Out Of Town - A Modern "Nav"
Written by Torben Kragh Jørgensen, this article originally appeared in RUM OG FORM magazine in January 1994.
After having graduated as an interior designer from The Danish School of Design in the summer of 1991, I accepted the offer to do two years of further education at the new Institute of Interior Design, and planned what to me stands for THE ULTIMATE EDUCATION; “THE TRAVELLING JOURNEYMAN”.
The designation of “The Travelling Journeyman” was originally covering the craftsman who had served his apprenticeship and who, after having worked for a while at home, would go abroad to improve his skills, to experience nature and folklore and to pick up languages. The wandering journeyman is mentioned in the history books back to the 13th century. From 1609 and onwards these journeys were not only for the particularly adventurous. It was decided that an apprentice could not become a master in his craft until he had spent at least three years abroad. As the designation of a “Nav” occurs it covers a travelling journeyman from Scandinavia. Up until around World War I many creatives and artisans went travelling since one wasn’t regarded as a proper craftsman until he had been “on the tramp”. A travelling journeyman had more experience and was considered more skilled than someone who had never been outside of the city walls. And when a master needed a craftsman for his workshop, he would normally prefer someone well-travelled. The wanderings abroad gave the journeymen an opportunity to learn from the development in other countries, to make comparisons and to use their newly gained experience at home or to reshape and adapt their learnings to domestic taste and needs. Useful both to their profession and to the broader development of society.
Today, after so many years, I have followed in the footsteps of the “Navs”. The purpose of the trip is the same as then. To gain experience, to get inspired and to make contacts - professional as well as personal. My equipment is packed in a rucksack and includes among other things pencils, pens and a camera. Today the destinations of the trip are Africa, Asia, Australia and America. And today’s wanderings are made in seven-league boots by the brands of British Airways, Kenya Airways, Cathay Pacific etc.
FIRST STEP: CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA
I arrived in the very south of southern Africa on March 14th, 1992, with an excited feeling in my stomach and all senses open. Ready to be taken over by impressions and experiences in a country and a world which I only knew from the media back home.
Using the book “Who’s Who in Interior Design” and a heap of applications for traineeships which I had sent out across the world, I had succeeded in arranging some trainee positions in advance. From having once only been a name in a book, now Jay Smith stood before me in person. Her little design studio included three women besides herself. She had decorated a couple of restaurants and offices, but her clientele consisted mainly of South Africa’s richest white upper-class wives who wanted their homes decorated. The jobs mostly consisted of choosing carpets, curtains, cushions, lampshades, bedclothes, towels and even the colour of the bathroom soap! Far too many “soft edges”. Not exactly what I had expected.
My other appointment in Cape Town had changed his mind as it turned out. But after only a couple of hours of knocking on doors with my portfolio tucked underneath my arm, I found a new place. A truly satisfying feeling.
MLH-Architects was a relatively big company with a computer department, a department for landscape and city planning, an architecture department with approximately 25 architects, and now a new department for interior design with one designer. The entire studio was working on a new, big Newlands Cricket Ground Stadium project - a significant development as the renovations welcomed the return of the national cricket team after the collapse of apartheid. I myself worked with a female designer, Michelle Sandilands, on a series of sponsor's suites in the stadium. I stayed with MLH-Architects for 1 1/2 months. A period which was finished off with a large public exposition of the project for potential buyers of the suites. At this point, Michelle’s and my own ideas, drawings, sample boards and budgets were presented. The project was well received. It was the perfect ending to a short but concentrated profitable and successful stay. To experience a touch of the real world, its pressures, conditions and many compromises
One cannot visit South Africa without having to face the complex problems concerning race. Apartheid is an ideology grounded in the basic conception that different races and cultures are unalterable and determined by God – and therefore they must live isolated from each other. As part of the Apartheid-policy run by the white minority in South Africa, the government in 1960 established the so-called “homelands”. The blacks got their own areas where they were guaranteed full independence and their own government. All homelands are poor, overpopulated and have serious unemployment problems. They are all financially dependent on South Africa. The independent status of the homelands is not recognized by other countries, and many (including Denmark) have applied trade sanctions against South Africa.
I succeeded in getting into the “townships” of Cape Town; Langa, Khayelitsha, Crossroads etc. Black neighbourhoods without water, sanitary appliances or electricity, stretching from 3 - 30 miles on end outside of Cape Town. Shacks made of cardboard, paper, tinplate and garbage! Not much of a house, but in the midst of all the misery, it was encouraging to experience the inhabitants’ abilities in inventiveness. Split levels, roof lights, compound materials etc. Doors made of old Coke cans, walls papered with newspapers, advertisements and calendar pages in incredible colours and patterns. Little gardens, sand floors which were swept daily, framed pictures on the walls etc. Some would run a bar, others a beauty parlour or a hotel(-room)! All these little things might seem irrelevant or unnecessary, but they speak of a little community trying to establish itself no matter the circumstances or means. And it speaks of people’s universal needs. Little rays of sunlight in all the darkness.
I experienced the extremes of South Africa. Experienced a country with enormous problems, but where changes were made every day. An incredibly beautiful country with a huge potential. I left Cape Town with less money, but richer in experiences. The country, its situation and some of its inhabitants had become significant to me. I learned to appreciate my education. Its language knows no limits, a good profession to travel with. It confirmed my idea that the combination of travelling and study/work pays in every respect.
SECOND STEP: NAIROBI, KENYA
Per and Tore Geheb got their education at The Danish School of Design. They graduated the year I was born. The incredible thing is that we have had some of the same teachers! I read about them in Danish interior design magazines. At the time, I wondered; “Interior designers in Africa!?” My curiosity had been aroused, and I sent them my traineeship application, thinking that they might feel obligated towards the old school. I don’t think they did, but I was welcome nevertheless.
I arrived late in the evening to a house which in the darkness looked like many other houses. The next morning I got up in the blazing sunlight and saw one of the most fantastic houses I have ever seen. Colonial style, made of bricks, wrought iron and wood and with red, green and yellow doors. Raised from ground level and with a roofed veranda running around half the house and from which there was a view of the beautiful garden. Big and luxuriant, wild and tremendous, full of flowers, plants, bushes and trees – a veritable jungle. Here a complete peace, perfection and harmony prevailed. On the inside, the house made up quite a museum. Every month Per went to auctions and brought new things back to the house. Some with an eye to design projects, but most of them as part of their “life project”, the house. I kept discovering new things. Things which were just there and which each told their little stories – an immense wealth. Add to this an atmosphere of kindness, openness and hospitality. There were always people and life in Per and Tore’s house.
At the studio, Per was in charge of most of the designing. During the years Tore had started working with handicrafts. She sews huge wall-pictures appliqué – often with motifs inspired by Africa’s magnificent nature. With Per, I worked on different projects, including a veterinary clinic in Nairobi, an IPS-office in Dar-Es-Salaam and a restaurant in connection with a wildlife lodge in Tsavo National Park close to Mount Kilimanjaro. The wildlife lodge project was a particularly exciting and surreal experience for me as the client managing the project was a pilot and all site visits involved flying to the national park in a tiny prop plane and landing on the open plains amongst the roaming wildlife! It wasn't uncommon to see elephants, giraffes, zebra and antelope wandering past the tents we'd pitched to hold our project meetings in.
As a contrast to my stay with MLH-Architects where the projects were big and total and the interior design was often dictated by the architecture, with Per, I felt much closer to the decision-making, and I learned that – even in Africa! – there is a marked need for interior designers, even though the jobs often have more to do with function than form.
Aside from my concrete professional experience, the stay in Kenya gave me so much more. Today Per and Tore are my friends. They gave me an experience which I will remember and rejoice in for the rest of my life.
THIRD STEP: THAILAND
“Free studies” (read: active idling) on exotic islands along with some raucous celebrations and dancing in the streets after watching the UEFA Cup finals in the early hours of the morning when Denmark became European Champions!
FOURTH STEP: SINGAPORE (The Heart of Asia)
I arrived in the country whose name means “Lion City” in the summer of 1992. I noticed the “boom” immediately – there were building everywhere.
Until 1965 when Singapore became independent, it could be reckoned among other Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. But under the rule of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s one-party government, Singapore has become one of East Asia’s economically successful “Four Tigers” in the company of Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. The rise is mainly made on the basis of trade, shipping, banking transactions, tourism and high technology. The iron rule of the government has also managed to transform Singapore into a well-functioning clean, green garden. This is the country where you could get fined for throwing garbage or flicking the ashes of your cigarette in the street, for chewing gum etc. Singapore is a “fine” city as they say…
I thought that it might be a good place to give interior design a try and bought the book “SPACE - Interior Design of Singapore”. With that in one hand and a telephone in the other, I succeeded in setting up three job-interviews. I was offered jobs at all three places. At Poole Associates, Graham Taylor Associates (at their offices in either Hong Kong or Tokyo, Japan) and finally with Broadley Gard Associates (BGA). Even though BGA had only offered me two weeks of freelance work, I followed my intuition and accepted. There was something very special about the company’s new, young managing director.
Mark Gard had arrived in Singapore only 10 months earlier from England, but had already found himself as a partner at probably one of the most well-reputed design companies in Southeast Asia with branches in Malaysia, Thailand, The Philippines, England and Singapore. All that at the age of only 30! The studio was located in an old restored Chinese “shophouse” in Tanjong Pagar, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of China Town.
The two weeks became more. I remember clearly the day a long time ago when I handed in a project to Mark and he said to me; “One day you are going to wake up smiling”. I replied; “I am already smiling”. This was after he had told me; “Stay with me for a year son and you will be flying”.
There was a lot to smile at. The reason for most of my smiles could be traced back to Mark. My life and entire situation in Singapore was owing to Mark. I smiled because I was so privileged to work with him. He was by far the best in all of Southeast Asia. It seemed as if he had set his mind on passing all his knowledge on to me and training me as his protégé. Countless were the times when he began a long lecture with the words; “You’ve got to understand…”
At the studio, I usually worked on two types of projects with Mark (see images below);
Flyers: a fashion boutique for young people with a hip, fresh and “unshaven” concept. Strong colours, terrazzo, MDF-board, sand-blasted glass, steel, wires, visible pipes, sprinklers and air-conditioning in the ceiling, spray-painted silver, black metal grids and industrial illumination. Lots of sharp edges and raw details.
Chomel (Malay for cute and pretty): an exclusive fashion boutique for women with a mature, elegant and organic concept. Subdued colours, marble, wrought iron, glass and wood. Lots of harmony.
My work included everything from concept development, sample boards, visuals, detail- and construction drawings, presentations, meetings and negotiations with clients as well as contractors and other parties involved to finally running the projects on the building site.
The first Flyers boutique was opened with great festivities. Experiencing my first project being brought into being was indescribable. To see my ideas come alive - fantastic! I still have a t-shirt which was made for the occasion, saying; “FLY ME HIGHER”.
The fact that I learned so much in such a short period of time is partly owing to the general work situation in Singapore, but most of all it is owing to Mark. And my experiences were so much more rewarding because I enjoyed his company. All the time it was movement, drive and development. I was determined to stay with Mark and absorb it all.
NOW I AM NO LONGER SMILING…
One Wednesday night at the beginning of February, Mark collapsed in the car from a cerebral haemorrhage as we were on our way home from work. On the way to the hospital, the traffic lights seemed to be stuck on red. While I held him in my arms, he faded away. After a long operation, we got messages that didn’t sound promising. But through all the tears we held on to the only thing we had – hope. That only lasted until the next morning, however, when we were told that Mark was brain dead.
On Saturday the 6th of February Mark died, only a few days after his 31st birthday. When he finally passed away I was at his side, holding his hand, saying “Goodbye and thank you for everything” to Mark, my boss, my friend, my everyday hero, my ideal, my inspiration… He managed to get the best out of me. Never have I been better. For him, I always did my best. He gave me the chance of a lifetime. Mark will always be my master. On that day, I had put on our t-shirt; “FLY ME HIGHER”.
After Mark’s death, the studio was never the same. But for his sake, I decided to stay until I had finished the projects we had started together. All of a sudden, I was in charge of five projects. But Mark had given me self-confidence. When it came to the Flyers and Chomel boutiques I knew everything about them. When the projects were completed I left Broadley Gard Associates, ready for the next step.
Just as I was about to leave, I was contacted by Mrs Kuok, my client from the Flyers and Chomel projects. She had another Flyers boutique which she wanted me to design. After that came two more and during the next five weeks I designed and produced all the necessary drawings, sample boards and specifications for one Flyers and one Chomel in Singapore and one Chomel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
One morning I was summoned into Mrs Kuok’s office. She offered me the chance to design a 40,000 sq. ft. lifestyle department store. After having been struck by surprise for some time, I slowly came to my senses. I explained to her that I was flattered and that the offer was tempting, but “No thank you”. Just because I have managed to design and further develop some boutiques which Mark and I had developed the concept for together, it didn’t mean that I was qualified for handling a project of that scale. I think it is important to know one’s limitations.
The evening before I left Singapore, Mrs Kuok invited me out for dinner. We dined at the Shangri-La (the leading five-star hotel in town) – because she owned it! The Kuok family is among the 10 richest families in the world. When the conversation turned to one of my next destinations, the Fiji Islands, she told me that they owned two five-star hotels there and that she would be happy to put me up there, “With her compliments”. Mrs Kuok further proved her calibre that evening by fulfilling my last wish before leaving Singapore. She allowed me to put a memorial plaque in the floors of each of the two shops in Singapore, which I had designed myself following Mark’s death. The plaques are in brushed stainless steel with the inscription; “DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF MARK GARD. TAK FOR ALT. TORBEN” (“Tak for alt” is Danish for “Thank you for everything”).
FIFTH STEP: BALI, INDONESIA
I stopped in “Magical Bali” to write this article in an attempt to gain some perspective on my time in Singapore. A time where I designed 10 to 12 boutiques in Singapore and Malaysia with Mark and designed three on my own. Ten months which contained so much happiness and sorrow, so much joy and tragedy. I think they call it life!
NEXT STEPS: AUSTRALIA, NEW ZEALAND, FIJI, USA, ARGENTINA…
Steps into the future…
I have never considered myself a particularly talented designer,
I have only decided to go “on the tramp” and do something interesting with my life.