Mustafa Afsaroglu October 2017
With Autumn well and truly underway, Spaceman’s Creative Director, Andy Green, grabs a bite to eat near Borough Market with one of the rising stars of the Interiors community, Mustafa Afsaroglu, better know as Mus. Time to talk Cyprus, cycling, Mixology and free dinners...
After facing the perils of the lunchtime London Underground rush, I emerge from Borough Market, take a seat at a near by pub and settle in to wait for Mustafa, on his way from nearby design & build powerhouse Unispace.
Mus, great to see you again and thanks so much for meeting me for lunch.
So I’ve researched, looked through the internet and basically stalked you for the last day or so. The first thing I found out was that you attended what used to be called KIAD, Kent Institute of Art and Design?
Yes that’s right, it’s now UCA and I was based in Canterbury and it was such an amazing time. I kind of went there accidentally! I wanted to go to Bournemouth Uni but in Cyprus you finish school at 16 and so when I applied, Bournemouth wouldn’t let me in. They said I was too young!
You applied to University at 16?! That’s ambition for you!
Yeah I did but they recommended I did a foundation course first and UCA was where I went. It was pretty amazing and opened my eyes. We didn’t really have a full art culture at school in Cyprus, it was basically just painting. At UCA I was exposed to other things like Photography and Screen Printing which I absolutely loved. We even tried Fashion Design which I was really bad at.
So do you get to choose a course or is it general?
Well the first term is general so you get to do Photography, Fashion, 3D Design and then you specialised. I obviously chose 3D Design for architecture and interiors. It was an amazing year but I was still desperate to go to Bournemouth. I researched it and it seemed like such a good place for design. That and Nottingham Trent. I ended up with so many friends and colleagues that went to Bournemouth.
Very cool, when I was in the manufacturing side at New Design Group, we would take on a student for a year from Bournemouth in Product Design and it was great for them and us, it seemed like a great Uni then as well.
Well it was, but a year after I left they removed the Interior Design course. So my friends like Abi LeMarchand and Maria Palmer who you know in the industry were the last to do the course, which is a shame as it was so good.
Well I supposed once you all graduated they felt they couldn’t better those years! :-)
Ha! You’re probably right :-) Actually it was a shame because we had a big show at the end of the year and we invited local architects, clients and designers etc to have a look and I was one who got selected to present their work at ‘New Designers’ and that’s how I got my first job in the industry. Foster and Partners visited the show and it was the weirdest thing because the economy had just crashed and there were no jobs at all. I had applied to 80 different companies, about 3 responded with a no and the rest ignored me. Then suddenly after the show, Fosters contacted me asking me to come in for an interview. So I went and it went ok. I was then due to go home to Cyprus and just before I left they called me for a second interview. I remember I literally had no money at all to even get to the interview. I had no job, I had just paid for the end of year show and my flights back to Cyprus, so I said to my brother, who is an architect, that I wasn’t sure if I should go and anyway I have no money. He said to me “are you stupid? Of course you have to go and I’ll send you money!” So I did and when I was in Cyprus I heard that I had got the job and so when I came back to London I was working for Fosters, amazing really.
Wow, that’s certainly a nail biting way to start a career in Interior Design.
Well it didn’t end there. When I started at Fosters I literally had £20 in my pocket but they luckily gave you a company card for meals etc in the cafe and then if you worked until say 8:30 you got a free meal! So for the first couple of weeks I was working until late every night.
Ha! So Foster and Partners thought you were really dedicated but actually you were just hungry! Amazing. Joking aside though, unbelievable to have that struggle but then get a call from one of the biggest Architects in the world.
Yeah, it was surreal and the funniest thing of all was that I applied to them in the first place and they were one of the companies that didn’t come back to me.
Crazy. So you finished school at 16. Did you grow up in Nicosia?
No not quite, it is not far but West of Nicosia in Morphou.
Ah ok, so my geography probably isn’t as good as it should be but I was reading yesterday about Nicosia and how it is the last divided capital in the world. Half Turkish and half Greek. The media seem to paint such a harsh picture of the city, was it a difficult place to grow up? You read stories and see pictures of old oil cans and barbed wire lining the divide?
No, it really wasn’t a difficult place to grow up and it’s the media that tells that dreadful story and it really isn’t like that. It was totally fine for me. As I mentioned I grew up in a village to the West but I went to school in Nicosia. All the classes were in English to prepare you to study abroad and I enjoyed it, so for me at least it wasn’t a tough place to grow up as a child.
Ok, so you finished school at 16, are there no Universities to go to in Nicosia or did you just have a dream to visit Bournemouth?!
Yeah there are Universities there but the courses really aren’t the same and I always wanted to study in the UK so I did.
And your older brother, he’s an Architect, did he come to England?
No, he went to Turkey which was another option and studied Architecture. It’s funny really because back then he really went against the grain and hated how they taught, so he would boycott classes and make a stand against how it worked and ended up finishing University in 7 years instead of 4! He is amazing now at what he does but he just hated how it was run. Me on the other hand, I came top of the classes, finished with a 1st at Uni, so we were the polar opposite of each other in that respect.
Ok, so you both had the design background. I read about the family business, Prestige. Was that where it all started?
Yes of course, we were exposed to design and business from an early age so we would go to my uncle’s kitchen design business where we started sweeping floors, cleaning up and making coffee in the summers. We then progressed to building things and then started designing so it was a natural progression for us both to get interested in design. We keep in touch a lot. He is also a lecturer in Nicosia, teaching design, so he often asks my opinion from my experience in London which is nice and of course if I’m ever at home I try and help him out on the architectural and design side where I can. We keep in touch on Whatsapp and have some good debates on design and architecture and of course I get to be in contact with my beautiful niece, he and I are really just best friends. Then there’s my sister who is on the PR side so completely different to design but also pretty cool.
It’s a great story. When you think we are sitting having lunch in London doing an interview for a design blog and you started making coffee at your family business, came over to England at 16, after some hard work pretty much fell into a job at a huge design firm, then followed that with jobs at MCM, HLW and now Unispace, it’s pretty impressive for a young designer like yourself.
Yeah, I’m not going lie, not that I haven’t worked very hard, but I also feel like I have been very lucky to get where I am today. My start at Fosters really gave me the chance to learn my trade and work on some unbelievable projects. Bloomberg’s HQ has now only just finished and yet we were designing that 6-7 years ago. I did the space-use study, test fits and the mockups and yet it’s only just finished. But that was also one of the reasons I left because I wanted to see projects finished. I wanted to work on projects that I could influence and then see them through to the end.
That must be difficult for young designers starting out, particularly if you are ambitious and you want to stamp your name on a project, unless you're going to stay in your first job for the next 10 years, which is rare these days, you are most likely to look elsewhere.
Exactly, but if you are impatient like me, you have to move on and find somewhere that you can grow and that’s when I found HLW and where things really changed for me. What an amazing place. The people are like a family to me and still are, I had the best years. I was in my early 20’s when I joined and I felt like I grew up with them and the company also grew with me, just like a mutual growth period.
Yes I have to say, in my ‘repping’ days HLW was also one of my favourite places to visit. So open and easy to talk to everyone or present to the team and bring in samples. It really has a warm family feel, even though they are a big international company with huge backup they still retain that family unit ethic.
Exactly, that’s the best observation of HLW. It is very much a family and we won awards together and worked hard together, a real team dynamic. I keep in touch with the team and am still really good friends with them, Mixology of course is a really good place to catch up with all those people who you no longer work with. I love the Mixology awards, I think it’s perfect for that. It’s also a great place to get to know your new team and it’s a brilliant feeling to be up on stage winning an award as well.
Yeah, it’s true the awards both South and North really give you a chance to catch up. I have friends at different manufacturers, dealers and architects and it’s nice to put competition to one side for a night. It’s also why I used to run the cultural nights once a month for so many years as you know, it gave everyone a chance to catch up and take a breath.
Yes exactly, I went on a quite few of those evenings! So like Mixology, it’s a friendly environment and of course some of these people I went to University with so to see them is amazing.
You were also a judge at Mixology weren’t you? What was that like?
It was actually amazing. We did it in London, in Orangebox’s showroom. We had a day looking through all the submissions, presentations, some samples and products and it was a good team of us bringing very different opinions to the table and even got a little heated, but in the end we managed to agree on 95% of everything. I was excited when Mick Jordan asked me to be a judge and a little daunted to be told I was the youngest one!
What a great experience. So let’s talk Unispace. I read that they have 39 Studios in 18 Countries, so another big move for you?
Yes exactly, as you know it was an important decision for me as I was looking to add another challenge to my career and as a company they are really pushing the boundaries of what we think of as traditional design and build. They are dynamic and energetic and it’s great to shake things up. They are really global and they collaborate with their other studios all over the world which is incredible. We get to learn from each other and share projects, and for us Europe is a massive market with a presence in every major city. There’s already been plenty of travelling, I was in Brussels on Monday, Friday I am going to Edinburgh. They have also employed some big names like Natasha Bonugli who was at Woods Bagot and BDG and Doug Taylor-Saunders who was also at HLW and then Edge, oh and of course me :-) So a huge amount of experience and another great company to work for and learn from. Also, with the build side we get to consider the commercial side of a project from concept to completion on top of just looking at the interior design. I honestly think they have really broken the mould with what most people think of as a design and build company.
So you’re now back south of the river, it’s funny how London isn’t that big a place and yet it takes an age to travel across it. How have you found the change in location?
Well it’s been like that my whole career. When I first came to London I lived in Crouch End and was travelling to Battersea for Fosters, which was a massive pain in the arse so i decided to move to Battersea. I then decided to move to HLW! So my journey was Battersea to Old Street which was also a pain, so I took on cycling. It was around the time of the Olympics and they said the traffic was going to be awful so I thought I’m going to start riding instead. I grabbed a ‘Boris Bike’ and never looked back, a beautiful cycle from Battersea, all along the river, up to Farringdon and on to Old Street.
Oh very nice, so do you cycle in your spare time now?
Yeah, I love it. I do it generally in Richmond Park, a few laps here and there in the sun. A few months ago I did 100k cycle with Adam Strudwick and Fernanda Cavalli at HLW for a CBRE ride which was fantastic. I have to say though, in that race, it was my first time in the cleats. So anyone who has ridden knows that they can be dangerous and tricky, but I had practised a lot so was confident. Something happened after the first few K’s, the cleat went loose and wouldn’t pull out of the pedal and I just toppled over! So I was panicking, pulled my foot out and snapped the cleat and I just thought WTF, what am I going to do! We had the Mixology awards that night and still a ton of riding to do. Adam had to cycle to a bike shop and get a new one and fix me up. Luckily I could carry on but I had a massive lump on my leg and barely fit into my suit and was worried it might affect my dancing, but it was fine!
Hilarious, if only there was some footage available!!!
Well that’s it, thank you so much for having lunch today Mus, it was an absolute pleasure. All there’s left to do is….
Ok, stuck in a lift with Mustafa Afsaroglu, enemies for life of BFF’s forever! Let’s find out…
Tate Modern or Tate Britain? Tate Modern - 1/1
Favourite Movie? Probably Lord of the Rings, loved the books and the films are amazing - 1/2
London, North or South of the river? South for sure - 2/3
Thoughts on gherkins? No not keen - 2/4
Favourite London Cultural Hotspot? Tate modern would be one but probably anywhere that’s temporary like the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion or the Maltby Street Market, amazing - 3/5
A little bird tells me you're a Harry Potter fan, favourite character? Hagrid, love that guy, always looking after people - 4/6
Do you like quiche? I like quiche but it has to be gluten free - 4/7
Street Art or Sculpture? Street Art - 5/8
Favourite type of exercise? Def cycling - 6/9
Going out or staying in? Staying in, I’m boring. I do like to go out out, but staying in - 7/10
So there it is, as it was so much fun, we can forgive the quiche comment and turn a blind eye to his persecution of gherkins - 7/10 means that Mus is our new BFF!