JJ Acuna, founder of JJ Acuna / Custom Studio
Hong Kong is a place full of talented and scheming people. In our 27-question weekly column, we get up close and personal with notable city figures, learn about their quirks and dislikes, key life moments, hopes and dreams, all for roughly the same length of time. ‘a relaxed date. This week, we’re chatting with interior designer JJ Acuna.
Hansik Goo. Tate dining room. The chicken bar. Coffeelin. Honbo at the mills. Miss Lee. No, I don’t just list my favorite restaurants – although I frequent some of them more often than I would like to admit – this is the list of some of the interior designer’s most recognizable works. JJ Acuna in recent years.
Return to Asia
Born in Manila and raised in Texas, Acuna considers himself the “black sheep of the family” – the only one of his four siblings to return to Asia to settle after graduation.
“I’ve been in Hong Kong since 2005. It’s the longest stay in one city of my life,” Acuna says. “I came here as an intern and spent a decade in the corporate world before deciding to leave this life and Start my own business in 2015. At first I was just a one-man band, but over the last six years JJ Acuna / Bespoke Studios has grown into a full team with some really talented creatives.
Living with the pandemic
“I started the podcast in March 2021 to help me connect with my friends after a full year of living with the pandemic. How difficult it is to travel, I thought how much I missed having these really deep conversations at the table with all kinds of personalities; people who are really into all kinds of healing, wellness, and meditation modalities. This is where the idea of Aligned by design has begun.”
The podcast was Acuna’s attempt to find out what other people around the world were doing to stay mentally and spiritually “well” in the midst of battling a global pandemic. So far, he has been able to post 12 episodes on a wide range of topics such as shamanism, feng shui, geometry, and even traditional Chinese medicine.
A global conversation
“I reach out to guests from all over the world, write the scripts, produce and record on my laptop at home,” he says. “For me [to heal], I do meditation and daily 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 line up with their own design.
Keep your eyes peeled: Some of JJ Acuna / Bespoke Studio’s upcoming projects include a gourmet German restaurant in the LKF Tower, a new deli concept at Aberdeen Marina Club, as well as an Honbo burger restaurant in Macau.
Name: JJ Acuna
District: Causeway bay
Occupation: Entrepreneur and interior designer
1. What is your life motto?
Manifest and attract whatever you want in life with good energy and positive thinking.
2. What is the best meal you have ever had in Hong Kong?
I make sure that every meal I have in Hong Kong and elsewhere I have no regrets, so every meal should be the best meal theoretically. Life is short, isn’t it? Although I have to say I love really good barbecued pork with scrambled eggs and soy sauce over rice in Tai Hing! Delicious!
3. Who is your role model?
My closest friends are my role models. The friends that I keep around me, I keep them because they have a quality that I personally admire or learn from. No scum.
4. What was your first job?
I was shopping for groceries at Kroger’s in Fort Worth, TX when I was 15. I fought hard to get this job done. I enjoyed the independence and the ability to earn my own pocket money.
5. What is your favorite drink?
Matt white almond milk.
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 taxi when I was 27 and that was the end of driving. I have to start driving again!
7. Which movie should everyone see?
At Chloé Zhao Nomadic country. People must ask themselves why they are here and do what they are doing on this planet. If we are not our business, if we are not our work, if we are not our tribe, then who are we? It’s amazing to think that people who are nomadic make us question our existential position.
8. What is your greatest guilty pleasure?
Sneaking into chocolates as a snack – and it becomes an almost everyday thing. Chocolate bars, cookies, ice cream. It has to stop.
9. Are you a morning person or a night owl?
The night owl, without a doubt!
10. What is your biggest regret in life?
Not to give more chance to live in the United States, I think. I left in my twenties and never looked back. I sometimes wonder if I’m missing something.
11. What do you hate most about living in Hong Kong?
Real estate prices! It prevents people and society from being more creative and daring in their life decisions. Everything is quantified, not qualified.
12. Which phone app do you think more people should know about?
There is an app called Unsplash I just discovered. They offer free photos and images that you can use for anything; design presentations, graphics, etc. Beautiful, very good quality. It’s like the Getty Images, but for free. I know I’m a design geek.
13. How often do you prepare your own meals?
Since COVID? Almost every day now. It’s a good change to be in control and to cook my own meals at home. It’s definitely healthier overall.
14. What is your biggest fear?
That I never get over my personal problems. I need to let go, to accept, to forgive and to move on. This is the ideal.
15. When was the last time you took the Star Ferry?
Oh my god, maybe a few years ago. I need to go back, when the weather gets cooler. I’m designing a new restaurant in Harbor City, so maybe this is a really good opportunity to take the ferry.
16. What’s the best thing about or about your apartment?
May it be filled with art and books that I love. I feel safe with the culture all around me.
17. What does your typical Sunday look like?
Sun and pool or beach – oh, and a copy of FT Weekend. It’s a perfect Sunday for me.
18. What time in your life would you most like to relive?
I think back to when I invited my friends over for coffee with me at the first restaurant I ever designed in Hong Kong. Leaving the company and starting my own design studio is one thing, but now I can enjoy the space I designed with the people I love. It’s a great feeling. In enterprise architecture, everything is so distant, immense and impersonal. It’s really nice to design small and intimate projects, and to be able to be in these spaces with friends and family.
19. If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would it be?
I am open to Melbourne, Milan or Paris – everywhere with good coffee.
20. If you had to describe Hong Kong in one word, what would it be?
21. Are you a good cook? What’s your best dish?
I make a wicked Filipino Adobo using my mom’s recipe. But that said, my partner Kiwi sometimes manages to cook it better than me!
22. Who is the best teacher you have ever had, what is an important lesson they have taught you?
My high school teacher once pulled me out of my fear of designing something ‘bad’ by putting into perspective the world we live in, all that it is and all that it was, is. a platform for what we choose to create. The only thing we can do and offer to this world is to create something and give people the freedom to discuss it. Without our point of view or our work, it doesn’t matter if it’s stupid or stupid, there is nothing that nobody to discuss. Give us something to talk about, he told me!
My fear of creating and designing anything from then on pretty much dissipated. It is true that I am on this planet to conceive. I get paid to be a designer. If I can’t even do that, then what’s the point of my existence? I am here, we are all here, to create and live a creative life; so let’s create, build and talk about it. It was an “ah-ha!” ” Truly unbelievable ! moment for me.
23. What would you do if you won the lottery?
I would invest it in my business and keep doing amazing things and designing amazing things for a lot of people. Because in all honesty, work and my practice is the real thing that makes me happy. It’s good to win the lottery, but it’s better to continue to have the freedom to live a creative life.
24. When did you feel like you “made it”?
This year we were featured in a book called By Design: The world’s best contemporary interior designers. We were one of 100 studios chosen around the world to represent the best in interior design. When I received my advanced copy of this book, I realized we were a great studio in Hong Kong doing a great design job for all kinds of people in Asia. Opening this book and seeing our works in the same book of our idols… it was a really special and cathartic moment for me.
25. What motivates you about your job?
My clients, their ideas and my creative and talented team in our studio and their ideas.
26. What is breaking romantic relationships for you?
Any relationship, whether loving, professional, friendly, I keep it out of mutual respect. Once either party loses respect for how that other person is living their life, 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 the true source and the spirit, astrology included.
See more works by Acuna here.