People of Shanghai is an on-going series by City Weekend, dedicated to profiling the movers and shakers of Shanghai's vibrant community. In our second installment, we sit down with French interior designer, Baptiste Bohu.
His name might not ring a bell for some, but you've definitely seen his work. Baptiste Bohu is the creative eye behind the glamorous, Moulin Rouge-esque interiors of Candor, and the tasteful, tropical lushness of one of our favorite restaurant openings of 2017, STYX.
The 35-year-old French national's Shanghai story started, perhaps, like many other expats, on a whim, a random encounter, but later on developed into something more substantial, tangible, and to call his own.
At the time, Baptiste was in business school. Eager to see more of the world, he took advantage of study abroad programs. That took him to a series of partner schools scattered all across the globe—London, Melbourne, and finally, Shanghai. "Shanghai was the last destination of my graduation year. I was actually on my way to New York, but an opportunity came up here, so I took it," says Baptiste.
It's been 12 years since, and he's never looked back. "I love this city," he explains. "Shanghai is very unique. It's a melting pot of cultures, and offers such amazing opportunities. The expat community here is so supportive of one another."
Interior designing was a passion, but it wasn't something Baptiste grew up thinking he was going to pursue. "My father is a business man. He's in construction and real estate, and was keen for me to follow in his path." He proved that he was a good student, graduating with a Masters in Strategy and Consulting, but as Baptise admits, he wasn't happy.
Baptiste's own apartment is a work of art, marrying French and Chinese influences for a home that is sophisticated yet fun, colorful yet balanced
After graduating, Baptiste tried his hand out in advertising, which he termed "the most creative part of the business world," but didn't appreciate being tied down by the 9-5 system. He later took on a position as an account manager in an interior designing firm. "One day, out of the blue, I was asked to participate in the design of a client's home because the designer fell ill." That incident, coupled with a series of work that he was doing for friends, solely for pleasure, was the spring board to the interior designing firm that he runs and leads today.
"So really, I fell into this quite by accident," he recounts laughingly. It may be so, but with his eclectic and ever-growing portfolio, it's clear that interior designing was meant to be.
One would think that fellow expats would make for the majority of a foreign interior designer's clientele, but most of his customers are local. "They're young, in their 30s to 40s, wealthy, and well-traveled. Many graduated from the Ivy League, or universities of similar caliber. They've eaten in the best restaurants, and slept in the most luxurious resorts. They've seen the world. And they know what they want."
"A villa in Suzhou. This was the project that really launched my business and got a lot of media attention."
It's a common misconception that the Chinese are happy with "surface luxury"—the appearance of extravagance and lavishness—but Baptiste is quick to refute this. "Perhaps this was true many years ago, where we'd get requests for the Versailles to be reproduced in homes. But it's different now." As more and more Chinese are exposed to a variety of different experiences, they are able to better articulate their demands and needs.
"What they expect from me is the ability to provide them with a way with which they can enjoy their life. 'Lifestyle' is an important concept in China today. The Chinese want uniqueness, comfort, quality." It's all very much more discreet. "Now, luxury is simplicity, it's in the details."
Aside from homes, Baptiste also takes on larger projects like boutique hotels and clients from the F&B scene. STYX and Candor are some recent examples; he's also currently knee-deep in a renovation project for Barbarossa.
While commercial projects have its perks, he admits that residential projects are still some of his favorites to work with. "I think I'm naturally more inclined towards them. The ideas just flow. The minute I see the villa or layout, I instantly know what needs to be done. I think it's because I'm good at reading an individual, understanding what they need even if they're not sure how to put their ideas across."
It's the mark of an excellent interior designer, the ability to be able to help a client navigate through their visions and needs. "They're pretty tough too, however. It's very personal. It's especially tiring when you have to deal with more than one person. Couples argue over colors, an older family member not understanding the concept, younger ones changing their minds every week."
"I recently finished work on this private villa in Bali. It was amazing, an aboslute dream to work on." This 3,000sqm private estate, located in Tabanan in the middle of paddy fields counts a main living area, five bedrooms and bathrooms, and two swimming pools."
Talking about this takes him back to his very first project after officially establishing himself as an interior designer. It was for a beautiful, Spanish-inspired home in Pudong for a wealthy, Chinese client, that throughout the duration of the project, saw a rapid succession of different girlfriends marching through his door.
"Each girlfriend had a different opinion and different tastes," Baptiste explained, recounting all the back and forth he had to go through to accomodate those wants. "I was very young and didn't have the confidence to refuse those silly requests. The result wasn't great, it was a patchwork of different opinions. There wasn't any harmony. I learnt a lot. I learnt that I should have stuck to my ideas and not be so easily swayed."
This was perhaps the hardest part about being an interior designer—achieving that balance between being tactful and accomodating towards a client's wishes, but also sticking to his own professional opinions. "Adhering too much to a client isn't neccessarily good. They sometimes turn around to complain: why did you listen to me? I'm not the interior designer!" The challenge and deeply personal nature is what makes it exhilarating though.
The dynamic environment and ever-changing and maturing clientele makes for an exciting work environment, but designing in China is not without its constraints. Quality pieces are few and far between. They're also often very expensive, and the delivery time is a nightmare. "On the other hand, you do have products that are cheap, but they're also of low quality," Baptiste said.
There wasn't something in-between that could cater to the average, white-collared individual that, perhaps had a little extra to spend, but was't looking to throw down thousands of kuai for a lamp or a rug. This gap in the market was what pushed him to start looking into developing his own line of furniture and home décor pieces.
"I want people to be able to enjoy their home. I want them to be able to decorate it with beautiful things, and I didn't want them to feel cheated by overpriced, 'designer' objects," Baptiste explains. The Baptiste Bohu furniture line was born out of the need to fill these wants. The line—encompassing an entire home collection, from furniture to lighting, to rugs and accessories—will be a nod towards his French roots, combined with Chinese and Asian references.
The French designer grows visibly more animated as he warms to the subject. "It will be affordable but not super cheap, because the materials we use are going to be of high quality. We won't be IKEA, but we're not Armani Casa either. Think of us as the Calvin Klein of the interiors world."
The plan is to first start online. "We're also looking to develop an app," Baptiste adds. His pieces will be distributed and displayed in showrooms across the city, "and once we've found our footing, I'd love to look into setting up my own store."
It's ambitious, but Baptiste is nothing if not driven and talented.
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