Wendy Saunders and Vincent de Graaf

Principals, AIM Architecture
China and Belgium

In 2004 Vincent de Graaf and Wendy Saunders took a train to Shanghai and never left. In their practice, AIM Architecture (AIM), they are building a legacy of design that merges the classicism of Europe and cultural traditions of China. Their style? Distinctly individual.

With an office in Shanghai, China and another in Antwerp, Belgium, AIM has the best of both world’s when it comes to working and living design. The studio is led by Wendy Saunders from Belgium and Vincent de Graaf, Netherlands-born, who both studied architecture and architecture/interior architecture respectively in their home countries then met in Amsterdam.

It takes a certain openness to change, courage and an inquisitive nature to move to such a culturally different country but the pair fell in love with the energy and vibrant nature of Shanghai where it felt that “anything was possible” and set about finding work. Each commenced positions that gave them a taste of working life in China but there were limitations to climbing the ladder. After a year they decided to create their own destiny and left their positions to establish their own practice.

In 2005, China was the new frontier for design with a plethora of large companies and practices setting up offices investing in the country. AIM was small and agile with a new sensibility that set it apart from other architecture practices and, from the outset, the process and design-thinking of AIM was different to the norm. Initially there were lots of competitions to help the fledgling practice make a name for itself, then the first project, a gallery that put AIM on everyone’s design radar.

Fast forward to 2022, where AIM is now a world-renowned architecture and interior design practice with a studio of some 40 people and connectivity to dozens more professionals across the globe. Their work is original, almost breathtaking in the re-interpretation of design that speaks for itself. However, the continuum between each project is the inspiration to activate a space and a curiosity to always improve.

There is a critical understanding of space and how to engage with and translate dimension to better assist the idea of a project. The experiential is always of prime consideration and the concept incorporates a freedom of expression that is articulated through each design.

Saunders comments: “Working in China forces you to think differently. It forces you to maybe abandon a little bit, or reinvent yourself, or reinvent the principles that you thought were always right. I think if we would have stayed in Europe, we would have become different architects but here in China we have been forced to rethink how we can fit our principles or our design philosophy into a world that is super-fast changing.

With a surfeit of completed commissions under its belt, AIM presents design that is appropriate yet thought-provoking. Working within the cultural, planning, hospitality, commercial, retail and residential sectors, the practice utilises its expertise in both architecture and interiors to forge a distinct identity.

Saunders and de Graaf are two very different people – yin and yang – each complementing the other, together making a whole and it’s this combination that ensures AIM is always busy, positioned at the forefront of global design.

This is an excerpt and the full article can be read here. Words by Jan Henderson.