We Visit Fiona Kotur’s Family-Friendly Hong Kong House
Fiona works out of an airy studio in Hong Kong’s Western District. Tenement buildings line the streets, and laundry flaps overhead. Newly opened art galleries stand next to bakeries selling pork buns and egg tarts from their windows. Bins of old birds’ nests and dried sea horses and deer antlers crowd medicine shops. The aroma of incense burning at local temples overpowers all other odors. Strolling near her studio one day, Fiona and Todd realized that the area would be a perfect, if unexpected, place to raise their family, now four boys. They liked the grittiness, and they liked the idea of their sons growing up in an authentic Hong Kong neighborhood.
Ever since moving to the city 11 years before, they had lived in a high-rise apartment near the Peak, a fashionable quarter full of grand, gated houses with sweeping views of Victoria Harbour. “It just struck us to try something different,” my sister explains. “Instead of living above the city, we wanted to live in it.” They came across a dilapidated six-story 1960s tenement building. Decrepit balconies hung off its exterior, and some of the rooms remained frozen in time, with peeling green wallpaper, ashtrays full of cigarette butts, and even a manual typewriter on a desk covered with a thick layer of dust. Daunting, yes, but they loved the location. Finding the owners took a while, but Fiona and Todd purchased the structure and, working with local architectural designer Alexander Stuart, transformed it into a six-bedroom home.
The family is now settled into the revamped building. The boys—Rex, 15, James, 14, and twins George and Wyatt, 9—having long attended bilingual schools, are all fluent in Mandarin and are equally familiar with Eastern and American culture. The older two navigate the city by MTR (Hong Kong’s subway system), skateboards in hand, heading to far-off parks to try out half-pipes or shoot hoops. When I’m visiting, I’ll take one of the twins with me to direct taxi drivers. They’ve both guided me through the mazes of open-air markets and then done a bit of bargaining for me. During a recent trip, I noticed James politely step to the side as an elderly woman hauled her cart up the steep sidewalk outside the house. Then, with his Beats headphones around his neck and wearing neon-hued Nikes, he helped with her heavy load.
The house itself is a stylish haven. Fiona picked up her talent for design from our English mother, Sheila Camera Kotur. A fashion illustrator turned interior decorator, she filled the Manhattan apartment and 18th-century Berkshires country house where we grew up with English paintings, Cowtan & Tout fabrics, and Staffordshire figurines. While the homes were luxurious enough to have been in magazines, they never felt pretentious or confining. Our parents entertained often, and my sister and I always had friends over.
But that delicate, romantic English aesthetic could never withstand the energy of four athletic sons. (The big sport at our small girls’ school was badminton—a fact that invariably makes my nephews howl with laughter.) So Fiona has forged her own path. Most of the upholstered furniture was made in Hong Kong, but the fabrics all came from New York. Fiona enlisted the same local artisans who craft metal ornaments for her bags to hand-cut the 20 brass gingko leaves that inlay the entrance hall’s terrazzo floor. Some large shagreen mirrors came from a Philippines workshop she uses. The walls of her dressing room, where she and I escape for a rare moment away from the clamor of children playing, are covered in silk hand-painted with traditional Chinese motifs by third-generation artisans Fiona discovered in Shanghai.
She also had a fair amount of furniture shipped in and was lucky that there was only one transit-related disaster: The living room’s Well Tempered chair by Ron Arad—constructed from sheets of steel—arrived dented. “It was impossible to fix,” Fiona says. “So we just started calling it the Ill-Tempered chair. We love it anyway.”
That sort of roll-with-the-punches spirit defines the home. “With four boys, the house couldn’t be too precious,” my sister explains. Though the kids know not to lean on the cobalt-blue Yves Klein table in the library or throw a ball anywhere near the life-size Jansen palm-tree lamp in the sitting room, it’s still a house where they—and their parents—can be themselves.