By LARA DAY
When the Tien family was constructing a set of five bay-facing houses, each with its own pool, on Hong Kong island's upscale south side, things weren't going according to plan.
But who could assume the reins and turn the project around when the buildings' foundations had already been laid?
Enter interior architect Norman Chan. Mr. Chan created "a warm, inviting space, filled with light, somewhere you really wanted to live and come home to," says Andrea Tien, who steered the project for her family's real-estate company. He was also meticulous: She recalls him chastising a contractor for a tile that was 5 millimeters off. The family sold three of the five units for $14.2 million to $16.8 million, keepingthe other two as rental investments.
Mr. Chan doesn't have the renown of some star architects—he relies on word-of-mouth for referrals, and is only now constructing a website for his firm, BTR, which he founded in 1995. Nonetheless, his name is known and trusted among the city's developers and power brokers thanks to his clean, minimalist style, rigorous attention to detail and willingness to adapt to his clients' needs.
It's this reputation that landed him the job of planning interiors for Opus Hong Kong, Frank Gehry's first building in Asia, The building's torqued glass facade conceals 12 luxury apartments, which count among the region's priciest. In December a buyer paid $58.7 million, or around $8,777 per square foot, for a 6,683-square-foot unit, according to the project's developer, Swire Properties .
Mr. Chan is often called in when collaboration is required. Take the Opus project, whose architecture Mr. Chan likens to a dynamic envelope—"the envelope changes, and it's very exciting." For three years Mr. Chan worked on its interior layout, which he compared to a cauliflower in that "every floor is different." Since each apartment, occupying an entire floor, was "an open space, like a gallery, a museum space," the challenge was to make sense of it for prospective buyers, dividing it into practical living areas "so people can understand it," he says.
Originally from Hong Kong, Mr. Chan, 52, says he stumbled into architecture after failing as a pre-med and economics student in California. He moved to New York in the early 1980s, where he studied at the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies, followed by Rhode Island School of Design and later Columbia University. Back in Hong Kong, he spent close to a decade working for local architecture firms before establishing BTR, which today employs some 40 staff members based in the industrial district of Kwun Tong. Its clients include big-name developers such as Sun Hung Kai and Hong Kong Land, as well as powerful individuals and families such as the Tiens, whose patriarch is James Tien, a politician and businessman.
Developers are BTR's biggest clients—recent condo projects include the Azura, a 53-story Swire Properties tower, and the Altitude, a building by Kerry Properties . They tend to ask for a more opulent style, in line with the tastes of mainland Chinese buyers. Mr. Chan points to one building's car drop-off area, which boasts a lighting fixture composed of 773,888 Swarovski crystals. It stretches almost 44 yards in length.
"I'm slowly trying to adapt to a richer vocabulary," says Mr. Chan, adding that he sees this as an opportunity to "add an extra layer of meaning to the design." For instance, at the Cullinan, Hong Kong's tallest residential towers, he designed the showroom and penthouse, incorporating chandeliers and mirrored surfaces (he usually avoids reflective surfaces because they're outside of his "control"). Though the aesthetic is busier than he prefers, he stands by the design because it's "coherent. It doesn't try to do too much."
Closer to his vision was the controversial Kowloon Tong residence of Henry Tang. Mr. Tang lost the election to become Hong Kong's chief executive last March, weeks after local media alleged that his basement was built without a permit (the story was dubbed "Basement-gate" by the press). Though unable to discuss the design in any detail or share images of it while it's under investigation by the Buildings Department, Mr. Chan calls the basement one of his proudest achievements. Mr. Tang declined to comment.
"I'm sad. I'm very sad," Mr. Chan said. "But I've seen it. To me, I measure my work by seeing it when it's done."—Fiona Law contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared February 1, 2013, on page M5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Composer of Hong Kong's Richest Rooms.