Wednesday, 6 June 2007
No.86: El Salvador
Craft, Design and Technology
Alex Horne – 6th June 2007
A few weeks ago we had a call from The Observer saying they were going to publish an article about us in that Sunday’s paper and they wanted to use twenty of the people we’ve met so far to illustrate the story. This was on the Thursday. We had to get permission, photos and extra details from as many of the people we’d met as possible in about 24 hours. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the brilliant journalist in question, the article hasn’t actually been published yet (it’s now Saturday June 23rd and we’ve got our fingers crossed for tomorrow but realistically think it may well be delayed by another week). However, in the initial rush I was asked to write up my meeting with Antonio from El Salvador in a brief but detailed way. I’ve therefore decided to add this version to the blog – there’s not a lot of colour to the writing but hopefully you’ll get the gist of his life-affirming story:
Antonio came to England in 1989 at the age of 14. His parents sent him over to escape the civil war that was bubbling away in El Salvador. He came here to live with his aunt in much the same way that children were sent out of London during WWII.
The timing was good. The civil war ended a year later but Antonio stayed and made the most of his opportunity. ‘To be honest’, he said, ‘my parents probably knew they were sending me away to somewhere I’d have a lot more prospects’.
Despite not having any English when he arrived, Antonio struggled through his GCSEs before getting a B Tech, a BA and an MA in product design. He’s now got his own business and sells his own products in Conrans on Marylebone High Street, as well as well-known shops in New York, Paris and Japan (see http://www.studiofusion.co.uk/, a brilliant website featuring many of his products, my favourite of which is an enormous beanbag with a table bit attached. ‘Ideas That Make You Smile’, says the slogan. It did).
Antonio was ‘lucky’ to be able to stay in the UK. The civil war boiled over just two weeks after his arrival, in light of which he was granted a visa. His aunt was working for the embassy at the time so he was able to get residency without too much difficulty. His sister, meanwhile, had to stay behind in El Salvador. She now leads a very different life to him.
He told me that at the time he got through the trauma of moving away from his family and his home – the first time he’d ever left El Salvador – to a foreign and unintelligible land, by thinking that it was a great big adventure, that he was in a film. He also decided that he must make the most of his chance. Even at that young age he knew that if he stayed and educated himself here he’d have many more opportunities later in life.
He was right. His interest was sparked in CDT lessons at school (my favourite lesson too – Craft, Design and Technology – basically, making things out of wood that you never want to throw away, even when you move house). Now he’s settled here (his wife is from Canterbury and his two week old baby has the wonderfully English name, Rosie-May), he’s keen to give something back to the country that gave him his break by working hard, paying his taxes, providing employment and teaching design himself at Central St Martins.
He says that while British students do work hard, the foreign students tend to work harder. Deep down the British kids know that if it doesn’t work out they’ll have support. Foreign students don’t – and they have to pay so much more. Like Antonio a generation before, therefore, these students strive to make the most of their chance.
He doesn’t see himself ever going back to live in El Salvador. He’s picked up too many London habits now that can’t be fulfilled back home – like meeting his mates and going to the pub for a Sunday roast. He does adopt his Salvadorian culture when he visits and both he and his wife are keen for their daughter to learn about where daddy grew up, but he now feels out of place when he returns.
He was interested in our project from a cultural point of view. As a designer he welcomes and encourages endeavours like ours. In fact, he gave me a very practical example of why London’s cosmopolitanism is so good for the country, saying that in design you can normally tell where a designer comes from; ‘it’s like accents, you could spot something designed in Japan a mile off thanks to its neatness, gadgetry or minimalism’. British design, however, is unique in that it has so many influences. Everyone here learns from everyone else and London design benefits from its multiculturalism. ‘It’s eccentric’, he says, ‘but great’. Most of his work comes from abroad because foreign companies realise how avant-garde British design is thanks to its varied influences. Apple, for instance, gained its edge when British designer Jonathan Ive joined the company, he explained. ‘And you know the Renault advert with the French girl and the British guy being competitive? When he says ‘British Design’ it’s true. British design is great.’
Two small points of interest for me: One, I drank another Banana Java Frappuccino on the park, as recommended by Indonesian Andrew. Two, at one point a man drove past in one of those converted sofa-car things; ‘that’s mad’, said Antonio, with a mischievous smile. Like I say, go to his website, I promise his ideas will make you smile too.
Finally, on the walk down to his office (where he introduced me to one of the UK's 25 Panamanians) a flock of Ring-necked Parakeets flew over. They’re my favourite London bird. Rumour has it they were introduced to the city when Jimmy Hendrix died and his two pet birds were set free to, apparently, reproduce remarkably successfully. Antonio used to see flocks of them on his way to school in El Salvador. Later on I remarked how nice the houses were around there (Parsons Green). ‘This is my hood now’, nodded Antonio, ‘as they say here’.