Who is he? A Parisian-born architect-interior designer with substantial international experience, Sebastien Saint-Jean worked in Paris, New York, El Salvador and Guangzhou before moving to Hong Kong to take on independent projects. In Paris, he designed Tokyo Eat and Tokyo Self, a restaurant and a cafeteria within the museum Palais de Tokyo. In El Salvador, he worked on public housing estates and government schools. In Hong Kong he created Shine, a fashion boutique in central Causeway Bay.
How did he get into architecture and design? As a child, Saint-Jean and his family moved around the world. They lived in Jordan, South America and the United States, experiences that would shape everything from his world views to his career. ‘My parents travelled for work. I was very excited every time I went to a new place and I often imagined being able to design these places in a way that suited me,’ he says. ‘ I don’t draw well at all, but I’m very interested in generating possibilities of a place.’ He studied architecture at the prestigious L’Ecole Speciale d’Architecture in Paris. After a brief stint with a Parisian property developer, which he ‘hated, perhaps because I was a bit idealistic’, he relived his nomadic childhood by travelling around Central America and to New York for work.
Has his international experience enlightened him? When an earthquake hit El Salvador in 2001, his parents, then in Central America, suggested Saint-Jean leave New York and move there to explore architecture opportunities. ‘It was an important experience in my working life. I came from New York, where almost everything in architecture was digital and computerised. And there I was, in El Salvador, with no computer and only a pen to work with. We would drive to an empty field in the morning and have three hours to decide how people would live for the next decade. The contrast between El Salvador and New York was acute. That had me thinking a lot about what we really need in architecture and design. I think I prefer the pen.’
What is his design philosophy? ‘I am interested in creating experiences for buildings and people. If you build something, obviously you build the object, but you are also helping to generate what is going to happen at the building.
‘Architecture and design are not just about materials but also possibilities, and we are responsible for creating experiences for people. If you design a balcony, you do it in such a way that people can have a drink or enjoy particular experiences there.’
How does this philosophy guide his work? For Shine, ‘a chic shop’ in Saint-Jean’s estimation, his idea was to create something ‘flexible and kind of unstable’. He came up with a series of design plans that enables the shop to be updated from time to time. ‘The different plans provide different possibilities. People go there without knowing what to expect,’ he says. Inspiration came from Sheung Wan, of all places. ‘I noticed these shops that had many boxes of goods. Depending on how the boxes were placed, the shops looked different every time I passed by. It was very interesting.’