The art lover, interior designer and Hong Kong enthusiast welcomes you to his home in Pok Fu Lam.
John McLennan is enthusing about Ping Pong 129 Gintoneria, a new specialty gin-and-tonic bar in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Sai Ying Pun. It’s a funky little spot melding old-world Hong Kong with a modern Mediterranean vibe: a curious mish-mash of cultures, influences and aesthetics that has resulted in a hip place with unmistakable style – and apparently the gin and tonics are also a must!
It’s little wonder John feels at home there; as a long-term expatriate he’s had more opportunity than most to sample different cultures, and the roomy Pok Fu Lam apartment he shares with wife Jen and children Jameson and Kelsey, bears witness to his twenty-year stint in Asia. There are imposing pieces of colonial furniture from Sri Lanka, delicate antique filigree and wooden doors from India, quirky artworks from Cambodia, an altar table from Beijing. But combine these carefully curated Asian pieces with McLennan’s passion for contemporary interiors, and the apartment décor suddenly takes on an interesting new dimension.
“I keep the basic pieces, but I change the look and trends every season,” explains the affable Canadian, who is the founder and creative director of local home and lifestyle company Indigo Living. “I’m always adding new pieces of furniture, whether it’s a cushion, a lamp or even a sofa; I’m always testing, trying, seeing what works. So it’s never perfect and it’s never finished, but it’s always comfortable!”
Relaxing in style
Comfort is John’s mantra – something he applies to everything sold at Indigo Living as well as his own home – and his living space is indubitably mellow and relaxed. “You don’t want to walk into a home and be afraid to touch or sit on anything,” he explains. “Instead, you want people to feel instantly relaxed, be able to put their feet up on the coffee table and enjoy a glass of wine. Furniture is to be used; it shouldn’t strictly be a showpiece”.
The gorgeous blue sofa in question is a current Indigo Living piece, but John’s testing it out with a new fabric that can be easily removed and dry-cleaned. Bright cushions from the store add dynamic colour, including one emblazoned with a yellow cockatoo – the trend for all things tropical is big at Indigo Living this season – but it sits comfortably alongside the dark wood Asian furniture, and a contemporary club chair in the corner (also Indigo Living).
A flue-less fireplace quietly burns next to the chair, making it the perfect place to curl up with a book in the evening, and the flickering flames only add to the apartment’s mellow vibe. The fire is from a Canadian company, Bioflame, and John installed one in Indigo Living’s Shanghai store before deciding to replicate it in his own home. Having access to the best products and contractors within the interiors industry is definitely a perk of the job!
Opposite the sofa is a tranquil landscape bathed in an alluring, late afternoon glow. “My wife and I went on an amazing trip through Burma, where we sailed across a lake and then hiked through this dense forest of pine trees,” explains John. “There were old British houses and horses and carts; it was like going back in time. When I saw this artwork it immediately reminded me of where we’d been.” The painting has a clever dual function though: slide it across the wall on specially constructed hooks, and it reveals the TV.
Every piece of art in the apartment has an interesting story behind it, and many were found during holidays abroad; John ruefully admits he can’t resist sticking his head into curio, antique and furniture shops whenever he’s away. So the elegant, spindly sculpture behind the sofa came from Paris; the compelling photograph of the dancer was a birthday present from Jen following a trip to Angkor Wat; and a large abstract in the hallway is from a buying trip to China.
“We were in Beijing in 1992 and a Chinese friend of ours suggested she take us to visit an artist colony based in an abandoned pig farm,” recalls John. “We felt obliged to buy something, so I chose a painting by a little-known (at the time) artist called Zhang Huan. Some time afterwards I was reading an article about an up-and-coming artist who was pushing boundaries by painting with ash, and wearing suits made out of raw meat, and I realised it was the same guy!” The painting is now worth much more than he paid for it, but John isn’t interested in resale value. “I don’t look at art as an investment; I buy what I love and if it increases in value, great, but I don’t plan to ever sell my pieces,” he says.
Art and aesthetics have always played an important part in John McLennan’s life; he contemplated becoming a fine artist himself prior to dabbling in urban planning and architecture before settling, late, on a career in interior design. “I feel for my fourteen-year-old son and his contemporaries, who are already worrying about their future careers,” he says. “I didn’t find out what I wanted to do until I was 40!” McLennan’s had the last laugh though; Indigo Living is hugely successful and continues to grow, although it’s obvious its founder puts his heart and soul into the business. “I asked my son if he’d like to take over the company one day, and he said, ‘No! You work too hard!’”
There are more pieces from Indigo Living in the tranquil master bedroom, which is dominated by a huge upholstered bed studded with silver nails, and made up in cool, inviting natural linen edged with blue. Fresh, summery cushions with botanical prints are piled on the bed, and the cream curtains and blinds (made by Wang On Curtain Company in Kowloon City) are edged with a smart, steely blue. An easy chair in the corner is covered with another botanical design, and a huge Sri Lankan armoire anchors the room and provides the perfect counterpoint to the modern bed, bedside tables and lamps.
A compelling, colourful image of a man’s face stares out from besides the bed; John came across the painting in an alleyway in Vietnam. “I immediately loved the bright colours, but it’s true I instinctively choose art that depicts people’s faces. My wife says I’m not allowed to buy any more! However, hanging in my office I do have a landscape painting by Drew Burnham, an artist who spent time near my father’s summer cottage, on an island just outside Vancouver, Canada. By the way the light hits the scene and the way it’s painted, I know instantly what time of day it is, what time of year it is, and what the temperature feels like. To me it feels very personal, and reminds me of my childhood at the cottage”.
John grew up at the cottage and has a deep affection for the place. “There’s no electricity; solar-heated water is pumped out of the ground to a water tank, and there are designated jeeps that carry people’s goods back and forth. When we go, the kids take off their shoes and don’t put them back on for a month. They run, they raft, they play, they climb trees and they learn about what they don’t have here!”
Hong Kong highlights
But while part of his heart will always be in Vancouver, John’s a big fan of his adopted city. An enthusiastic and talented paddler, he says he spends four days a week on the water, and there’s much else he’s enthusiastic about when it comes to Hong Kong. “I love the city, but I also love the fact I can be outside of it in five minutes – up on a hill, or on the water. I love the fact there’s a thousand different restaurants that are always changing, and that there are so many different people here, from a huge variety of countries. When we entertain we can have ten different nationalities around our dining table!”
John continues: “Hong Kong has so much to offer, so explore – don’t spend all your time on the island. Kowloon has interesting neighbourhoods, amazing hikes, and there’s so much else to discover.” In the spring, for example, John took his children strawberry picking in Tai Po. It might not be the first Hong Kong-based activity that jumps to mind, but he maintains that not only was it fun, but the strawberries were delicious. “They were small but they tasted like candy! We took them home and had them with ice cream, and we made strawberry pie and strawberry crumble”.
So does he plan eventually to return to that idyllic outdoors lifestyle by the Canadian seaside? “I’ve lived overseas for too long to move back to Canada for good. I need to be able to travel and see different places, do different things. When I first started working I envisaged my retirement home as a ten-bedroom mansion somewhere on a beach. Now I’m thinking I’ll need a two-bed city apartment; maybe three beds, for when the kids come to visit! And perhaps a small hut on the beach!” Sounds like this seasoned expatriate won’t be leaving Hong Kong any time soon.
This story first appeared in Expat Living’s June-July 2015 issue.