Noted Taiwanese interior designer Yi Chou says that the five thousand years of civilization that underpins huaren (Chinese-speaking) culture is an advantage that no other place in the world can rival. He believes the spirit of tian ren heyi–or unity between the universe and mankind–is a way of thinking that designers from other places can never fully grasp, making it a hallmark of huaren design.
Chou’s designs evoke an Eastern, Zen-like sensibility, and elements like bamboo forests, water scenes, rock gardens, and Buddha statues are common in his work. One of his specialties is turning hot pot restaurants into works of art featuring striking, grand exteriors and Zen-inspired interiors. Karuisawa, Top One Pot, and Tien Shui Yueh are all restaurants that showcase his handiwork–conventional notions of what a hot pot restaurant should look like are overturned and brisk trade for the owners ensured.
Self-taught in architecture and interior design, Chou has always been fascinated by a philosophical argument in the Zhuangzi (a book describing the nature of the Daoist sage) that discussed the concept of space. “For the biggest thing, there is no outside; for the smallest thing, there is no inside,” it states. He says that he often came up to Taipei to attend talks and exhibitions when he was young, and that he was deeply captivated by a lecture given by Taiwanese author Chiang Hsun on Master Zhuang.
“I greatly admire Master Zhuang’s discourse on this topic, because I think interior design should not be limited to tangible spaces,” he states. “The sculpting of a feeling or an atmosphere can be taken to unlimited depth and breadth, and yet perfection can also be demanded of in even the smallest of details. This balance between the infinitely large and the infinitely small requires an openness to the possibilities of shaping a space, and an openness of thought.”
Chou is also enamored with Chinese antiques and curios–a love that was influenced by his sister’s own passion. “My sister is the wife of a diplomat. She likes to go to antique shops in her free time, and once she gave me some pieces that inspired my interest in antiques,” he explains. “These old things really give off a sense of history, and they have an unadorned yet weighty presence that really adds a special finish to a space. These antiques were what guided me in bringing a uniquely Eastern feel to my modern designs.”
Under the influence of Chinese culture and antiques, Chou’s works always evoke a sensibility influenced by Eastern culture. He designed many of hot pot restaurant chain Karuisawa’s locations in Taiwan, with the design for the Tainan location earning international acclaim in competitions like the iF Design Award, Asia Pacific Interior Design Award, and Golden Pin Design Award. It is difficult to imagine that this restaurant, which covers over 330 square meters, used to be a furniture store built from corrugated iron.
The exterior of the building features three characters that form the restaurant’s name. They are accompanied by a red signature-seal on the bottom left, as if they were a work of calligraphy. Bamboo strips hanging from midair are a dominant feature of the restaurant façade. Under the awning sit two Zen-inspired water scenes, each captivating in their own way. A lush bamboo forest surrounded by a floor-to-ceiling window reminds diners of the mountain retreat of an ancient Chinese scholar.
Chinese landscape painting is another of Chou’s core influences; the way he uses water scenes and bamboo forests to introduce empty space into an interior is modelled on the techniques of painters. “A bamboo forest gives the space some room to breathe. Once customers have finished their meals, they can take some pictures and relax. The same goes for the water scene by the entrance. We wanted to make the experience pleasant for the customers who are waiting,” he says.
Chou emphasizes that, in addition to ensuring a smooth flow of customers, a precisely engineered structure, and well-chosen building materials, one of his most important considerations is how the space makes people feel. He hopes that the people in his spaces can feel the movement of the breeze, the flow of the water, the chirping of insects in fall, the vibrancy and color of spring, the silence of winter, and the coolness of summer. He hopes that the space can be emotionally affecting.
Chou has worked on a large number of restaurant brands. How does he maintain a distinct style for each? Each design must match the restaurant’s brand, he urges. Some clients already have an idea of what they want from their designs, while others are open to his suggestions.
For example, This Top Pot’s brand appeal is “secret imperial recipes” and its product is a Chinese-style spicy hot pot. Chou suggested to the client to use elements associated with Chinese imperial palaces and noble family homes, such as terracotta soldiers, carved wood patterns, and fan-shaped windows, making customers feel as if they were in an ancient Chinese court.
Tien Shui Yueh’s owner is a devout Buddhist, and asked for Buddhist elements in the design. Chou chose to feature an enormous statue of Buddha’s head as the centerpiece of the restaurant, with a misty water installation that created a somewhat mystical atmosphere.
Chou says that the uniqueness of huaren design is undeniable. “The gardens of Suzhou were very much influenced by Chinese literature and painting. The spirit of unity between the Universe and mankind is something that’s very difficult for other design styles to emulate,” he explains. This unique huaren aesthetic has become a global design trend; the highly Eastern-influenced architectural style of Fuchunshan Resort in Hangzhou, the Chinese literature-influenced Miho Museum in Japan, and the traditional garden style of the new west wing of the Suzhou Museum are all contemporary masterpieces that effortlessly integrate the sensibility of traditional Chinese landscape art.
“As the huaren market continues to grow, huaren design–backed by Chinese economic strength–will become more competitive. I believe huaren design is destined to become a leader of global trends in the future,” Chou concludes.
About Yi Chou
Yi Chou was born in Taichung, Taiwan’s middle city, in 1959. A self-taught architect and interior designer, he founded the Joychou Design Studio in 1985 and the Joychou Concept Architecture Studio in 1995. His designs are inspired by Master Zhuang’s philosophy that “for the biggest thing, there is no outside; for the smallest thing, there is no inside.” He was also greatly influenced by Japanese master architect Tadao Ando’s four elements of architecture: wind, light, water, and greenery.
He has created the interior design for many leading restaurant chains in Taiwan, including Karuisawa, 17 Stone Pot, Taichu Noodles, Jiu Chuan Tang, This Top Pot, and Tien Shui Yueh. Other representative works include the reception center for Cathay Real Estate’s Puhui development and the Treeart Hotel. His work has been recognized in numerous competitions, including the iF Design Award in Germany, the Red Dot Award, the Asia Pacific Interior Design Award, the Golden Pin Design Award, and the Taiwan Interior Design Award. He is one of the most important interior designers working in Taiwan today.