Hassell's Matthew Shang and Paul Semple are go-to duo for stunning interiors

The deft touch of interior designers Matthew Shang and Paul Semple is seen in some of Singapore’s most stylish spots

Push past the polished black doors of the Manhattan bar at the Regent Singapore and glamorous New York circa the 1920s greets you.

With darkened interiors, plush leather Chesterfield sofas, brassy accents and marble tabletops, the cocktail bar exudes sophistication.

Head down one floor to the Tea Lounge and the vibe switches to a chic colonial-meets-the-tropics mood. The space is fitted with lots of wood furnishings and awash in lush foliage.

Both stylish spots have distinctly different looks, but they have one thing in common: The deft touch of veteran interior designers Matthew Shang and Paul Semple, principals at multidisciplinary international design practice Hassell.

In the last 14 years that the duo have been in Singapore, Mr Shang and Mr Semple, both 42, have garnered a reputation as the go-to guys for stunning interiors for spaces ranging from restaurants to luxury hotels.

Besides Regent Singapore’s Manhattan bar and Tea Lounge – where they speak to The Straits Times – they are also behind the speakeasy cocktail joint 28 HongKong Street and the Atlas Grand Lobby & Bar at Parkview Square.

The latter, which pays homage to the elegance of the Art Deco era with its gilded interiors and posh finishings, is arguably one of the most photographed watering holes since it opened early this year.

Its jaw-dropping centrepiece is a three-storey-high, brass-clad chiller filled with hundreds of gin bottles.

Between them, they have also created relaxing interiors for homes and decked out first-class airline cabins. Their past clients include well-regarded brands such as Singapore Airlines, Aman Resorts and Alila Hotel and Resorts.

Interior design can be transient and temporary. We constantly challenge the idea of what’s beautiful and why we include certain things in our space. It does have to have rationality and logic to it, so that the space will stand the test of time.

MR PAUL SEMPLE, on how he and his partner Matthew Shang approach interior

But even as they produce hit after hit, the duo say they do not see themselves as trailblazers with a set style.

“We never want to have a style that is signature, but we want to have a signature way of doing things,” says the Australian-born Mr Shang.

“We find a unique solution to each project. As designers, we are always drawn to certain details and materials, but we don’t prescribe the outcome.”

Before they became industry stalwarts, Mr Shang and Mr Semple honed their skills working for some of the biggest names in the architecture and design fraternity.

Growing up in Innisfail, a town in Queensland, Australia, Mr Shang always knew he was going to work in the design field.

His father’s work as a joiner – he built windows and doors and did cabinetry work – had a strong influence on him. Mr Shang’s mother was a nurse, but became a housewife to look after her three children.

He studied interior design at the Queensland University of Technology and dabbled in interior design work after graduating. In 1997, he moved to Singapore for the first time and got a job at JPA Design, a studio that specialises in aircraft, rail and hospitality design.

Mr Shang, who has two older sisters, says: “I was young, single and had friends who had worked in Singapore. I thought, ‘Why not move to Asia?’, there were opportunities here.”

He spent about two years here before returning Down Under to attend the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and then build sets for telemovies.

That “two-year diversion” , while fun, made him realise his true calling was interior design. But the film industry experience gave him some tips to remember.

Mr Shang says: “The script is your bible. It dictates everything you make for the film. When it comes to interiors, I had to create my own script. So when we storyboard ideas, we look at how they make an entrance into the space and how they move in it.”

Like Mr Shang, Mr Semple also grew up knowing he was going to do design. He was born in Sydney, Australia, and moved to Auckand, New Zealand, in his teens.

As a child, he tinkered around his father’s garage, making mailboxes and bookshelves, and loved woodworking class at school.

He wanted to be an architect, but when a teacher introduced him to the interior design field and arranged for him to meet a designer, he knew it was what he wanted to do.

His father was a banker, while his mother was a bookkeeper. In the 1990s, they bought a newsagent’s shop which sold items such as newspapers, magazines and cigarettes. His parents were not quite on board with his interior designer dreams.

His father wanted him to get a finance degree.

“If I had done that, I would have a different life with more money for sure,” says Mr Semple with a laugh. He has a brother who works in commercial real estate in Sydney

“The notion of what I do... it’s not in my parents’ lexicon of things. It’s just a different world.”

He is glad he stayed the course. The University of Technology Sydney graduate says: “Some of our best professional relationships and personal friendships have come out from this world of design.”

Moving in the same circles was how Mr Shang and Mr Semple met. They were introduced by a mutual friend, another interior designer, in 2000.

A few years later, Mr Shang raised the idea of moving to Singapore to work and he came back here in 2003. Nine months later, Mr Semple quit his job as retail design manager at Westfield, a big Australian shopping centre company, and followed.

Mr Shang took on the position of senior interior designer at Woha, a home-grown multidisciplinary studio that was making waves. Mr Semple snagged a job at Kerry Hill Architects, an award-winning practice that had carved out a niche in the luxury residence and hotel segment.

It was a good time for the industry, says Mr Semple. “I was lucky to arrive when the economy was on fire. Everything I worked on was built.”

While they were doing well at the two companies, the pair sometimes toyed with the idea of going independent. The turning point came when Mr Shang’s father died in 2007.

Mr Shang says: “I took that time to do a reassessment and take stock of what I was doing and where we were going. Starting our own company had been on the cards for a while, so I thought, ‘Let’s just do it’.”

And so Distillery was born and started out of a spare room in their condominium apartment in One Tree Hill. The name came to them while they were looking at a gin bottle. Mr Shang says: “We loved the idea of many ingredients coming together and eventually you get a really pure element. That was how we wanted to run our studio.”

Making work fun

It turned out to be bad timing as a year later, the global economy tanked. The enterprising designers got by by doing smaller residential projects and refurbishments.

Over the years, as business picked up, Distillery became synonymous with luxury hospitality, retail, residential and food and beverage projects. To accommodate their expanding business, they took up another unit in the condominium and turned it into an office.

Malmaison by The Hour Glass in Orchard Road was their "breakthrough" moment, says Mr Semple. Since the completion of the project in 2010, Distillery has worked on at least nine other Hour Glass stores and offices.

Labelled as a luxury multi-brand emporium, the two-storey Malmaison also carries, besides watches, curated items such as perfumes, jewellery and books. Its luxurious interior boasts custom-designed furniture and a Parisian-styled arcade.

Mr Semple says of the game- changing project in the luxury retail scene: "The client wanted something completely off-centre and bespoke. The ambition was enormous and bold in the conservative watch industry."

After eight years of running a boutique practice that had grown to eight people and was now operating out of an office in Tan Boon Liat Building, the pair were ready for the challenge of stepping up to the next level.

In 2015, they merged Distillery with Hassell, an international design practice that started in 1938 in Australia with studios in Singapore, the United Kingdom, China and other countries in South-east Asia.

Mr Shang, whose role at Hassell is project design leader, says of the merger: "There was a bittersweet element. Distillery was something we created together and embodied us. But what excited us about Hassell was being part of a larger partnership and working with more talent."

Their work has kept clients coming back more than once. Craft spirits distribution and consultancy business Proof & Company tapped on the duo again, following their collaboration setting up the Manhattan bar at the Regent Singapore in 2015.

From there, Mr Shang and Mr Semple became Proof & Company's "first choice" design team, says Mr Paul Gabie, 39, its chief executive officer.

Since then, they have worked on 28 HongKong Street, retail bottle shop The Proof Flat and Atlas.

Recalling their time spent on the Manhattan bar, Mr Gabie says: "Over the course of the journey to bring that wonderful hotel bar to life, we came to appreciate their collaborative spirit, design genius and genuine interest in delivering the very best work possible.

"The same things draw us back to working with Paul and Matthew time and time again. They also make working together fun, which can be a rare commodity these days."

In the two years that they have been at Hassell, they have completed 12 projects, with another 20 - from dining to large-scale hospitality property - in the works.

But they are already planning their next adventure, which could possibly see the Singapore permanent residents moving to another country.

Mr Semple says: "Singapore gave us a lot of opportunities and we've been lucky. But to some extent, we've also created our own luck. Matt and I have always been ambitious, motivated and willing to work hard.

"So, even if we eventually go somewhere else, we'll always have a relationship with Singapore."


Paul Semple on Matthew Shang: Static spaces become rooms with stories

Asked what he thinks of his long-time collaborator, Hassell's principal-in-charge Paul Semple pays Mr Matthew Shang a string of compliments.

Mr Semple, who has worked at celebrated firms such as global architectural and consulting practice Woods Bagot and design practice Kerry Hill Architects, says: "Matt's one of the most talented designers whom I've ever had the honour of working with in my career."

He paints his partner, who is a project design leader at Hassell, as a great raconteur who turns static interiors into rooms with a story to tell.

Mr Semple says: "There's no one who does it like him. There's a richness to what he pulls together. He can move from modern styling to highly ornate Napoleonic interiors with such ease."

At the start of a project, Mr Shang puts together concepts in a big picture way. He researches intensely about a particular era or style he feels would work for a space and answers questions such as how the ambience would feel, what people would do in the space and what the profile of the ideal customer is.

Even as he stitches together the narrative, Mr Shang is not precious about ideas he has to discard if they do not work. "He's not designing for design's sake," says Mr Semple, who helps Mr Shang flesh out ideas and execute the look.

"He's the instigator of the conceptual conversations and I help steer it. Sometimes, ideas have to go and he's not dogmatic about it. He's always open to trying new things."

They constantly bounce ideas off each other, sometimes hourly, says Mr Semple. "Neither of us is quiet. The debate is always robust."

In the last two years at Hassell, they have worked on a few projects without each other - an arrangement that sometimes feels strange to Mr Semple, having worked closely with Mr Shang for eight years at their boutique design outfit Distillery.

Mr Semple says: "I'm most comfortable when I'm working with him. It always leads to better outcomes than if we go it alone."

Matthew Shang on Paul Semple: He’s watching my back

If Mr Matthew Shang is the dreamer of this duo, Mr Paul Semple is the dream executor, who makes his partner's ideas come to fruition - within workable limits, of course.

So while Mr Shang, who as a principal at Hassell leading project design, drives much of the creative process, he says Mr Semple "helps (him) write the story".

"I mine so many ideas for the storytelling process and like to keep extending the narrative," says Mr Shang.

"It's part of Paul's job to say to me, 'Okay, you can stop now'."

Since they met 17 years ago through a mutual friend and having worked together closely in the last decade, the two of them are so in tune with each other that it seems they can read each other's minds.

Mr Shang says that Mr Semple immediately gets his ideas, even if he is just looking at "a crappy little sketch".

"Sometimes I'm trying to explain something and I look at Paul and he knows what I'm talking about."

Their connection and warm relationship are obvious. Over the course of the interview, they take each other's ribbing in stride and finish each other's sentences.

Over the years, they have built a comfortable style of working together. Mr Shang appreciates Mr Semple's candid feedback and says they never shy away from debating ideas.

He says: "I trust Paul completely. That's very important because when it comes down to making decisions, I have someone who's watching my back."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2017, with the headline 'Darlings of design'. Print Edition | Subscribe