Career Path

The customer is always right

Mary Luk

Interior Designer
Kenneth Ko
Kenneth Ko Designs Limited

Destiny is often shaped, not by magic, but by opportunities that come a person's way - which must be seized or lost forever. This is what happened to renowned interior designer Kenneth Ko. Initially an architect, he switched to interior design after receiving an unexpected offer from a client to renovate and reconstruct his house.

There has been no turning back. As Mr Ko tells it, "I made the decision and stuck with it."

All along, Mr Ko said he was egged on by his mother, who wanted him to succeed in his profession to show relatives and friends that he, as the son of a stepmother, would do well. In traditional Chinese families, a stepmother is often regarded as inferior.

He did not disappoint her. In 1969, he obtained first class honours in design and won the Picton Hopkins Prize on graduating from the Architecture Department of Melbourne University. Back in Hong Kong in 1970, he landed his first job as an architect with an engineering consultancy and, in 1974, joined Lee On Construction as a project manager.

One day, a client whose Shek O house required repairs unexpectedly gave Mr Ko HK$300,000 to carry these out. Realising that this was full-time work, he made the irrevocable decision to quit his job and establish Kenneth Ko Designs Limited. The project's success boosted his confidence and he launched his interior design company on a positive note.

Initial clients mostly comprised friends whose new homes needed renovation. However, he admits that publicity in the media also helped build his reputation as a leading local designer. Gradually, his client base expanded from small business operators to large corporations, such as chain stores Saint Honore, Episode and Cafe de Coral. Over the past 20 years, his company has completed over 1,000 projects locally and internationally.

"What works ideally for me may not suit others. I just want to offer what suits my customers best"

Mr Ko attributes his success to his mother's encouragement. "I always take her word seriously. I work twice as hard as others. If they get 100 marks, I have to score 200."

Never satisfied with himself, apart from acquiring interior design knowledge from courses offered by Melbourne University he seized opportunities to observe different designs from around the world.

Living and working from the heart could explain Mr Ko's unceasing inspiration. He values human interaction. Every project requires him to understand the occupant's personality, living habits and ideal lifestyle. He also believes that humane designs are best and will never go out of date." I will not offer what I consider the best to my customers," he stresses. "What works ideally for me may not suit others. I just want to offer what suits my customers best."

Although Mr Ko has no fixed schedule, his daily routine includes meeting clients, going on site visits and working out projects with his 30-member staff. Priorities are set by deadlines.

Fresh graduates wishing to be successful interior designers are advised to be devoted, work hard and have a keen interest in the profession. "Learn to enjoy life. If you're [asked to design the interior of a] 20,000 square foot house, how can you do that effectively if you have no idea what a spacious apartment requires for a comfortable life?" he says. "Be open and ready to accept new ideas. A person's creativity is limited; you must observe other people's works to enrich yourself."

In his opinion, the outlook for the interior design market hinges on the performance of the economy - the better it is, the higher the demand for this service. Regrettably, he says, most interior design creations are conventional, lacking depth and effective interpretation.

Mr Ko hopes to become more involved in the architectural and interior design of new building projects, saving discerning property owners the need to change structures after completion. However, such projects are confined to individual houses, as major property developers have their own design units. Other goals are to produce signature designs incorporating Chinese and Western culture and, in so doing, set a trend.

China Opportunities

Ambitious Hong Kong interior designers wishing to develop their careers should venture into the huge China market, which offers a good variety of buildings. These range from individual luxury apartments to contemporary housing estates requiring interior design, according to Mr Ko. However, he points out that China has an abundance of talent in this industry and that only local designers with remarkable achievements can compete in this market.

Indeed, many years ago, when Mr Ko was not yet a household name in Hong Kong, he contacted the then Beijing-based Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) and offered to design its airbus interior - but was rejected. "They preferred to use Pierre Cardin's design, which was internationally recognised," he says. Today, however, Mr Ko is frequently invited to travel to the mainland on business. Whenever he is in Guangzhou or Shanghai, his fans approach him for his autograph.


Taken from Career Times 28 November 2003, p. 28
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