Among a showroom of shapes and colours, it’s the first thing that demands attention in the Beyond design studio in Phnom Penh: An entire wall, from ceiling to floor, covered with the circular roof tiles seen on traditional homes across the country, this installation finished in a glossy hue that morphs from deep forest to electric green. “We take something traditional and make it modern, do something different, change the rules of things,” says Marco Franz Vaccara, Beyond’s lead architect.
It’s a striking feature, and the Italian’s explanation serves as something of a metaphor for the way Beyond has evolved into a leading design hub over the past three years: Take what you have got, and make something different that works – make something outstanding. Some ten years into a career as an architect, Vaccara moved from Italy to Phnom Penh, freelancing before taking the helm at Beyond. While working with a staff of just one or two, he could sense saw a shift in the scene.
“I arrived in a moment when I could see the market for interior design and architectural design changing, improving. Clients were starting to demand more from the designer. It was no longer about copying something found on Google image search, they wanted something original,” he said. And he seized on the opportunity.
“ONE OF THE MAIN THINGS I TRY TO TRANSMIT TO THE TEAM IS PATIENCE: PATIENCE TO DO THEIR THINGS, PATIENCE WITH EACH OTHER, PATIENCE TO TAKE CARE OF THEIR DRAWINGS, AND PATIENCE WITH TAKING CARE OF CLIENTS.”
– Marco Franz Vaccara, Lead Architect, Beyond
Finding the right people to build his team was difficult, however, with education programmes lacking in the technical skills and nuances that are essential in what is such a fine craft – where one small mistake can destroy a project. “The creativity was there, amazing creativity, I could see the energy, loved the ideas, but to turn the ideas into something real, there are technical skills,” he said. “Sometimes, they were missing the ABC.”
“You find some people with this light, and usually when I find the people with this light, they are the people I take,” he said, referring to the team of eight, who he said held a range of complimentary skills and techniques, as well as a certain desire. “I see that they see something more than just decoration and profit.”
Let it Grow
Design is a unique profession and requires a unique set of skills and characteristics. Instinctive qualities – imagination, vision, ideas – must be accompanied by very definite, measurable skills such as mathematics and drafting, all while maintaining collaboration with a client who may or may not have good taste, and may not care. In fostering the creativity of his staff, Vaccara also had to counter some entrenched societal norms, such as encouraging people to speak up, to think outside the box, to disagree, to express different ideas.
“This is something Cambodians are not used to. There are these things in place that are hard to move past, like the way that people from different age groups are expected to treat each other,” he said. There is also the issue of young staff having to deal with clients, who are often coming from more privilege and may be accustomed to giving orders rather than working with designers. “I try to put everything on the same level and see what comes up.”
The young team at Beyond has been steeled to deal with clients, to foment their own ideas, and to express those ideas, by being thrown in the deep end – handed all the responsibility. “I will say, ‘here, this is your project, now you will manage this.’ But that doesn’t mean that you are left alone to complete the project, and the rest of us don’t want to know anything about it. It means you are leading the project but everything remains a discussion for the team.”
Most members of the team are in their mid or early twenties; some have come from the Royal University for Fine Arts, Limkokwing, Norton, Setec; most are in their first professional position; and all hold certain skills that are essential to the team, and which are being shared from project to project. Each member has a grounding in the company, as they know their skill is highly valued, and every employee has something to learn from all others. Between them, they have carried out contracts for clients such as R&T, The Blue Pumpkin, Sajibumi, Total and Cellcard.
“One of the main things I try to transmit to the team is patience: Patience to do their things, patience with each other, patience to take care of their drawings, and patience with taking care of clients,” he said. You have to be patient in this job. It’s all about patience.” And Beyond is patient with them, allowing staff to take long breaks, which Vaccara says aids their professional improvement. “This is something I push a lot for. After two years, yes, go. Go refresh. Do something different. You need to see different things, see the world. It helps with creativity. And it allows us to maintain strong relations with our people.”
Stacked with young, ambitious designers – including three now employed in Beyond’s year-old satellite studio in Siem Reap – Vaccara sees endless possibilities for the firm. The morphing world of style is now as open than ever to new hybrids, and the team at Beyond, with the freedom to go outside the box, could be at the forefront of a new era. “This Western style, it is something that will disappear soon because now there is a lot of Asian style coming, a really modern style. It is a mix of the West and Asian, in a very nice way. And that is what all the young designers are doing now, taking something old and making it fresh.”
Along these lines, the Beyond design studio is preparing to move to a new creative space that is intended to facilitate the research and creative needs that are being developed each day. There will be an expanded space for mock-up and materials, as well as meetings. “It will allow us to smell, touch and try everything to do with design,” Vaccara said. “It will a place where the magic happens.”
Increasingly, Beyond is taking requests from clients who are also adapting to this new taste, and his young staff are stepping up to lead the jobs. “We might take timber from an old house in Battambang and make a coffee table with a great story,” he said. “We have people who specialise in certain aspects of design, so we work as a team and that allows us to be very flexible.”
Words by Vivaddhana Khaou