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[Homes]: The French Touch

Interior designer Baptiste Bohu went all out on his historic apartment.
Last updated: 2019-07-17
Photos: Brandon McGhee
Homes is where we peek behind the doors of neighbors, looking for insight into how other people are living their lives and building a home in this massive city.
French architect Baptiste Bohu designs dreamlike homes for a great portion of China’s beau monde through his interior company. His own home, a 200-square meter rental in the historic Chongqing Apartments building (formerly the Dubail Apartments, built in 1931), is a retreat from the city in high French style, with extensive moulding and fireplaces in every room. Here, in his words, is the story of the house and his 13 years in Shanghai.

The Breakthrough

I grew up in Montpellier, South of France. My parents were in real estate, so I got accustomed to overhearing architectural discussions from a young age. It always fascinated me, but I was led to studying something “more pragmatic.” I ended up in consulting and finance, which led me to Shanghai during my graduation year in 2006. I came to do an internship and decided to stay.

My first real job here was doing business development for what was at the time Shanghai’s biggest interior design firm. While I was there, they landed a new project but the interior designer assigned to it got sick. I urged my boss to give me a chance and, as he was severely understaffed, he did. It was a breakthrough for me: my first project was featured in the New York Times and this gave me the confidence I needed.

The Business

I have been running my own firm for five years now, working on projects all over China and abroad. Most of them are apartments or villas; occasionally, I design hotels and restaurants (Polux, Pree, Barbarossa and more). Hotels are interesting, as there are so many different ambiances to create, and you can really tell a story to put people in a special mood.

Polux by Paul Pairet

Many architects are inspired by art. I'm not really. I’m inspired by movies, in particular, The Lover, a French movie set in 1920’s Saigon. I’m fond of the French Indochina aesthetics. After moving to Asia, I absorbed a variety of new elements, from Shanghai’s art deco to Southeast Asian tropical. Lately, I have been experimenting with the Balinese dream resort look.

Photo by: Baptise Bohu Interiors

The Apartment

I always choose interesting buildings to live in. I used to live at the Normandy building on Huaihai Lu. This one is my third apartment in the city — a friend told me it was available. It was over my budget at the time, but, out of curiosity, I came to have a look at it. When I got in, I thought I had to make it happen! The corridor had me sold: it became my favorite place in the apartment. It greets visitors and connects all rooms in a very Parisian flair. I’ve never seen that in Shanghai. I also loved the fact that it is a single floor apartment, that it has high ceilings, door frames, bright windows, a herringbone pattern on the floor — everything reminded me so much of home. I moved in in 2015.

Not coincidentally, a French family lived here before. The place was in good condition, but it looked very different. As it is a rental, I am not allowed to do any structural changes, but I repainted it, added wallpapers and moldings, hid a pipe that was shamelessly crossing my corridor and installed a fireplace in every room. It's very hard to say how much I spent renovating it as I did it over time and many items are samples I've done or gifts from suppliers. So overall not so much. I am careful with expenses and mind the budget. The agreement with the landlord is that as long as I don't make structural changes, and I pay for it, the landlord is happy with the improvements.

The Building

I like the old buildings because they have a soul. They have architecture elements that are unique which we cannot reproduce today. Old apartments tend to have a generous height, nice details such as mouldings or hardwood floors and iron windows. In a city with old buildings like Paris or New York, I would also prefer a pre-war apartment rather than a new tower.

The Objects

I designed most of the furniture in here. It was never easy to find what I truly liked, and in China, it’s so easy to customize furniture. I had a lot of fun! The Asian pieces are the only ones I did not design: they’re antiques that I bought either from warehouses, on the streets, or on Taobao.

I have a collection of Balinese ritualistic hats that I bought on several trips to the island. In all honesty, I went on a crazy shopping spree at some point, so I used to have a lot more objects. Lately, I’ve been cleaning up a lot. I’ve enjoyed having all those objects, but now I am entering a clean phase. Simplifying.

The Neighborhood

The alternative to living here would be The Bund: they are the best two options to find old houses, which is what I always wanted. The Bund has beautiful buildings but it’s not as convenient. Here, we are bordering Xintiandi. Fuxing Park is across the street, the Xintiandi subway station is only a short walk, it has a direct line to Hongqiao Airport — that could be my second home as I travel at least three times a month. This area is good for expat life: grocery shopping at City'super in Times Square; lunch at Element Fresh or Din Tai Fung; weekday drinks outside of Estado Puro, Polux, or Calix. However, everything is getting more expensive here. It is turning into a luxury area.

Social Life

I have a big home, so my friends always come to visit. They gravitate towards the kitchen, I guess because it’s the most casual room in the house. We often cook and dine there in small groups.

My parents come to visit once a year from France, and they stay in the guest bedroom. This house has a particularly good atmosphere for Christmas. I also throw bigger parties, leaving all doors open so people can hang out in every room. It is a French tradition: sitting in the bedroom, smoking in the bathroom. It’s a fun mood. For my last birthday, I threw a masked ball for close to 100 guests. It is all very respectful, and my neighbors, mostly local people, are very friendly and never complain.

I like my apartment because it is not the way it is to please anyone except for myself. It is very cozy and personal, and it’s constantly changing according to my mood. It feels like it tells the story of my 13 years living in Shanghai.

For more info about Baptiste Bohu Interiors, follow the company's WeChat account (search Baptiste Bohu).

Looking for a home for yourself? Search SmartShanghai's Housing page, the city's largest English-language property listings.