Andrew Martin The International Interior Design Awards – The International Interior Designer of the Year Award, the first ever Asia design company who has won this honor. This award is described as “The Oscars of Interior Design” by Sunday Times.
Ajax Law was graduated from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and has over 20 years of interior design experience. He is one of the awardees of the ‘JCI Hong Kong Ten Outstanding Young Persons (TOYP) Selection 2014’, where only 10 excellent role models are chosen for their remarkable achievement in their careers and contribution to society. He was invited to be the adjudicator for INSIDE World Festival of Interiors 2018 in Amsterdam and Korea’s K-Design Award in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Virginia was graduated from University of Oregon with a Bachelor of Arts in Interior Architecture. She was invited to be the speaker of Wave Off The Future Event by USA Hospitality Design Magazine in 2018. Virginia has been a member of Programme Validation Panel and academic assessor of the interior design program of the HKU School of Professional and Continuing Education (HKUSPACE) since 2012, providing professional advice in improving the education and support for young interior designers in Hong Kong.