Inside acclaimed architect Kelvin Ho’s creative process

The Sydney member and founder of Akin Atelier shares the details that form his approach to design

By Jess Kelham-Hohler   Images by Kelvin Ho   Thursday 21 May, 2020   Long read 

Since founding his architecture and interior design studio Akin Atelier in 2005, creative director, Kelvin Ho, and his team have made their mark across a diverse portfolio of projects. They’ve worked with a whole host of clients, including The Australian Ballet and Qantas. But consistent to all of Akin Atelier’s work is the desire to tell a story.

‘Curiosity and playfulness are important to our process,’ says Ho. ‘Architecture and design are another form of communication. And if we’re taking the role of the author, we have to have a point of view – the project has to say something.’

Like most of us, Akin Atelier has had to adapt to the new normal of social distancing, with the team working remotely and figuring out a way to creatively collaborate over video calls. This includes discussing how the current global experience may impact their approach to design. But with lockdown in Sydney starting to ease and a roster of projects underway, Ho turns his camera on the details that make up a digital mood board, giving us a glimpse into his creative process. 
The interior of an architect's studio.
The interior of an architect's studio.
Drawing and modelling
‘Sketching is a huge part of my process and, for me, it’s the best way of describing an idea. I’m always carrying around a pen and a roll of trace paper or an iPad. It comes in at every stage, from the strategic beginnings when you’re mapping out the different objectives and zones of a building, right down to detailing a door handle. I had a more classical training when I was a student and drawing was a major element of my work. I always loved it as a child, so being able to draw as part of my job now is something that keeps me happy.

‘Ten years ago, models would have been a much bigger part of the collaboration with the client. But now, because of 3D renderings and digital enhancing, they’re used more during the concept design and development.’
The interior of an architect's studio.
‘I have a collection of old architectural books about projects from the 1940s and 1950s which I refer to a lot. I like to understand the precedents for buildings and to unpack what made them successful. I also love modernist Brazilian work – Lina Bo Bardi is one of my favourite architects. And we’re working on a farm project at the moment, so I’ve been looking at John Pawson for inspiration. 

‘I also like to collect art books. It might be something contemporary like a KAWS book I just bought, or something about Calder, or an Australian artist like Brett Whiteley. I find art an interesting way to get inspired for projects, because there’s a simplicity of thought, a form of language and relationship with materials that’s really fascinating. 

‘I love the Italian Vogue Casas, because the art direction is amazing and there’s a personality in those old issues that I find so useful.’
The interior of an architect's studio.
The interior of an architect's studio.
‘I’ve always collected records, and for my birthday a few years ago my wife Jacqueline bought me this record player. At the office, we like to listen to musicians like Miles Davis early on in the day, then we might work our way to things like the Beastie Boys later on. It’s an eclectic mix.’

‘On our sample table, we keep a collection of materials that we’ve called in to use for projects, or some that we just think are cool but aren’t sure what they’re for yet. It’s funny how all materials communicate an idea that relates to people’s experiences and memories. For example, if you mention PebbleCrete to an Australian client, they’ll get excited and tell you how it reminds them of being a kid and swimming in a pool made from it. But if you show it to a UK client, they’ll say how ugly it is and that it just feels depressing. 

‘Whenever I’m on a construction site or visiting the stonemason and see some offcuts, I’ll bring them back to the studio, because sometimes they’ll inspire the next idea. I remember I’d been collecting broken bits of marble and experimented with ways of combining them. Later on, I had the idea to use that texture for shelves for a project. The ugliest materials in the right context can be something really striking.’
The interior of an architect's studio.
The interior of an architect's studio.
The view
‘One of the things that drew me to this space in the first place was the contradiction between the industrial feel inside and the views of the outside world. We have these James Turrell-style circular skylights that mean you can look up and see the clouds moving past. Then, through the windows you see this traditional architecture with sandstone and church spires. A big part of our work is the contrast of elements – the rough and smooth, the solid and fragile – and we always talk about our approach with this idea of duality. The studio for me really embodies that.’ 

Drawings by my children
‘I always like to have these little pictures around, because while my work is extremely important to me, my family life is much more of a priority. Seeing these drawings is a reminder that helps me keep things more light-hearted. If I’m having a stressful time with a project, I’ll find one of the pictures, and it’ll make me slow down and appreciate the small moments.’
The interior of an architect's studio.
The interior of an architect's studio.
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