Interior design is both an art and a science. It’s all about enhancing a building’s interior ‘experience’ to achieve a functional-yet-pleasing environment for anyone who uses the space. An interior designer is someone who co-ordinates, researches and curates such an enhancement project. Jessica WL Ma is a talented young interior designer who has recently moved from Macao to pursue her dreams in New York. You’ve just read about six talented young designers in Macao but Ma is a 23-year-old with a passion for design honed in the SAR who has taken to the US so she can represent our city on the world stage.
Ma was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1997 and raised by her parents – who are from Macao – during her childhood in the colourful African country. She moved to the SAR during her early teens before graduating from The International School of Macao (TIS). To further her studies, she then went to Hong Kong where she began a biomedical engineering degree at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in 2016 – but soon quit the course. “I always thought I was going to go into the medical field since it was a field that I enjoyed and was interested in,” she explains. “But I felt that it constricted my creativity and I knew I always had a lot of creative potential. So, I decided to transition into interior design.”
In 2017, Ma joined Hong Kong’s Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) campus – which sadly closed its doors after 10 years in the city last year – and started to work on a fine arts interior design degree course.
Over the following years, she not only studied in Hong Kong but she also expanded her skills, knowledge and contacts base in the US at the SCAD campuses in both Savannah and Atlanta, Georgia. She says that the college helped her grow as a designer and an individual over those years. She graduated in November – after spending half a year studying from Macao due to the COVID-19 pandemic – and admits that she had vastly increased her interior design knowhow and experience in areas such as healthcare, hospitality, education and sustainability.
Art and design are two ‘similar-yet-different’ areas of study, says Ma. But she adds that, when we are young, we only see these subjects as one entity: art. Many designers begin as talented young artists. Ma says that when she was a child, drawing and crafting were two of her favourite activities. When she was just four years old in South Africa, she was already curious about house designs as she lived in a traditional suburban neighbourhood but further down her road there were more contemporary houses which would catch her eye. “I used to take walks with my sister and my dog,” recalls Ma, “and I always wondered what these houses looked like inside because the exteriors were very intriguing. Whenever I was with my parents, I would beg to look inside them and pretend we were interested in buying the house. I was fascinated by how people used personality, style and design to symbolise their lives.”
Ma admits that she had ‘no idea’ about the intricacies of interior design before she began her studies at SCAD. “In college,” she says, “I learned that it’s so much more than just choosing paint colours for walls and picking furniture pieces. It’s about curating an impactful and memorable experience. Interior designers bring art and function into spaces.” Ma also points out that the differences between studying at SCAD Hong Kong and in the US helped form her as a ‘conscious designer’. “In Hong Kong,” she says, “there’s a lot of people from multicultural backgrounds, with diverse perspectives. It’s so fast-paced, so you’re always thinking and that can be too much at times! My experience in the US has been a lot slower with more freedom to express myself as a creative.”
Friends and mentors
When it comes to personal growth as an interior designer, Ma says she’s grown over the years by communicating with other creative individuals – not just interior designers – in Asia and the US. She says she’s made many good friends from design backgrounds as there’s always a similarity in the way they ‘use their own creative ways to express themselves’. She also highlights two of her mentors who have helped shape her profession – Professor Rodrigo Buelvas at SCAD Hong Kong and Rogerio Santos de Oliveira, one of the managing partners at Arquitectos Associados, which is one of the oldest design firms in Macao.
“At design school,” says Ma, “it’s really important to be mentored by the people who inspire you. I was really fortunate. Professor Rodrigo Buelvas at SCAD Hong Kong is an exceptional thinker and designer who really pushed his students to think beyond the norm. I brought that drive to all of my courses – and to my work now. He is still my mentor.” As for Rogerio Santos de Oliveira in Macao, Ma worked closely with him at Arquitectos Associados following her graduation. She worked on a range of residential, urban planning and government projects. “He is a great mentor,” she says. “There is no boss-employee relationship. Instead, there’s a collaborative and united mindset to learn and progress. He is open, experienced and has taught me so much.”
Ma isn’t just a promising interior designer when it comes to her knowledge and experience. She’s also got a handful of awards behind her. She is a two-time winner of the National Student Portfolio Competition by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), winning in 2019 and last year. She also won the Gensler Brinkmann Scholarship in 2019 and was able to intern at the reputable firm’s headquarters in San Francisco in the US. Plus, she graduated as the ‘valedictorian’ – the student with the highest marks in their class – at SCAD and was recently awarded the Emerging Interior Designer of the Year prize by the International Design Awards (IDA) which is based in the US. She won a total of 11 awards at last year’s IDA Gala.
Ma’s big move to New York happened earlier this year. She has become a junior designer at Icrave, an award-winning design and brand strategy firm in the Big Apple. The hospitality firm works on diverse projects ranging from entertainment to healthcare. “I’m super excited,” says Ma. “I think most designers dream of working in New York City alongside other designers from across the world who share the same drive and ambition. If you choose to move to NYC and live in a tiny apartment, it’s definitely the first step to showing your passion to succeed in this competitive city.”
Putting the Ma in Macao
Ma admits she will miss Macao despite falling in love with New York. She learned a lot in the Chinese city and hopes she can return one day to share her experience and ‘help build the city in the future’. “Macao is a very interesting place to grow up in,” she says. “It has shaped me as a thinker and creator. I have been exposed to so many different cultures. It’s such a developed yet authentic city. However, there is still so much room for design to impact and improve the lifestyles of the people. This has motivated me to excel in my chosen path and potentially bring my design outlook and experience back to the city I call home.”
‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’ was a saying Ma used to tell herself before she became an interior designer. “I used to say that,” she recalls, “but I’ve now come to the conclusion that it’s not true. I believe ‘if you do what you love, you’ll work hard every day of your life so you can truly create an impact’.”
Ma is a promising young designer who is representing Macao on the world stage. She loves New York and is excited about her new role in a top design firm – but she also understands that the hard work starts here and that she must grow in order to fuel her ambition to one day return to Macao and add to the city’s homegrown interior design industry. When all is said and done, though, she cites honesty as the best policy for up-and-coming designers. “Be super honest even if you don’t want to know the truth,” she says. “Be honest with yourself and realise what you enjoy and what you don’t. At the end of the day, it’s your own life and only you can choose to make a difference.”
A designer for life
What Jessica Ma’s two mentors tell us about this promising young interior designer…
Professor Rodrigo Buelvas, formerly Ma’s mentor at SCAD Hong Kong but who now runs his own firm in Miami called Studio Rodrigo Buelvas, says: “Jessica is friendly, vivacious, extremely hardworking, responsible and committed to her studies. She is always ready to lend a helping hand to her classmates, contributing her ideas and supporting team efforts in any crucial project deadlines. What you cannot see from her projects is what I saw in my classroom a few years ago – a very bright student eager to learn in an open, unbiased and absolutely determined manner. It will be with me forever as one of the best experiences of my teaching career.”
Rogerio Santos de Oliveira, managing partner at Arquitectos Associados in Macao, says: “Early on, we understood that Jessica is a talented designer at the beginning of what will certainly be a great professional career. During her short tenure, she gradually took bigger responsibilities with ease and we felt that she could be the lead concept designer in our interior projects. Besides her innate grasp of aesthetic principles, she also proved to be an efficient worker with an excellent work ethic. She just graduated, so we’re excited to see her not only mature her design approach but also her future contribution to the industry.”