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Minimal, but modern: an open-plan Hong Kong apartment's balcony provides a dining area with a view for the entire family to enjoy

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 25/03/2023 Array
A family happily downsized to move into this EMCS-designed flat in Happy Valley, complete with an open-air dining area on a balcony and large windows. Photo: Ken Wong A family happily downsized to move into this EMCS-designed flat in Happy Valley, complete with an open-air dining area on a balcony and large windows. Photo: Ken Wong
  • A couple, parents to two young children, chose to downsize to a 770 sq ft flat in Happy Valley for its potential for alfresco living
  • The home's small living room feels large thanks to the balcony, which provides an open-air dining area, and the large windows set the tone for its minimal design

Needing more space is a familiar cry among families as they grow. Quite the opposite, the Desautel-Mais of Happy Valley, on Hong Kong Island, desired less.

"We've lived in much bigger apartments," says Diane Mai, a homemaker. "But we're trying to downsize, buy less and be more environmentally conscious."

Having rented modern high-rise flats since moving to Hong Kong from Britain in 2010, the couple - Frenchman Phillippe Desautel, who works in finance, and China-born Mai, the parents of two young children - wanted something with more character in the first home they would own.

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The outdoor space of their last rental flat, in Tsing Yi, west of Kowloon, sparked their love for an alfresco lifestyle. So a balcony was a must.

A 770 sq ft (72 square metre) Happy Valley flat bought in June 2022 had potential. To personalise the interior of the three-bedroom, 50-year-old flat, friends referred them to Anthony Lei Chi-son, design director at EMCS Design, who had just completed a renovation of their home in Discovery Bay.

The flat's large windows set the tone. "We wanted the design to be minimal, but with a modern industrial twist," Mai explains. "Anthony understood us very well, and gave us a design to suit our taste."

Previous renovations had taken care of much of the groundwork. The kitchen was already open plan, which the couple wanted, and corridors, which Lei says can typically account for up to 20 per cent of the floor space, had been reduced to only about five per cent.

Just one wall needed to be realigned - even then, only slightly - to make the flow of the space feel more natural, but Lei did replace all internal doors, adding modifications such as timber panelling, or a sliding instead of a hinged opening, so they blend harmoniously into the decor.

He also repositioned the balcony access for improved integration with the living room, replacing an older-style glass door with a modern bi-fold, and raising the floor level to match the interior.

These tweaks have made all the difference, says Mai. "Our living space is not very big, but when fully open to the balcony it seems spacious and refreshing," she explains.

An outdoor table seating four provides open-air dining with a city view. Among thoughtful design elements are shelving for potted plants, and a ledge on the balustrade to hold wine and other glasses (see Tried + tested below).

Also integrated is the refurbished kitchen, its wide island bench doubling as an alternative dining table and all-round family hub.

The design language throughout this seamlessly connected space celebrates the textures of nature - timber veneer wall panelling (with concealed storage behind), quartz stone benchtops and tiling with the look of raw concrete - its palette a backdrop for the owners' collection of modern contemporary art.

"We like simple and neutral colours against art that pops," says Mai of their works by the likes of Russia-based Nick Guallier and Spain's Coco Dávez.

To optimise space and functionality in the three bedrooms, Lei customised the furnishings. Both of the children's beds include a pull-out trundle for sleepovers with friends or for visiting relatives, and a desk to accommodate their future study needs.

The base of the parents' queen-size bed lifts up to reveal storage for bulky items such as suitcases, while another desk allows Desautel to work from home occasionally.

Having only one bathroom, when they are accustomed to two, is something the family "easily got used to", Mai says. But a bath is handy when children are young, and with no room for a full-sized tub, Lei designed a combination bath/shower specific to their needs.

Tiled over a concrete shell made two steps up from the floor, it can hold two children, or one adult, comfortably in waist-deep water.

The owners say there is lots to love about their tailor-made smaller home, and nothing to miss about space they did not really need.

Integrating the kitchen, living and outdoor areas makes for one large, cheerful space. The sofa came from BoConcept (, the bar-height kitchen chairs from OVO ( and the outdoor setting was sourced from Taobao (

The ceiling lights came from Login Lighting ( and the square lamp on the kitchen benchtop is a prototype designed by Anthony Lei Chi-son of EMCS Design (

The Berd Vay'e artwork on the kitchen wall (, called Time Framed, is made from vintage watch parts embedded in Lucite. The textured timber panelling (on the door leading to a child's bedroom) was installed by EMCS Design.

The plants on the balcony came from various stores around Hong Kong, such as the Mong Kok Flower Market and Greenfingers, in Central (

Providing pops of colour on an otherwise neutral palette are two artworks by Spanish contemporary artist Coco Dávez ( - the top one depicting Freddie Mercury; the bottom one Pablo Picasso.

Laminated flooring in the living area was supplied by Karlian International ( while the kitchen is tiled in concrete-look ceramics supplied by Pacific Lifestyle ( The kitchen cabinetry in laminate with quartz stone benchtops was supplied and installed by EMCS Design.

The timber wainscoting, desk and single bed with trundle were designed by Lei, and made and installed by EMCS Design. The desk chair came from Francfranc (

The parents' queen-size bed, with storage underneath, designed by Lei and made by EMCS Design, has sockets and charging points in the bedhead. The small desk was also designed by Lei and made by EMCS Design. The chair came from Francfranc and the two hanging lights from Buster + Punch (

The artwork above the bed, The Romance, by Franco-Israeli artist Youns (, depicts British actress Jane Birkin and French musician Serge Gainsbourg. The other wall-hung artwork was a picture the owners picked up 12 years ago and had framed.

The quartz vanity, mirror and fluted glass panel were all designed and made by EMCS Design. The Kohler toilet came from Galaxy Bathroom Collection (, the floor tiles from Anta ( and the heated towel rail from Richford, (

The combination bath/shower, designed by Lei, was installed by EMCS Design.

Since the family loves the alfresco lifestyle, a balcony was a must. Designer Anthony Lei Chi-son, of EMCS Design, thoughtfully dressed it with quartz stone shelves for potted plants. A matching ledge, in front of the glass balustrade, provides a sense of security and a place to stand drinks.

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