The firm is named Marc & Chantal, but it’s really two Marcs and Chantal. They’re from France and Switzerland, and they live and work in Hong Kong and Beijing. Over the past nineteen years, the three partners—Marc Cansier, Chantal Réchaussat, Marc Brulhart—have built a $3 million company that’s bringing new levels of depth and sophistication to design in China.
Marc Cansier and Chantal Réchaussat met at ESAG/Penninghen (École Supérieure de Design, d'Art Graphique et d'Architecture Intérieure) in Paris. They joined forces after graduation in 1992 and moved to Hong Kong, where opportunities seemed to be bouncing off the skyscrapers. There, they met Marc Brulhart, who’d studied furniture-making in his native Switzerland and product and interior design in Milan. He was their first landlord and within a year became a partner, responsible for building an interior design team. “We met Marc B. to pay him rent,” recalls Réchaussat. “We admired his tactile understanding of construction and ability to visualize in three dimensions. Our first collaboration was prompted by a request from a fashion label for a window display. The experience was a success and soon Marc & Chantal Design Ltd. was born.”
Today, the three partners manage 30 graphic and interior designers, strategists and writers in Hong Kong and 5 in Beijing, where Cansier relocated to manage the Mainland China office. The staff is a hot pot of eleven nationalities speaking eight languages—with most communication in English, French, Cantonese and Mandarin.
M&C’s work encompasses brand strategy and identity; hotel, museum and restaurant interiors and environments, retail store design and signage, multimedia experiences and exhibitions. The team is continually expanding the boundaries, incorporating lighting, sound and video. “The vision is to meld design disciplines and answer emerging needs in an holistic rather than segmented approach,” says Réchaussat.
Hong Kong has long been a center of international trade and finance. A British colony from the mid-nineteenth century until the “handover” to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, it’s a dense, subtropical, cosmopolitan city-state of intriguing neighborhoods tucked between improbably tall skyscrapers. Its two major urban areas, Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, are connected by a network of ferries and one of the world’s best subway systems. The Kowloon side feels conventionally commercial, with grand old hotels and department stores, streetcars, noodle shops and the famous jade market, where you can bargain for strands of pearls and get them made into a designer-copy necklace in 24 hours. Hong Kong Island is impossibly hilly; a major means of transportation in Central, its main commercial and residential district, is a half-mile-long outdoor escalator. Winding above and around Central’s neon-lit bank and corporate towers are steep, narrow lanes lined with curio shops, bars and restaurants.
All the big ad agencies have offices in this mecca for entrepreneurs, and there are scores of marketing, branding, digital media and graphic and interior design firms. But it’s likely that the only place in town where all those disciplines are melded into what the partners call “multidimensional brand experiences” is the Marc & Chantal office in the Sheung Wan neighborhood, which copywriter Jessica Collins characterizes as “a cute, rapidly gentrifying mix of local and Western.” The studio occupies the loft-like fourth floor of an older building that overlooks a leafy park. “What people love most about the office is the terrace with loungers and umbrellas and our mini-forest of potted palms,” Collins points out. “When we’re not having a meeting or taking a tea break on the terrace, we work at long tables, where graphic designers mix with interior designers so the team is free to exchange ideas.”
At those tables, innovative work is created for clients ranging from luxury brands to the public sector. One of the firm’s largest clients is Swire Properties, a Hong Kong-based real estate developer. After completing identities and architectural elements for Swire hotels and corporate suites, M&C was commissioned to create Outside the Box, an exhibition that gives a close-up view of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry, who designed his first Asian residential project for Swire.
Developing winning taglines is another key area of the firm's expertise. For a high-end residential building in Central, M&C developed a suite of marketing materials based on the tagline “Get Centred,” evoking the building’s spa-like qualities that, it’s hoped, will bring residents inner peace. All the units sold in one weekend. Many projects are focused on interior design and visitors’ sensory experiences: how spaces feel, sound and smell. For example, the Louis Vuitton Travel and Travelers exhibition incorporated MLVC signature pattern fabrics, audio tracks and giant fabricated suitcases in a story about travel in the days when people packed their wardrobes in steamer trunks, not carry-ons. That being a success, they created a flagship Moët & Chandon lounge on Maçao, an island destination for gambling and entertainment, where the “total immersion champagne experience” includes the aroma of Moët Champagne, video projections and bubbles animated by motion sensors.
Beijing is a different story. In 1966, Chairman Mao Zedong declared a Cultural Revolution throughout the People’s Republic, which had been established as a one-party Communist state in 1949 with Beijing as its capital. All private enterprise was eliminated. Shopkeepers and intellectuals were ordered to the countryside to perform manual labor and be “reeducated” by peasants. In 1978, market-based reforms were introduced, and since then the world’s most populous country—with nearly 1.4 billion citizens—has become the largest exporter of goods and the fastest-growing major economy, second in size only to the US.
In 2008, when the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games brought China's resurgence to the world's TV screens, the capital showed off its reflective-glass towers, apartment and shopping complexes and world-class sports facilities. The roads were clogged with many more cars than bicycles, many of them shiny black Audis—status symbols of a growing wealthy class. Near Workers’ Stadium, where revolutionary speeches were once made, young Beijingers bought iPhones and fashion accessories at Sanlitun Village, a hip shopping mall. But most marketers still clung to cartoon-character mascots and slogans that seemed like warmed-over admonitions from the Mao era.
Penthouses, exclusive golf clubs and shops selling jewelry and European designer clothing—and the advertising for them—have proliferated. But the government still exerts control over commerce. For example, the Beijing Administration for Industry and Commerce recently decreed that outdoor advertising for upscale products was a socially unhealthy reminder of the gap between social classes, and gave companies 30 days to remove words like “luxury” and “high class” from billboards.
Would you be crazy to try to introduce high-end conceptual branding in such an environment? That’s just what Marc & Chantal did in 2009, when they opened their Beijing office in a courtyard near the Drum Tower, not far from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. The office is on Nanluogo Xiang, a kind of high street in one of Beijing’s hutongs, the alleyway communities where old-style neighborhood life goes on: people selling things, raising families, cooking, studying and playing cards in the street. Nanluogo has become a uniquely trendy destination, lined with cafés, bars and boutiques.
Although the venture was a bit risky, Beijing clients are waking up to the rewards that an investment in design can bring. Cansier reports. “For a long time we were thinking about doing this, and resisted because the time wasn’t right,” he admits. “But we have built the office at a natural pace and success is coming.” In fact, Cansier considers their work for Beijing’s Shopin Discount Retailer the firm’s most successful project to date. Starting with positioning, M&C merged two existing brands, Best Discount and Off Price, into a single proposition: Shopin: a destination for the value-seeking fashion-conscious consumer. “The word ‘Shopin’ is a play on the Chinese character meaning ‘good product,’ which sounds like the English word, ‘shopping,’” he explains. “The Chinese audience embraced the logo, a composite of the two characters with dots representing the discount sign, finding it smart and friendly.” A new “Look Smart. Buy Smart” tagline is featured in print, radio ads and throughout the orange- and turquoise-accented store environments. “To do this kind of project for a Mainland Chinese client is a challenge, because there is a big gap when it comes to understanding branding,” says Cansier. “But Shopin proved to be fearless, attentive and open. The result was quite powerful and revitalized the brand. We are looking forward to more of exactly this kind of challenge.”
It seems like every agency and design firm is trying to figure out how to make inroads in the People’s Republic, which is not only evolving in its advertising culture, but wedded to knockoffs and infringements in both consumer goods and promotional activities. “China is huge and we are small,” Cansier points out. “We only need a few good clients to keep very busy, and we are focusing on those with vision that goes beyond the knockoff. With them, we try to make a difference and show the way. And things are changing quickly, especially now that China is gearing up to become a market economy rather than purely relying on exports.”
M&C has managed to attract those clients, most notably a luxury retail center at the Park Hyatt Beijing and Swire’s Opposite House boutique hotel, both of which were seeking sleek, stylish solutions—which M&C provided down to the finely patterned details of the guest amenities. “The Chinese entrepreneurs are the first victims of the infringement situation and they have an interest in change,” Cansier asserts. “China wants to give birth to the next Apple. That’s the conversation here. They have the talent, the money, the technology, the market, but without a robust legal system that protects ideas, it’s not going to happen. The government is acutely aware of this and it’s their mountain to climb. A lot of potential clients came to us after seeing the success of Opposite House, basically wanting a knockoff. They need to understand that it’s impossible to replicate such success without a distinct, original vision and full understanding of the collaborative process.”
“Collaboration is at the essence of how we function,” adds Brulhart. “We work hand in hand with our clients, as well as with our production partners. When everyone is looking towards the same goal, it creates shared synergy and the kind of success we are all working to achieve.”
Living and enjoying success in Asia is not all about working, however. Westerners are moving to China to enjoy the excitement of breaking new ground, a higher standard of living at lower cost and relaxed, spontaneous socializing. And you don't even need to be fluent in Chinese. According to marketing coordinator Tiffany Wong, “None of the three partners speaks Cantonese or Mandarin. They communicate with clients and deal with everyday life in English or sometimes in French. If a client doesn’t speak English, a project manager will assist and act as interpreter.” And then there is family life: “Outside the office,” says Réchaussat, who has two school-age children, “I live with a tall Englishman who works in finance and plays goalie for several HK soccer teams. We like to relax together and spend our free time with the kids.” Cansier reports a social agenda connected to Beijing’s vibrant art scene. “My wife works in the movie and media industry, so we are quite busy, which makes us appreciate downtime even more. We cook; I French, she Chinese.” Says Brulhart, “One of my pleasures is waking up looking forward to the day ahead, to have stimulating situations, to be surrounded by great collaborators and friends. I have the luxury of spending most of my time enjoying what I do, which is difficult to beat.”
The younger designers who work at M&C are also enjoying what they do. Some are natives like Camille Chan, who studied graphic and media design at Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education. Others, including design director Gah-Yee Tsui, a graduate of Parsons School of Design, returned to Hong Kong after studying and working abroad. Gah-Yee gained experience in New York on such projects as rebranding a United Nations agency. Senior interior designer Jason Schlabach studied architecture at Savannah College of Art and Design and previously created retail environments, including a shop at Nike’s Portland headquarters and a brand relaunch for sports apparel maker Umbro with store interiors throughout London. Interior design director Seni Limpoon hails from Bangkok, and graphic designer Elise Inthavixay from Paris, where Cansier spotted her thesis project at the ESAG/Penninghen senior show and offered her a job.
Right now, many of the designers are completing a big project for Hong Kong Chinese University, an educational exhibition in a solar tower on what’s characterized as “a super-modern development in an old fishing village” on an island in Hong Kong’s New Territories. “It’s a museum of the sun,” Réchaussat explains, “for school groups and families.” It’s in the construction phase after eighteen months of design development that began with extensive research. “We dug into different cultures, myths and legends about the sun, then into scientific concepts like how energy is transferred to create nuclear fission,” Brulhart adds, “then presented video models of three alternative scenarios, three ways the visitor could be guided on the journey. This is our presentation strategy, offering well-thought-out options and asking the client with which they’re most comfortable.”
“Super-modern in an old fishing village” may sound odd, but it’s the kind of development that’s happening all over Asia. “China is a land of opportunity for entrepreneurs,” Cansier sums up. “It’s an open place with no snobbishness. A perfect and welcoming place for people with ideas who want to grow fast. To continue to grow our firm, we are expanding and perfecting ways to enhance the total consumer experience—giving people experiences that they’ll remember, that will make lasting emotional connections with our clients' brands. With the Asian economy maturing into a vast consumer market, the field is ripe for strong and sophisticated homegrown brands to emerge. This is where there are the opportunities.” ca