The first time The Observer met Niki and Shaokao Cheng, it was July, during the opening night of Julio Gaggia’s art show. Mr. Gaggia, the boyfriend of the plastic surgeon Mark Warfel, was preparing his work “Living Art: Chelsea Boy Apartment,” during which he would live for five days as a window display model at the BoConcept furniture store on West 18th Street. He spent the week eating, sleeping, working—and performing other, less-mentionable activities—in a showroom that divided him from gawkers outside with a pane of glass.
While we lounged about on the display furniture, socialite photographer Patrick McMullan brought over a petite woman with short, pixie-cropped hair.
“Niki is one of the few Power Asians in New York society,” he loudly whispered, flourishing Ms. Cheng before us. She smiled shyly and posed for a photograph before excusing herself.
It would be two weeks before we realized that Ms. Cheng and her husband owned the store where we had dropped more than one canapé between the cushions of a $3,000 couch.
In fact, the couple owns all five locations of the Danish furniture store in New York City, and another two in New Jersey. But the stores themselves aren’t the reason Mr. McMullan calls the Chengs “Power Asians.” Rather, it’s the couple’s seemingly innate social instincts, their ability to leverage a fairly cookie-cutter, mid-market design base into a celebrity-filled social whirl. One might say “Only in America,” or (even worse) “Only in New York,” but this wouldn’t exactly cover it. There is a certain type that thrives in Manhattan no matter what they’re selling, no matter where they’re from, no matter how few resources they have upon arriving.
If Darwin were alive today and researching the survival of New York species, he would do well to study the Chengs. They’re not social climbers, per se, but social movers—Gladwellian “connectors” who know everyone from celebrities to the guys with the best drapes in the city. They share their knowledge strategically with other key additions to their ever-expanding Rolodex. For Niki Cheng, 39, and Shaokao Cheng, 41, life is not about climbing a ladder. It’s about traversing the monkey bars that crisscross Manhattan.
“Niki and Shaokao have a wonderfully progressive view of New York society,” said Village Voice scribe Michael Musto. “They mix into their social circle drag performers, club holdouts, top celebrities and the corporate crowd. It’s all-inclusive.”
Last Friday, we met Ms. Cheng for a second time—again at the Chelsea store. While we were there, actress Faye Dunaway came in and had what one could only call a fit of method acting for a sequel to Mommie Dearest. The recently evicted Academy Award winner had come in two weeks ago and bought a piece of art from the store, and now she wanted Ms. Cheng’s help on a new design project.
“I adore this store. I’ve raved about it; they really need to get some of this stuff to London,” Ms. Dunaway told The Observer. “They don’t have anything like it there now.”
Unable to find a confidentiality agreement for us to sign, she stormed out shortly thereafter. (We didn’t get to tell her that there are actually 13 BoConcept stores in the U.K.) It was the kind of scene that no one wants a reporter to witness while writing a profile, but if there was any bad blood, Ms. Cheng didn’t show it.
“Really, don’t be upset,” she told The Observer, rubbing our arm soothingly. “She’ll call back. Anyway, where were we?”
The Chengs are adept at pleasing their celebrity clients, a skill that has come in handy while designing P. Diddy’s home, Jay-Z’s office (bed included), Mary J. Blige’s entire apartment and Estelle’s closet. Susan Sarandon, Lil’ Kim and Patti LaBelle have also used the duo’s interior design services, and Ms. LaBelle sang at the BoConcept flagship store for a Lance Armstrong benefit. They count designers Vivienne Tam, Asher Levine and Zang Toi among their closest friends.
Not that everyone in their circle is a brand name. After Ms. Dunaway left, we rushed over to Astor Place, where BoConcept was sponsoring a tent for a Christmas tree stand run by a Brit named Marco Romero, his girlfriend and his brother. Though he runs a jewelry shop in Greece most of the year, Mr. Romero spends three weeks in December living out of a van selling holiday firs, and Ms. Cheng took it upon herself to decorate the tent that the trio takes shifts in.
Despite a franchise that traffics mainly in large-scale items, Ms. Cheng has a burgeoning obsession with “micro-units”—apartments that are between 250 and 300 square feet.
She wanted to prove that it was possible to use BoConcept furniture to decorate a very small space, and the Romeros provided her with an interesting challenge. Their tent was about seven feet long and seven wide, and the guys had to hunch over even when standing at its tallest point. Empty, the space seemed minuscule. But after Ms. Cheng put down an orange rug, a short shelving unit, an ottoman, a table and two chairs (as well as several well-placed decorative objects), the tent looked like a living room on the Lower East Side.
It’s never quite clear why Ms. Cheng decided to treat Romero and his tent like VIPs, but when it was revealed that a $3,000 lamp from the store broke on the ride over, Ms. Cheng gasped, then turned to Mr. Romero. “We’ll have to get you another one.”
Perhaps the random act of kindness was a viral marketing ploy, or stemmed from her own back story of struggle. (Probably a bit of both, if we’re being honest.) Niki Cheng—née Chong—was 25 when she moved to New York in the mid-’90s. She had an architecture degree from the University of Malaysia and a visa that was only good for one year. She was scraping by as a coat-check girl at Von when she met Mr. Cheng, a young banker whose father had given him a $90,000 loan to buy a single-bedroom apartment on Madison and 32nd.
The two were introduced by a restaurant co-worker of hers, and she began relocating her belongings to his apartment after the first date, she said. After a heady three months of dating, Mr. Cheng invited her to move into his place permanently. “He didn’t realize I already had,” she laughed.
But there was a catch: his apartment in Murray Hill would be undergoing extensive renovations for two years. They made a pact: if they could live through the 24 months without breaking up, they would become a pair in the business sense as well. Mr. Cheng also pushed his girlfriend to get a job at a furniture retail outlet that would give her a three-year visa.
One day while working there, Ms. Cheng came upon a catalog that featured a coffee table identical to the type she sold. Except that Ms. Cheng’s outlet was selling her model for $2,000, and this unheard of Danish brand was selling its at $299.
The brand was called BoConcept, and its international franchise operation was just getting off the ground. The Chengs approached the company with the idea of opening a New York store on Madison Avenue, but were turned down. BoConcept’s owners thought that space in the city was too expensive and there wouldn’t be enough room to show the big items. In their view, New Yorkers were not the target market for their oversized aesthetic.
But the duo were undeterred. “We had spent a year putting together research that proved that this store could be opened in New York,” Ms. Cheng said. They also showed their plans to a friend they met at Bungalow 8.
Their friend turned out to be designer Max Azria, who spent 10 minutes calculating the figures the couple had acquired during their research, sketched a number down on his pad, and told them to go for it.
In 2003, BoConcept agreed to let the couple try their hand at a New York flagship for $300,000. “We had everything to lose,” Ms. Cheng said. “They had nothing to lose.” Niki was 28 and Shaokao 30. They had recently gotten married in Hawaii after three years of dating because, as Mr. Cheng put it, “My wife went to three different psychics who told her that marriage would bring us good fortune.” Mr. Cheng and his father remortgaged their houses to pay for the initial investment.
They barely survived the first two years; they couldn’t figure out the computer systems, and there were issues with shipping. Their business model might not have actually worked had Mr. and Ms. Cheng not been so socially ambitious.
With his degree in engineering and hers in architecture, they were able to use their conjoined home-decorating skills for seemingly un-BoConcept-related purposes. When one big-name celebrity client called, nothing from BoConcept would fit in their closet, so Ms. Cheng happily suggested shelves and fixtures that did. Soon, the singer was calling the couple to redesign her living room, and this time they used items from their Dutch catalog.
The fact that BoConcept’s furniture design is somewhere between IKEA and West Elm is somewhat beside the point. What the Chengs have done was take a relatively bland furniture store from a not especially popular Danish franchise and parlay it into a personal calling card.
When the two aren’t peddling 12-piece sectionals, they can often be found at yoga or otherwise getting fit. At 12:54 a.m. Saturday morning, The Observer received a text from Niki, who asked if we wanted to attend a 10 a.m. Bikram session with her. (We pleaded out.)
Later that morning, Ms. Cheng was at the Madison store, dressed from head to toe in brown Juicy velour. She helped hunk real estate agent Ryan Serhant from Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing find items for his move from Pine Street to Chelsea … which of course will be documented on Bravo’s website. After he left, Ms. Cheng rushed out herself for a private second yoga session of the day, but not before inviting The Observer over for a home-cooked meal the next night with “some friends” that included Ms. Tam and Mr. Musto.
A 2010 BoConcept commerical featuring Mr. Musto and Ms. Cheng.
In 2006, the Chengs moved with their baby daughter Cienna from Murray Hill to a $1.7 million, 2,200-square-foot artist’s loft with 12-foot-high ceilings on Fifth Avenue at 29th Street. This is the space, apparently, where you can keep two six-foot ottomans without it feeling cluttered.
Cienna is now 6, their son Eden 3; when we arrived Sunday evening, their mom was running around the gigantic apartment, scooping them up for bed. Ms. Cheng looked ready to fall asleep herself, after making a feast: home-cooked dishes with pork belly, chicken, eggplant and fish, and a lotus soup for dessert. Ms. Tam was there, and Mr. Musto showed up for dessert. Mr. Levine wasn’t able to make it, but the table was more than full.
Mr. Cheng explained that she had rescheduled her meeting with Ms. Dunaway, but was too busy cooking to make it down to the store. So she had the actress come up to her apartment and multitasked.
As we were leaving, Mr. Cheng asked sincerely if we would come back and have dinner when we weren’t on the job. Ms. Cheng had already invited us to their Christmas party and a luxury garage sale they were co-sponsoring this week. They were so nice! How could we decline when they were so generous?
Another rung added to the monkey bars.
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