JJ Acuna speaks the language of design with the eloquence and elegance of a poet. Creative pursuits have always been the driving force that’s inspired him to succeed—in his previous quests to become a comic book artist, a painter, fashion designer, and architect. Interior design, however, proved to be his calling. He begins, “I was always a creative kit and one who was completely an overachiever.” After Architecture school in Cornell, he immediately immersed in post graduate studies at Columbia in New York City.
After a 10-year stint in the corporate world, JJ decided it was time for a shift in careers and ultimately, lifestyle and perspective. He shares, “I realised, that wasn’t for me. So I transitioned to Interior Design because I love colour, patterns, materials and furnishings. The focus, intimacy and scale is different with Interior Design and I enjoy that more.” Today, he is regarded as one of Hong Kong’s purveyors of style. He has created inspired spaces for commercial spaces and homes under his JJ Acuna/Bespoke Studio that echo a passion for contemporary sensibilities. His musings on his blog, The Wanderlister (https://www.wanderlister.com/) has become a reliable reference for many design enthusiasts throughout Asia. And more recently, he’s also started his own podcast, focused on wellbeing.
For a man like JJ, a life of style and design goes beyond creating spaces and mood boards; it’s about imparting personal pearls of wisdom through every colour, pattern or accent added to a space.
- What keeps you busy these days?
Being a designer for JJ Acuña / Bespoke Studio is my full-time passion. With projects all over Asia, the job definitely keeps me busy. In addition to running my design studio, I also host my own podcast on wellbeing titled, Aligned By Design with JJ Acuña—so there’s that going on as well. In my free time, I like to travel and spend time at home cooking with my partner. I also just started Crossfit training. Let’s see how far that will take me.
- How did you come to find your current career or life’s work?
I was always a very creative kid and one who was completely an overachiever. If I couldn’t be as book-smart as my two older sisters, who went to Harvard and MIT, then dam-nit I was going to be the best creative I could ever be.
When I was a kid I wanted to be a comic book artist so I met Stan Lee. As a teenager, I wanted to be an oil painter so I won awards for that and even hosted my own solo shows. I also wanted to be a fashion designer at one point, so I taught myself how to make patterns and hand sew. Eventually I went to Architecture school at Cornell upon the strong nudging of my parents. I studied Architecture as a post-graduate student at Columbia in New York City.
Hong Kong came after and I’ve been living here since 2005. I did the corporate thing for a decade, then realized that wasn’t for me. So I transitioned into Interior Design because I love color, pattern, materials, furnishings. The focus and intimacy and scale is just different with Interior Design. I enjoy that more.
- What is it about your work or career that you enjoy most?
I love how intimate my relationship is with the clients. We really don’t do cookie-cutter work because of our bespoke perspective. We try to give them something new and refreshing, offering design solutions in ways they haven’t imagined. The fun part of what I do is giving clients more possibilities than they can imagine.
- What do you consider to be “hazards of the job?”
I tend to take on too much because I just want to do everything. So resting, meditating, taking a pause, delegating, and letting others do what they need to do is very important to keep a balanced life.
- For people who aspire for similar careers, what would be your advice?
I say find your perspective. Always force yourself to find out who you really are amidst all the noise of living in today’s world. It’s your perspective, what you want, what you don’t want, that gives you your value. By going through the process of finding your voice and perspective, this exercise can give you the agency and the power to help change the world both in small ways and big tremendous ones.
- What are the career milestones that inspire you to break the glass or mold?
I think just graduating from grad school, being out there creating in the world, and choosing Hong Kong over staying safely in the US was a really big deal. Building my first building as a 26-year-old intern in a corporation was a big deal, too. Building my first shopping mall in China at 29 was a big deal. Starting a blog at 31 to write about art and design was major. It really helped me tune my voice, point of view, and perspective. Becoming a director at 35 and leaving at the height of my career to start my own business was the milestone that really shaped the reality I’m living in today.
I’ve also designed and built a house for my family in Manila. That was a great life moment for me. To be able to design and build a shelter for the ones I love was a wonderful feeling.
- How do you balance work and family life? What are activities that enable you to bond with family?
I realized that I need help in order to do what it is I need to do. So a lot of it is letting go. Learning how to let go, ride the wave, flow with the tide and not against it, is a way for me to stay happy. Be present, and to allow myself to be the best part of myself. In Tagalog there is a phrase that goes, “bahala na.” This translates to “let go, let God,” or something like that. These words are very important and pivotal as they allow me to give myself that space I need to be the best version of myself—and therefore, with family.
- How do you unwind or rewind? Any favourite spots in your current city that you consider as your me-time haven?
I love hiking and taking walks in nature. Hong Kong has tons of nature trails and they are usually high up in the hills so have a great perspective of the island and the sea. Hong Kong also has tons of beaches, so I usually go to Repulse Bay, South Bay, Sai Kung, Shek O or even out in the surrounding islands to get grounded.
When I’m in the city, home has proven to be a wonderful place to rest and recharge. Going to art galleries and museums are great, too. M+ just opened in Hong Kong and it’s a wonderful mecca for art, architecture, design, and pop culture. I totally get refreshed and renewed just by being surrounded by art.
- How would you describe your personal style? What are three your wardrobe essentials?
My personal style reflects my interior design style: creative, colorful, classic, casual, and cool.
- What makes for a good investment piece? Kindly cite examples of pieces in your current wardrobe.
I love a great pair of well-made jeans. I also love pullovers with great graphics and colors. I also have a few jumpsuits. They’re easy and they’re versatile for my creative life. When it comes to shoes, I usually go for runners. Recently, I’ve been obsessed with this brand that uses recycled and vegan leather. I love it so much.
My lifestyle entails running around and doing several things in one day. So for me, style is anything that allows me to be professional yet flexible and versatile. But I always gravitate towards things that have a touch of humor and point of view. That’s key for me when trying to curate a wardrobe.
- What do pearls mean to you?
Pearls to me are diamonds of the ocean. It’s also a great way to represent where I was born, in the Philippines. I think that it’s a classic choice for many women, but it’s high time that designers work extra hard in making it okay for men to wear pearls too.