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Plastered's "Creative Dictator" on the Power of Immaturity and the Absurd, Beautiful and Glorious in China

dominic1.jpgCreative Dictator and Plastered founder Dominic Johnson-Hill's big break came during a chance appearance on one of China's most widely watched shows. In front of an audience of 50 million, he wore a self-designed t-shirt sporting a copy of an illegal advert in Beijing reading, "I will buy your second hand drugs" and listing his personal phone number. That first "immature" move in front of a massive audience instantly transformed him from backpacker with a new idea for a t-shirt business to successful "dictator" of one of the most creative shops in China. With its flagship shop in the traditional alleyways of Beijing's Nan Luo Gu Xiang, Dominic's Plastered designs now reach customers around the world with well-recognized riffs on design inspirations in China. And, most importantly, despite all of his success, he remains one of the most pleasantly immature creative dictators I've had the chance to meet.  I caught up with Dominic recently to learn more about his path with Plastered and "the absurd, beautiful and glorious" in today's China that inspires him and his team.

thermosdominic.png"Everyday design" in China has inspired Plastered since its start. When you first landed in China in '93 as a backpacker, what were some of the first pieces of everyday design that you were struck by? How has the everyday design you encounter now changed since you first arrived?

Beijing was a very different city in 1993 when I first arrived. As foreigners, we were very much segregated from society. We had to live in foreign housing and even had our own "foreigners" money. It was very hard to integrate. On first landing, I thought Beijing was a very grey, flat, ugly city. It was hard to see all its culture and history, having come from living in India. I was quite disappointed but didn't have enough money to leave, so I settled down. I moved in with a Chinese family and saw quickly that, in those days, there were just not many items or possessions in the average family home. The economy had only just been turned into a market economy so all of those desire-based objects were only just starting to make it into the homes. Most of the objects were very practical and, in terms of design, very simple. I was struck by the amount of images of Chinese leaders in the family homes. One of the types of objects that really grabbed me was the old thermoses. They were colorful and felt very retro. These thermoses were one of my very first successful designs when I started Plastered. Everyone in Beijing seemed to remember them with great fondness.

Now things have changed completely. Foreign-designed products flooded the market in the mid 90's and everyone wanted imported goods. As a result, Beijing was flooded with creative products from all over the world and everyday design in Beijing went crazy. In fact, it was all over the place and the Chinese design that came from this was really fun. It was like anything was possible.

Your T's highlight "the absurd, the beautiful, the glorious" in China. What comes to mind first when asked to name three things in China today that you'd describe as "absurd," "beautiful" or "glorious"?

Absurd? Well, there's plenty of that when you see how much wealth was suddenly generated over the last 20 years. Fake châteaux are one type of absurdity. My neighbor spent more on his ceiling decoration than his furniture. I've also recently grown very fond of dodgy Chinese adverts that sell products that simply can't be real: stretching machines, for example, that help you grow half a foot in a year and pills that make your breasts grow three sizes in a week. I got really inspired by this form of advertising.

Beautiful are the old Russian-style apartment blocks that were built in Beijing throughout the 60's and 70's. I've been photographing them for years. Their bright greens, pinks and blues... They're very practical looking but have become beautiful as each family makes their own space in that block.

Glorious is Chinese New Year. It's the one time of the year when millions of families get together after working so hard to make a living. They eat great food, let off fireworks and the whole city lights up with gun powder. The noise is deafening. I love how strong the family unit is in China. Family is everything. I have four daughters who were all born and raised here. They love Chinese New Year. It's truly glorious!

What were some "absurd", "beautiful" and "glorious" milestones you had in starting Plastered?

Absurd would be getting invited to [appear on] China's most watched chat show (kind of like Oprah), Lu Yu You Yue, and getting away with wearing a T-shirt that was a copy of an illegal advert you get around Beijing that reads "I will buy your second hand drugs." The shirt had my telephone number on it, too. During the interview she asked me whose telephone number it was and I told her it was mine. You can imagine the result a month later when the program aired around China with 50 million people watching. That phone still rings today and that's how I got my very first wholesale customers. Probably something I would not have gotten away with in the West.

Beautiful was seeing how we changed our neighborhood and inspired a new generation of young Chinese to get creative and open their own stores, to do something interesting with the old neighborhood where we started.

Glorious was winning British Entrepreneur of the year in China in 2008 and getting to be rude to Prince Andrew in front of 500 people. I've never been a fan of the royal family.

When you first started Plastered, what was the initial reaction from residents in Nan Luo Gu Xiang (NLGX)? How has NLGX evolved as Plastered has grown and evolved over the past six years?

The initial reaction was, "Why the hell are you taking these crap old things and putting them on T-shirts?" Nan Luo Gu Xiang was my home so I knew a lot of the people who lived there already. They all felt like they should tell me that I was insane. In the end, it was those very neighbors who helped me build the brand. I did the very first catwalk show in a Hu Tong (old alleyway) in Beijing right on Nan Luo Gu Xiang. The local government and residence committee all came along and helped out. That show was a turning point in Nan Luo Gu Xiang's modern history. After that show, I wrote a plan to hold the very first festival on the Hu Tong and then the area really started to develop. Plastered and Nan Luo Gu Xiang started to grow together. Now it's one of the most famous shopping destinations in Beijing. We even had Andrea Merkel there the other week. It's crazy how fast it happened but one thing we are very proud of is how it all started with creative businesses and not a long row of noisy bars.

What's a normal day like for you as "Creative Dictator" at Plastered?

I really focus on two parts of the business: the creative part and marketing. The rest I leave to my great Plastered team. I spend a lot of time with my in-house designer and the network of designers we have around China, who are part of our PLA-8 creative army. So my average day is really spent throwing ideas around and finding the right creative Chinese designers to help them come to life.  The creative industry is very small in China. It's not a society that particularly encourages individualism, so finding creative types can be hard.  However, this has changed a lot recently as the country develops.

You've said that you have many super powers, one being ADD. How does ADD work to your benefit as "Creative Dictator" of Plastered?

When I was growing up and going to school in England, my teachers thought I was hopeless. Looking back on my results and my behavior, I can't blame them.  I was dyslexic and had ADD. I didn't fit in with the mainstream styles of schooling. My teachers told me I had a list of problems, like being impulsive, a day dreamer, immature, easily frustrated.  I realized after leaving school and becoming an entrepreneur, starting a creative business, that outside of schooling, my "problems" were super powers.  I certainly would never have gotten Plastered off the ground if I hadn't been impulsive, easily frustrated and certainly immature. It was whilst day dreaming that the idea to start Plastered came to me.

What have been some of your favorite t-shirt designs to-date?

The first T, without a doubt, is my favorite. The whole idea for Plastered started from that t-shirt. I took Beijing's ugliest tourist T-shirt, one that has a terrible graphic and reads "I climbed The Great Wall" and I simply plastered a picture of a woman in a bikini on top. No one bought it but it was the pang that started everything.  Recently, collaborations with local tattoo artists have produced a beautiful piece incorporating revolutionary opera and elements of tattoo art.  Also, the classic icons we started using six years ago, like the old subway ticket, are also favorites. The subway ticket was one of those icons that really sold well at the start and helped shape the brand.  These days, we're reaching out to designers all over the place to create new ideas. Recently I just collaborated with Nick Bonner from Koryo Tours and worked with artists in North Korea. The results from these collaborations are stunning.

In Plastered's history, have there been any awesomely bad or blocked concepts for T's that never made it to stores?

One day I decided I wanted to make stain glass windows of Chinese leaders and icons -- the Jesus types of China. This was really well-received until I made one of a living Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. This didn't go down well at all. I never wanted to upset anyone so the design was pulled and the four others that were made ended up in an exhibition. I also did one of a McDonald's logo but changed its Chinese name (which is made up of three Chinese words) ever so slightly so it read in Chinese, "Buy Eat Shit."

You've also praised the power of immaturity in your work and creativity in general. How do you hire "immature" talent and how do you and your staff stay "immature" even after years of working for Plastered?

It wouldn't work if everyone in my office was immature. It's important as an owner of a business that you hire people who complement you. I'm without doubt the most immature and I make sure this resonates in all of our design and marketing.

Our customers love immaturity and who can blame them? It's about being silly, having fun, not taking yourself too seriously and being creative. Its important to hold onto your immaturity. As children, we are very creative, free thinking, but don't have the tools and skills to make our ideas come to life. The conundrum is that, as we get older, we lose that creativity but then have those tools and skills we needed when we were kids. So by keeping myself immature (unwittingly), I can be more creative.  Also through our marketing we have loads of fun and don't take ourselves too seriously -- there's nothing worse than when a company starts to believe its own propaganda.

dominicimage3.jpgOn a free day, where do you go in Beijing to find new inspiration for your T's?

I'm a flea market junkie and in China, with thousands of years of history, the markets are full of gems.  I've been collecting for the last 20 years here and this is where many of my ideas come from. I've collected about 100 mirrors with communist slogans and images, notable lamps and clocks. I took the images from the mirrors and made them into coasters. They're beautiful but probably not going to be a big seller as 90% of my customers are Chinese and they're not too familiar with coasters but I felt I had to make this idea come to life.

What's next for you and the Plastered team?

I'm not one to make big long-term plans -- I'm more likely to get inspired and impulsively create something new out of that.  We're growing quite nicely in China; I own 100% of the business and have decided to stick with this as I've got no plans to open hundreds of stores or take over the world. I'd rather build a small giant.  We're doing a lot of video content these days and made up a character called Xiao Zhang. We built ridiculous stories about how his life changes by simply putting on a Plastered t-shirt. It's kind of copying those absurd averts you get on Chinese TV: an actor, who has no breasts, says her life is terrible without big knockers so she takes these pills and a week later she's a double D and her life is great. These adverts really play on Chinese TV!  So I took that idea and applied it to my brand. We're on part four right now and we've got hundreds of thousands of hits. Other than that, it's just pushing new graphic design ideas all the time by working with our PLA-8 creative army...that's my passion -- ideas!

Leave us with some links. Who are some of your favorite "immature" designers or creators at the moment?

Shed Simove is hands-down my favorite immature creative entrepreneur designer and great friend. After I was given a packet of his sweets/candy, Clitoris Allsorts, I got in touch and we've been mates ever since.

Images courtesy of Plastered

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