JJ Acuna, founder of JJ Acuna / Bespoke Studio
Hong Kong is a place brimming with talented and intriguing people. In our weekly 27 Questions column, we get up close and personal with the city’s notable personalities, learning about their whims and aversions, pivotal life moments, and hopes and dreams — all in roughly the same duration of a casual speed date. This week, we speak to interior designer JJ Acuna.
Hansik Goo. Tate Dining Room. The Chicken Bar. Coffeelin. Honbo at The Mills. Miss Lee. No, I’m not just listing off my favourite restaurants — though a couple of them I go to more often than I’d care to admit — this is the list of some of interior designer JJ Acuna’s most recognizable works the last few years.
Moving back to Asia
Manila-born, Texas-raised Acuna considers himself the “black sheep of the family” — the only one of his four siblings to have moved back to Asia to set up shop after graduation.
“I’ve been in Hong Kong since 2005. It’s the longest I’ve stayed in a single city my whole life,” Acuna says. “I came here as an intern and spent a decade in the corporate world before deciding to leave that life and start my own business in 2015. I was only a one-man band in the beginning, but over the last six years, JJ Acuna / Bespoke Studios has grown into a full-fledged team with some very talented creatives.”
Living with the pandemic
In his free time — whenever he is able to carve out any — he runs his design blog, Wanderlister, and his podcast Aligned by Design.
“I started the podcast in March 2021 to help me connect with my friends after a full year of living with the pandemic. Since it’s difficult to travel, I was thinking about how I missed having these really deep conversations over the dinner table with all sorts of personalities; people who are really into all kinds of healing, wellness, and meditative modalities. That’s where the idea of Aligned by Design began.”
The podcast was an attempt by Acuna to find out what other people around the world were doing to stay mentally and spiritually “well” in the midst of dealing with a global pandemic. He’s been able to publish 12 episodes so far on a wide range of topics such as shamanism, feng shui, geometry, and even traditional Chinese medicine.
A global conversation
“I contact the guests from around the world, write the scripts, produce and record on my laptop at home,” he says. “For me [to heal], I do daily meditation and hikes, but some guests go to abandoned buildings and others draw geometry or make art that looks like waves. It really depends on how people like to align themselves by their very own design.”
Keep your eyes peeled: Some of JJ Acuna / Bespoke Studio’s upcoming projects include a fine-dining German restaurant in LKF Tower, a new deli concept in Aberdeen Marina Club, as well as burger joint Honbo in Macau.
Name: JJ Acuna
Neighbourhood: Causeway Bay
Occupation: Entrepreneur and Interior Designer
1. What is your life motto?
Manifest and attract anything and everything you want in life with good energy and positive thinking.
2. What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten in Hong Kong?
I make sure that every meal I have in Hong Kong and wherever, I have no regrets, so every meal should be the best meal theoretically. Life is short right? Although I do have to say that I love a really good barbecue pork with scrambled eggs and soy sauce on rice in Tai Hing! Delicious!
3. Who is your role model?
My closest friends are my role models. The friends I keep around me I keep because they have a quality about them that I personally admire or learn from. No riffraff.
4. What was your first job?
I was bagging groceries at Kroger in Fort Worth, Texas at the age of 15. I fought hard do that job. I valued independence and the ability to earn my own pocket money.
5. What is your drink of choice?
Almond milk flat white.
6. When was the last time you drove a car?
I was probably in my 20s before I moved to Hong Kong. I lost my driver’s license in a cab when I was 27 and that was the end of driving. I need to start driving again!
7. What is one movie everyone should see?
Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland. People need to think about why they are here, and do what they’re doing on this planet. If we are not our things, if we are not our job, if we are not our tribe, then who are we? It’s amazing to think that people who are nomads make us question our existential position.
8. What is your biggest guilty pleasure?
Sneaking in chocolates as a snack — and this is becoming an almost-everyday thing. Chocolate bars, cookies, ice cream. It needs to stop.
9. Are you a morning person or a night owl?
Night owl, most definitely!
10. What is your biggest regret in life?
Not giving living in the States more of a chance, I think. I left in my 20s and I never looked back. I sometimes wonder If I’m missing out on anything.
11. What do you hate most about living in Hong Kong?
Property prices! It keeps people and society from being more creative and bolder with their life decisions. Everything is quantified, not qualified.
12. Which phone app do you think more people should know about?
There’s an app called Unsplash I just found out about. They offer free photos and stock images you can use for anything; design presentations, graphics etc. Beautiful, really great quality. It’s like Getty images, but for free. I know I’m such a design geek.
13. How often do you prepare your own meals?
Since COVID? Every day now almost. It’s a nice change to be in control and cook my own meals at home. It’s definitely healthier overall.
14. What is your greatest fear?
That I never get over my own personal hang-ups. I need to let go, accept, forgive and move on. That’s the ideal.
15. When did you last ride the Star Ferry?
Oh my god, maybe a couple years ago. I need to go back, when the weather gets cooler. I’m designing a new restaurant in Harbour City, so maybe that’s a really great opportunity to ride the ferry.
16. What is the best thing in or about your apartment?
That it is filled with the art and books I love. I feel safe with culture all around me.
17. What is your typical Sunday like?
Sun and pool or beach — oh, and a copy of the FT Weekend. That’s a perfect Sunday for me.
18. Which moment in your life would you most like to relive?
I think the moment when I invited my friends to have coffee with me in the first restaurant I ever designed in Hong Kong. Leaving corporate and starting my own design studio Is one thing, but now I get to enjoy the space I designed with the people I love. That’s a great feeling. In corporate architecture, everything is so far off, huge and impersonal. It’s really nice to design small and intimate projects, and being able to be in those spaces with friends and family.
19. If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would it be?
I’m open to Melbourne, Milan or Paris — anywhere with great coffee.
20. If you had to describe Hong Kong in one word, what would it be?
21. Are you a good cook? What is your best dish?
I make a mean Filipino Adobo using my mum’s recipe. But that said, my Kiwi partner manages to cook it better than me sometimes!
22. Who is the best teacher you’ve ever had, what is one important lesson that they taught you?
My professor in grad school once snapped me out of my fear of designing something “wrong” by putting into perspective that the world we’re living in, all it is and all it was, is a platform for what we choose to create. The only thing we can do and offer this world is to create something and allow people the freedom to have discourse about it. Without our perspective or our work, no matter how silly or stupid, there is nothing for anyone to discuss. Give us something to talk about, he told me!
My fear of creating and designing anything from that point onwards pretty much dissipated. It’s true I’m on this planet to design. I’m being paid to be a designer. If I can’t even do that, then what is the point of my existence? I’m here, we are all here, to create and live a creative life; so let’s create, let’s build, and let’s talk about it. It was a really amazing “ah-ha!” moment for me.
23. What would you do if you won the lottery?
I would invest it in my business and continue doing amazing things and designing amazing things for lots of people. Because in all honesty, work and my practice is the true thing that makes me happy. It’s great to win the lottery, but it’s better to continue having the freedom to live a creative life.
24. When did you feel that you ‘made it’?
This year, we were featured in a book titled By Design: The World’s Best Contemporary Interior Designers. We were one of 100 studios picked from around the world to represent the best that interior design had to offer. When I received my advanced copy of that book, I realised that we were a great studio in Hong Kong that did great design work for all kinds of people around Asia. Opening that book and seeing our works in the same book of our idols… it was a really special and cathartic moment for me.
25. What energises you about your work?
My clients, their ideas, and my creative and talented team in our studio and their ideas.
26. What’s a relationship deal breaker for you?
Any relationship, whether it’s romantic, business, a friendship, I keep because of mutual respect. Once either party loses respect for how that other person lives their lives then that’s pretty much a deal breaker, right?
27. Do you believe in astrology? Why or why not?
I believe that everything in our reality is a manifestation of true source and spirit, astrology included.
View more of Acuna’s works here.