Your studies have been varied. Why is that? “My first degree was architecture. Because that was too hard, I dropped out, flunked it and did not complete that. [My parents] thought, ‘There’s no way you’re going to do anything artsy.’ That’s how I ended up having to prove myself by going to the London School of Economics and doing a degree in political science. If I say this in America or Europe, people don’t understand. In Asia, everybody understands – you do this to please your family. Only after I graduated was I then free to do whatever I liked: furnishings and product design.”
What was your big break? “After design, I probably would have gone on to study something else, not knowing what I wanted to do in life. But during my second year [studying furniture and product design at Kingston University, in Britain], I entered Muji’s design competition and, by pure luck, won an award. [The design] was a doorstop called the door mouse. It looks like a mouse that has run into the door. They flew me to Japan, treated me very well and handed me the award. And it got a lot of exposure in publications, both in the UK and Japan. It gave me the confidence and the enthusiasm to continue with design.”
Having consulted with Jim Thompson Fabrics in 2000 you’re back as creative director of home furnishings. In what ways have you seen the company grow? “More and more, Jim Thompson has became serious about producing silk with the purpose of using it in home furnishings, rather than just metres of fabric. They have become more technical. They have looked into all sorts of requirements – the curtains have to have UV, or light fastness, so they don’t fade too quickly. We are doing outdoor fabric that can withstand mildew, humidity, sunshine and other things.
“In the early days, it was more for decorators who’d just be buying 10 metres to make a few pink cushions. Now they’re getting serious and doing larger projects. They’ve gotten more into contracts, with big markets to do hotels and restaurants.”
Tell us about the latest collection. “This New York Stories collection is a tribute to Jim Thompson’s early days in New York. He went to architecture school and, unlike me, he graduated, and went to Princeton and did a few years with a very hip architectural firm in Manhattan. He was influenced by the magnificent skyscrapers and architectural style. The key print is called Central Park; another is Chrysler, the design of which is derived from the Chrysler Building and all its crystalline forms. It was launched in the autumn, so we wanted a more sedate, New York, cosmopolitan look.”
Is Jim Thompson trying to attract a younger clientele? “We’ve got two brands. We have Jim Thompson, and then there’s No. 9 Thompson, which is in its 10th year. It’s much younger, hipper, fresher designs and the price point is much more affordable. That is created by an English designer, Richard Smith. He’s also a painter and his designs are very colourful, very painterly. The prints are done on much lighter fabric – cotton and linen; whereas Jim Thompson is silk and heavy velvet and things like that, a lot more glamorous.”
What challenges you in your position? “It’s always important to bear in mind that the company has a long history, and to take advantage of that. The strength is the identity of the brand. [I have] really big shoes to fill, lots of expectations from clients. That’s the real challenge: not to be deterred by the negative comments and not to lose your way.”