November 28, 2022


Swing Your Home

How smart interior design gave a 420 sq ft Hong Kong the wow factor and turned it into a cosy home perfect for entertaining


  • A first-home buyer kept costs to a minimum when it came to renovating her 420 sq ft flat in Sheung Wan
  • Among the ‘fast, economical’ renovation tricks were a mirrored wall to give the illusion of a bigger kitchen and wardrobes that take the place of a wall

Two minutes into an inspection of the first property on her list, first-home buyer Emma Maclean knew this was the one.

The third-floor flat in Sheung Wan, on Hong Kong Island, broke one of her self-imposed golden rules: nothing below the fifth floor.

But the building’s being set back from the street meant there wasn’t the traffic noise Maclean had feared – just the happy sounds of children larking about in the adjacent playground. And the flat had light – lots of it – courtesy of bay windows on opposite sides facing open views, and two smaller windows in between, drawing in light from a third direction.

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“I’m a sucker for two things: good location and good light,” she says. “As long as you have both, you can do anything with it.”

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Born in Taiwan and raised in Hong Kong, Maclean was educated in Australia, staying on to study interior design along with her twin, Caitlin.

“There were almost 3,000 applications for 60 places at the University of Technology Sydney, and we both got in,” she says.

The sisters inherited a love of design from their late father, Van, an art student whose own father, for an 18th birthday present, gave his son a one-way ticket to Hong Kong.

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He landed a job sculpting ice for the buffet display at the Hilton hotel, sparking a career in hospitality design that would last until his retirement. (Van Maclean progressed to director of design, Hong Kong Hilton, before starting his own company.)

Returning to Hong Kong after graduating, Maclean followed in her father’s footsteps, working for firms including Hirsch Bedner Associates and Steve Leung Designers, with a focus on luxury hotel projects. Wanting to diversify, she opened her own multidisciplinary studio, EM Bespoke, in 2018.

When she bought her flat three years later, because of its attributes size didn’t matter. Only 420 sq ft (39 square metres), it also had youth on its side, having been built in 1999. According to Maclean, buildings older than 45 years have inherent problems such as ageing pipes and wiring she’d rather steer clear of.

The renovation would be swift. “I was not going to be paying a mortgage and rent at the same time,” she explains. It also had to be cost-effective.

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“So many small tricks can be done that are fast, economical and clever that make you look around and go, ‘wow’,” Maclean says.

Her redesign required that only two walls be removed, keeping construction costs to a minimum. One was in the kitchen. Given her Hong Kong upbringing, Maclean is “not pro-open kitchens”, but closed in, hers was tiny. Inverting the L-shaped cabinetry created a better flow when viewed from the dining room, while a mirrored wall where the cupboards once stood gives the illusion of a kitchen twice the size.

With room for people to gather in only one place in the home, Maclean made it the dining area. A round table comfortably seating four, in Hans Wegner Wishbone chairs, along with loose cushions on the bay window seat, have seen guests linger here for hours in pre-social-distancing times.

To diffuse the overhead light, Maclean ordered a pendant wrapped in translucent linen. With the addition of a sling chair and tea table, she created a reading nook in one corner, bringing yet another dimension to the multipurpose space where she can work, entertain, play mahjong and so on.

When it comes to home renovation, you must make it feel like you’re meant to live there forever

Emma Maclean

Because she regards it as antisocial, a television was kept out of this room – relegated instead to the guest bedroom, where a sofa with fold-out arms converts into a spare bed for overnight visitors.

The other wall Maclean removed was between the two bedrooms. “I needed the extra 10mm,” she explains. In its place are fitted floor-to-ceiling wardrobes, mostly opening to the main bedroom side, with a smaller storage niche in the guest bedroom.

The previous owner had remodelled the bathroom so Maclean was able to save money there, adding only a mirror with storage, which also conceals the electrical sockets. The designer loves simple tricks like this: the bathroom is one place you can always put storage, she says.

“I believe when it comes to home renovation, you must make it feel like you’re meant to live there forever,” Maclean continues. “Even though the reality is that in transient Hong Kong, it could be only three months or, like my parents, 54 years.”

Flexible design makes the most of combining two Hong Kong flats

But it pays to be flexible. If an item is stretching the budget or there’s a long lead time for delivery – even if coming from China – shop around locally, and find an alternative. Flooring is a case in point. Instead of engineered timber, Maclean opted for oak-coloured, plank-style vinyl flooring – a material she says is less expensive, easy to install, and “virtually bomb-proof”.

Elsewhere, her reconstituted stone kitchen counter was cheaper, and just as durable, as solid granite or marble, and the cabinetry below it is in easy-care laminate.

The day after settlement, Maclean’s contractors began work, and five weeks later, she moved in, the whole renovation having cost just HK$240,000 (US$31,000). If she had ruled out the property because of an initial bias, this serene and beautiful home might never have existed.

“My rule now is, just go and look at it,” she says. “Because you never know what treasure you might find.”

Photo: Lydia Cheng

© Provided by South China Morning Post
Photo: Lydia Cheng

Dining room

With its single stem, the Torsion dining table from TREE ( is easy for people to sit around without having to navigate the usual four legs. Inspired by Ming dynasty form, the Hans Wegner for Carl Hansen & Søn CH24 Wishbone chairs came from Nature Evolution (; the cushions on them from Altfield Interiors (; and the Hashira trio ceiling pendant, by MENU, from Finnish Design Shop (

All the bay window seat cushions in the flat were from Creation Interior Decor (103 Queen’s Road East, Wan Chai, tel: 2866 7638). A custom area rug from Argent Carpet ( sits atop oak-coloured, plank-style vinyl flooring from Karlian International ( The moss installation was bought through

Photo: Lydia Cheng

© Provided by South China Morning Post
Photo: Lydia Cheng


In the refurbished kitchen, interior designer Emma Maclean’s regular contractor, KW Interior Designs (, sourced all materials and fittings for the composite stone counters, Formica cupboards, metallic-look ceramic tiles and Grohe tapware from local hardware stores in Wan Chai.

Photo: Lydia Cheng

© Provided by South China Morning Post
Photo: Lydia Cheng

Dining room and kitchen

Although she prefers a closed kitchen, an overriding aim to allow as much light as possible into the interior informed Maclean’s decision to remove half the wall adjoining the dining room, creating a more convivial social space.

Photo: Lydia Cheng

© Provided by South China Morning Post
Photo: Lydia Cheng

Reading nook

Maclean sits on a sling chair from Zara Home ( in the reading nook she created in the flat’s social zone. The half-height shoe cabinet behind her, custom built by KW Interior Designs, holds “a tremendous amount” of footwear, and on top, treasured mementos, including a small portrait of a man with a cue hairstyle, drawn by Maclean’s father and given to her mother, and her mother’s blue-and-white ceramic box, bought in Shanghai more than 40 years ago. The Chinese landscape is a digital artwork by artist Yao Lu.

Photo: Lydia Cheng

© Provided by South China Morning Post
Photo: Lydia Cheng

Main bedroom

The artwork from the “Land(e)scapes” series, by Nicolas Lefeuvre (, was a gift from the French artist, a friend who inspired the colours in her flat. An upholstered headboard, by Creation Interior Decor, adds texture to the Ikea bed ( The bedside table was from Zara Home, the lamp and cushions were from Altfield Interiors and the tea tray was from Ikea.

Photo: Lydia Cheng

© Provided by South China Morning Post
Photo: Lydia Cheng

Guest bedroom

A Ghia two-seater sofa bed with fold-down arms from TREE lets the spare room alternate between television snug and occasional guest bedroom. Above it, a hook from Sky Blue Bikes ( keeps Maclean’s bicycle neatly out of the way. To the right of the side table from Zara Home and lamp from Altfield Interiors is a storage niche created when the wall between the two bedrooms was removed and replaced with custom built-in wardrobes.

Photo: Lydia Cheng

© Provided by South China Morning Post
Photo: Lydia Cheng

Tried + tested

Cooking up space The kitchen is interior designer Emma Maclean’s “favourite hack” of the whole renovation. Flipping the cabinetry to the opposite side freed up a wall to be mirrored from top to bottom, creating an illusion of space. Abutting the window, it also reflects and effectively doubles the natural light.

“Mirrors are complete magic – and they’re cheap as chips,” she says. The kitchen was built by KW Interior Designs using custom crystal-clear tempered mirrors, composite stone counters above Formica cupboards and metallic-look ceramic tiles with a gentle green hue.

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (, the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.


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