Inside Out: Don Albert & Amanda Laird Cherry

Two great South African creative exports – an architect and a fashion designer – discuss the challenges of flexing their creative muscles on the world stage.

From the Series

Don Albert and Amanda Laird Cherry. Illustration - Katrin Coetzer.
Don Albert and Amanda Laird Cherry. Illustration - Katrin Coetzer.

Don Albert: Let’s start from the beginning then – why did you leave?

Amanda Laird Cherry: A good opportunity came my husband’s way.

Don: I’d have thought you’d be one of the last people that would leave South Africa, given the strong connection your brand has to Africa?

Amanda: Agreed. I was surprised myself!

Don: So what does your day-to-day entail? Are you still running your brand in South Africa?

Amanda: Yes, with email and Skype the connection lives. I had always wanted to live in NYC for one year – study further at FIT or Parsons. But the idea of living abroad was something we had said no to several times. This time it was compelling and we view it as an adventure.

Don: So you haven’t emigrated as such – you still have significant ties back home?

Amanda: No we haven’t emigrated, we still have our house in Kloof. I go back every two months or so.

Don: Sounds exciting... In my case I also still have business ties and property in South Africa, but I did actively choose to relocate my headquarters to Singapore in search of opportunities. I was advised to simply close shop and start afresh, but it’s not as easy as it sounds, especially in architecture when one’s responsibilities on projects go on for years. In any event, I still believe in South Africa but felt the urge to spread my wings. I’m excited about Asia.

Amanda: So what is your setup now?

Don: Well, the business is registered in Singapore, although our first project has been the Voyager Boutique Creative Retreat, which is actually in Bali, so I have spent the last year designing and building that. It seems we now have more Bali hotel projects in the wings so I’m going to spend a bit more time here. I go back to Singapore for admin and banking occasionally, but in general my life is quite idyllic in Bali. I’m assisted by my partner, Justin, but I still rely on my South African associates from time to time on the production side... so far, so good. How about you? Do you have any assistants with you or are you doing it all alone?

Amanda: I work on my own here and liaise with my Durban studio. Setting up here is not simple!

Don: Singapore is fantastic. I registered my business and opened a bank account in one day! Tax accounting is a bit more onerous, and expensive... about four times what I pay in South Africa!

Anyway... so socially, how have you found North Carolina? Where are you exactly?

Amanda: We’re in Charlotte, three hours inland. It’s a mixed bag here – a bit of a “country club” vibe in the ’burbs, and creative enclaves and great restaurants in the city.

Don: Is there a design culture there?

Amanda: Limited, especially the architecture here, which is mostly traditional. I was hoping to find a home like I had seen around LA... but not to be.

Don: Sounds like you are looking for a mid-modern bungalow! Do you miss Durban? And what of it?

Amanda: I miss the entrepreneurial South African creativity but going back so often I don’t have to miss anything for too long.

Don: That’s ideal. Just the right amount of distance! I love South Africa and miss it terribly, but here in Bali there is such a relaxed lifestyle. I really don’t miss the traffic in South Africa, and of course the constant political freakshow, or having to fly around so much just in order to do business.

Amanda: So what do you miss?

Don: I miss the laughter and the diversity of languages. I miss the accents of Capetonians (all of them!). I miss the sense of humour. Bali is very cosmopolitan though, and the Balinese are simply wonderful: intriguing, beguiling and often charming. Sometimes frustrating... but generally very creative and industrious. There is a big design culture (for export) here in Bali. Plenty of homewares, a little bit of fashion and lots of lifestyle stuff. It’s their biggest economy second to tourism. So have you made new friends in Charlotte?

Amanda: Yes, contrary to what I was told, I’ve made lots of friends.

Don: Very important that. It has been harder to make friends in Bali, but I do have wonderful neighbours, and we have become friends, so that helps. And there is a coterie of fashionistas and retailers here that we also hang out with, so it’s fun. Obviously there are client/friend relationships too, but real friendships take time. So, do you feel you have grown as a person by relocating and seeing a different side of life? And has it affected your design?

Amanda: Definitely! Some of the “cleaner” but still interesting aspects of American clothing design have crept into my work... I’m enjoying the fusion. How about you, have your surroundings and the culture affected your creativity?

Don: Well, I’ve always practised architecture as a critique of its context, so I’m pretty much carrying on as usual. But I do love designing for the tropics and using building methods that are foreign to me, like thatch, bamboo, stone and timber. I never thought I’d ever design a thatch building in my life, but here we are, thatch with a twist! We’re also doing some cave dwellings – a first for me, so it’s very interesting. And I’m picking up the Indonesian language from actually building. (Not all swear words mind you.)

I’m also reassessing my attitudes to life and the concept of progress as it relates to architecture. I’m quite happy to take life a little slower and look for beauty in simplicity. Does the world really need more, more, more all the time?

I’m hoping not.

Amanda: Yes, I’ve also begun to look at so much through a different lens... been attributing some of it to my age!

Don: Same same

Amanda: ... And a new environment. When I first arrived it surprised me how taxing it was just to source daily needs. Small things became like a major task to be accomplished, especially shopping for groceries, which would take me hours to do!

For the entire first year I would get to the afternoon and be stressed out as I had not even done half of what I had expected to get through. And then there was the time difference, which was difficult in some ways, but in other ways freeing. All of this forced me to consider my life more and, I guess, think differently.

Don: You do get a fresh perspective and find yourself taking on new challenges that you may never have been exposed to before. It can be difficult and also worrying, but as a designer you go on your gut and simply design your way around it!

Amanda: Exactly!

This conversation was originally commissioned for Where It's At, a Design Indaba publication created in collaboration with Richard Hart and disturbance design. We will be releasing the full series here.

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