Scaling up

Updated: 2013-08-30 10:02

By Mark Graham (China Daily)

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 Scaling up

Andi Thomczyk, Tom Chan and Karin Hepp are internally focusing on quality apart from creation of space and graphic design. Mark Graham / for China Daily

Decision of the heart to launch a Beijing-based design consultancy has paid off for European couple and their Chinese partner

When their Beijing contracts expired, architects Karin Hepp and Andi Thomczyk had the option of returning home to Europe, to take up offers of secure and well-paid jobs.

Instead, the couple decided to stay in the capital, convinced that there were more exciting and challenging professional opportunities available there than at home.

It proved to be an astute move. Their design consultancy anySCALE, set up two years ago with Guangdong-born graphic designer Tom Chan, is thriving, with a bulging order book that includes design projects for private clubs, car companies and fashion boutiques.

"Staying in China was a big decision," recalls Germany-born Thomczyk. "It was done with the heart rather than applying logic. We had the offer of well-paid jobs back in Europe but decided we were too young to return home. Beijing gives us opportunities and challenges. I feel it keeps me alive and keeps me running."

AnySCALE now counts heavyweight corporate clients among its roster, including the German car manufacturer Audi, which commissioned the company to design the interior of its futuristic showroom, Audi City, which maximizes the usage of digital technology.

Another major European player, the phone company Nokia, requested a strong digital element for the interiors of its new corporate offices, near the historic Lama Temple in the northern part of Beijing.

That project has floor space of 30,000 square meters, but anySCALE also undertakes smaller projects, including fashion boutiques, schools, members' clubs and even small offices, hence the name.

"Each one of us has more than 10 years' experience, so any one of us is able to manage projects in the same way," says Austria-born Hepp, 38. "Andi and I come from an architectural background, so we think about the space, whereas Tom comes from a graphic design background, so we complement each other.

"In many of our projects the creation of space is important and also the graphic design element. When we face new problems we sit together and try to figure out how to solve the problem and ask for external help if we need it. I think our success is that we internally focus on the quality. Our clients love that and they come back to us, we have many repeating clients."

One of their showcase projects was a private member's club designed for the China property-development giant SOHO that included a gym, cinema, snooker room, wine cellar and yoga studio. It is one of a number of projects undertaken for SOHO, including the company's Shanghai headquarters and refurbishment of a hotel lobby and gallery at the Great Wall.

Other recent jobs involved creating a studio for the fashion designer Grace Chan, the new Chinese headquarters for the global communications agency Avantgarde and an English-language school, which took fruit as the decorative theme, allowing bold use of color.

AnySCALE has its offices in the Sanlitun area of Beijing, in a compound where many embassy staff live and work. The husband and wife team have a short commute to work they also live in the compound, with son Finn Lei and daughter Zoe.

The family language at home is German, but all the family speak fluent English, with the two children able to read, write and speak Chinese through attending a bilingual school. Although it involves additional study, the couple are convinced that having Chinese in their kids' linguistic repertoire will be hugely beneficial in the 21st century. Neither of the youngsters has lived anywhere else but Beijing.

"If they didn't learn the language then they would not be getting the benefit of working abroad," says Thomczyk, 44. "I think learning the language is of great benefit to them, their study is already done. I think also studying two or three languages is good for your brain, studies have shown that it can make you smarter. The children are fully trilingual and self confident in their environment wherever they go."

The family head back to Europe for a summer break every year, visiting Thomczyk's relatives in Germany and Hepp's kin in Austria, before heading off on a driving tour. The couple actually met while travelling: they were on a university architectural study tour of Japan.

They both went on to pursue successful careers as architects in the Austrian capital, Vienna, before signing up for jobs in Beijing, working for Baumschlager Eberle Architects, a company that was designing large sustainable housing.

When those contracts finished, the couple opted to stay, and have now clocked up eight years in Beijing. All decisions at the 12-employee office are taken after talks between the three partners, with Chan, 36, providing vital input on Chinese tastes, trends and sensitivities.

Says Thomczyk: "Friends told us that with three designers as partners it would be better to have one manager. We thought about that, but finally we just had the feeling that we could manage it. Another question was: how do you get projects without a marketing department? Our completed work acts as a marketing tool.

"There was a risk, and we are still in the learning process, but we bring in professional help if we need it. We do not have a finance department but outsource it to an agency which costs us a bit more, but we know it is being done right. We have also learned how to write proposals and contracts and are now invited to bid for very big tenders.

"To get the Nokia project was important for us because of its size and the fact the brand is so well known. The whole market was aware of this project: when we made the bid, anySCALE was either not known, or at least considered as underdogs, not capable of winning. It was a real boost for us."

Snaring those plum contracts means that they are likely to be in China for many years to come. The couple have no regrets about turning down the chance to return to jobs at home as the positions would have been well paid, and the work steady, but, ultimately, totally predictable.

Adds Hepp: "We got offers to go back to Switzerland, but we thought the market in Europe was going down, so we thought Asia was much more interesting and wanted to stay longer.

"We love Beijing as it is a fast developing city which means in daily life we can see the changes and improvements. Beijing is a melting pot for the creative industries. We like its speed and energy and we love the challenges."

For China Daily