Peter Kemp is something of a design moth, morphing from one creative incarnation to another over an almost 40 year career. From being one of only three men studying fashion design at RMIT in the eighties to designing and opening the iconic The Grand Pacific Blue Room in Sydney to creating cashmere label KID in Shanghai, there has been little rest of his talented mind and hand. Now living in Bali, Peter is the design force behind SOUQ where he is combining his love of architectural and interior design with his determination to see the world become more sustainable and conscious of consumption. We chatted with him about life and design (and discovered that there’s not much time for a cocktail by the pool in Bali).
What’s your favourite job you’ve ever worked on?
Probably the first ever commercial design project I worked on - a small seafood cafe in Darlinghurst called Fish Face. No doubt one of the reasons I loved it is because I was my own client - my best friend, Rob Laurie and I owned the cafe together. I designed the whole concept from the uniforms and menus to the style of service and the interior of the cafe and I worked with my brother who made the table and bar tops.
I have learnt since then and through many years of designing for other people to appreciate the incredible creative freedom of working on your own project. I have also really loved the creation of SOUQ. I’ve worked on this at a much later stage of my life (when, with two young kids, freedom is a relative concept!) but SOUQ is a culmination of many years of experience and change in my aesthetic.
What is your design mission for SOUQ?
I want SOUQ to have a distinctive personality so that the things we create become part of a larger aesthetic family that we build on. But I believe when it comes to design ‘the less conspicuous, the better’.
I love to use natural materials and traditional manufacturing artistry to create something that is unique and contemporary but in which you can still see the touch of human hands rather than factories and machines.
The environmental aspects of design are really important to me too – I don’t want to be designing and making things for the sake of having something new – it needs to be well-made and durable so that it is not discarded and added to the world’s waste pile.
What do you think about the design community in Bali?
There are a lot of wonderful things happening in design in Bali. Modern architectural design here is really inspiring such as the work of Kerry Hill and Peter Mueller.
And the traditional design work and skills here are constantly incredible to me – they have had a huge impact on world-recognised designers for example Tom Dixon and his beaten copper lights. This work is so beautiful not only in it’s result but the fact that it is has such old origins and has continued despite the extraordinary change that has swirled around it. I was recently in the Gilis and noticed a wooden boat half-constructed on the sand. It had been chocked together from interlocking pieces without a single nail hammered into it and with no disruption to the beach that it sat on. I thought it was so clever in its simplicity; different materials react differently to the harsh environment of the ocean and that interplay of reactions can compromise a structure. The fact that this boat was made entirely of wood meant it had perfect synergy; none of the elements of it were working against each other. The downside of design in Bali is that the copying is out of control. Because we’re at the source of production, a person only needs to buy something original from a store then walk it down to a workshop a few doors away to have someone else copy it. Sadly amongst both the craftsmen and the consumers there is very little respect for the effort that goes into original design.
Whose work or personality do you admire in the design world right now?
I’m actually not all that familiar with what goes on in ‘the design world’ - I don’t use social media, read magazines or watch tv. Most of my exposure to design comes through film. I’ve always enjoyed the nostalgic quirkiness of Wes Anderson’s sets and recently loved a lot of the design elements in Ex Machina from the architecture to the sleek way they communicated the crossover between humanism and automation through the design of the AI.
I’m always admiring of small independent designers – I think there are so many great original ideas amongst them but it’s really tough with limited resources to develop those ideas into products and get them out there.
In what way do you think ethics apply to design?
I think design is shrouded in ethical issues. Originality, copying and lack of intellectual property protection have been big issues for design for a long time. Obviously inspiration is drawn from everywhere but to copy someone is to dismiss the amazing heart and effort that goes into creating an image of something and the long hard road to seeing it through to fruition. This is obviously a lot harder to deal with in a world of social media and instant imagery. But I think the most pressing issues for design now are environmental and social. Design is about aesthetic and engineering but I believe now that it must also have as little impact as possible in terms of the materials its made from, the production methods used to make it, how it is used by the consumer and how long the design can endure before it is turned into waste, not to mention making sure that the people who make it are fairly rewarded for their skill and time.
What do you think the world holds for design and creative industry in the years ahead?
There’s no question that technology holds a future for design that we almost can’t imagine. It’s spooky. But I hope that provenance will trump technology – even if the same product can be made by a 3D printer as by human hand, there will always be value in the uniqueness of something that is the creation of a person's mind and experience. I hope that traditional skills will become more valued. I lived in China for 8 years and I saw how many artisan skills were lost through modern production and a modern mindset. I believe there is a younger generation now who is becoming dull to the concept of mass production; I hope they will tune in to the ways of craftsmanship and pass these skills on. I hope for the sake of the environment that cycles in design will be longer; that design will be more about quality and durability than a trend in aesthetic. Waste and the use of resources are such an issue for us all and I just don’t think we can sustain the ADD of consumption that we are living with now – we need to get to a point where we realize we can’t have everything so that we invest in things that are better made, less often.
What is your ultimate design project or collaboration?
I have a property on the Colo River in New South Wales, Australia – I would love to design my own home for that property. For me it would be a collaboration with the land - it would be a structure that sits beautifully within that landscape, barely disrupting the environment, and would last for generations. I also want to design products that are permanent with an absolute commitment to the environment and sustainability.
All of them. It depends on how they’re combined. My daughter has even made me like purple and my wife has made me like yellow.
So much; Massive Attack, The Roots, Joan Armatrading, Tricky, Elliot Smith, Johnny Cash… It’s probably easier to say what I don’t like – most of the stuff on the charts and anything with inane lyrics. Sadly with music these days I think there’s not the journey in discovery that there once was. The music that people listen to now is selected for them or recommended to them by computer software; it’s based on what apps see is a relevant connection to an artist you’ve listened to before. “People you may also like” just lacks depth and connection. Discovering music used to require more effort and it was more rewarding because of that; you’d get together with friends and play music to each other, talk about it, read the album covers and follow the threads of producers, collaborators and all the people who’d worked on an album. You could walk into someone’s home and see the albums they had on their shelves and get a sense of who they were. It’s a great shame that music has become so superficial in this sense.
Most interesting work that someone you know is doing at the moment?
The protest-makers and change-makers: my friends who make documentary films and build reefs.
Sydney for its geography. Rome for the food and history.
Who would you like to have a conversation with, living or dead?
Anyone of my close friends; Karen Armstrong; Martin Amis; the scientists working on the conversion of carbon dioxide to other elements and the clean decomposition of plastic; and of course my ever-challenging wife Sophie Gargett.
Any last words?
I know who Banksy is.