Tony Chi, Interior Designer and FIT Alumnus, Receives Lawrence J. Israel Prize

The restaurants and hotels designed by Tony Chi, Interior Design ’79, put the mundane term “hospitality” to shame. “I’m creating experiences,” he said during a talk at FIT April 23. “When people say, ‘This room looks nice,’ I say, ‘So what? How does it feel?’” The internationally celebrated designer, principal and founder of TonyChi & Associates, came to the college to receive the Interior Design Department’s prestigious Lawrence J. Israel Prize and give a lecture. Introducing Chi, Assistant Professor Johannes Knoops described him as “a potent mix of raw talent, tenacious drive, and ambition” who maintains “notorious control of the work.”


Chi cheerfully breaks boundaries in his work for hotels, such as the Park Hyatt branches in Shanghai and Washington, the Mandarin Oriental in Guangzhou, and Rosewood London. He puts kitchens in lobbies or ballrooms, for example, taking them out of their usual cloistered, private spaces: “People will say to kitchen staff, ‘Do you work in the back of the house?’ What are they, monkeys?” he said. “Let the kitchen be a part of your life.” In an unusual, open-plan bathroom, he’ll place a woman’s desk (which he refuses to call a “vanity”). “A woman will say she doesn’t work in the bathroom, but if you don’t call it a bathroom, you can get away with it,” he said. He always commissions art for his restaurants, although that can make clients uncomfortable: “They’ll say, ‘But this is a commercial space.’ I always like to blur the line between commercial and fine art.”

For each project, Chi distills his theme into a single word. For the Rosewood London, it was “Britishness”; for the Park Hyatt Shanghai, it was “silence,” which he rendered in creamy whites and browns, using the most luxurious materials imaginable. He explained: “Shanghai is noisy, dirty; when the guests come to the Park Hyatt, they get the best of both worlds.” Discerning the essence of a project can take a lot of work, he said: “You draft, and then you edit, edit, edit.” Yet it is precisely this process that he enjoys the most. “I don’t care about the end result,” he said with an impish smile. “I don’t know what the end result will be.”

The prize, endowed by architect Lawrence J. Israel, has been given annually since 1998 to an individual or firm whose ideas and work enrich FIT Interior Design students’ course of study. Past recipients include Jamie Drake and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. One student asked Chi about his first job out of college. “I did a 15,000-square-foot café, which wound up the movie Big,” he said. “Someone came to me because they wanted cheap. And I was cheap. I was absolutely fearless. I guess I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”

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