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John Underwood

John Underwood has created a unique Phuket centre of design excellence at his Underwood factory and new Brush Restaurant... and he is not finished yet.

April 2011

Where are you from?
I was born into a sheep and cattle farming family in Central Queensland in Australia. It was hot and isolated. Our house was like the classic one you see in that movie 'Australia'.

When did you first get seriously interested in art?
I went to the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) and then to the new Victorian College of the Arts. One of my tutors was Fred Williams, one of Australia’s most famous artists.

So what led you to come to Phuket?
I started a company called Artbusters in Australia and through that came under the wing of John Truscott, who had won academy awards for design in film, to do the Brisbane Expo ’88. From there we got jobs at Expos in South Korea and Spain. Through this work I got a job at Seacon Square in Bangkok. It was a tough time after the 1997 crash. In 2000 I came to Phuket.

Did you come here intending to set up a business?
Yes. We found this disused wood factory (where Underwood is located on the by-pass road). First we rented the factory, then I bought it. It was a stroke of luck. But we had no money. It was tough.

Tell us something about your business.
I see it very much as an art studio. A boutique style of business. While the world produces mass products, we're doing things that nobody has the time to concentrate on. We've always done art so we keep as close to art and design as possible.

What changes have you seen in the business?
Every job is similar, but trends change. For example in the 1990s there was a demand for what's called slump glass (melting glass over a pattern) but then it went out of favour, then it came back into favour. The same with mosaics, which we still do a lot of today.

How does working in Phuket compared to back home in Australia?
I'm much luckier here. I'm a fabricator who works with designers to make their designs into something tangible. Here we don’t have to put up a sign to get work. It comes to us. Also, Thais are very art oriented with good skills. Aussies are not that way inclined.

Where do you live in Phuket?
We originally lived in a house in Kalim Beach (now the new Brush Restaurant). But the Tsunami destroyed much of our possessions, although not the structure. We then moved here and built our home next to the factory. We slept under the office table for six months.

What do you like most about living on Phuket?
It's the complete opposite of where I grew up on an isolated farm. It's like a paradise. You see people; great climate. I love living in another culture because it keeps you on your toes. I love waking up in the morning and still expect the unexpected. I feel I still have something to offer in Asia.

What's the hardest, most frustrating, thing about living here?
The banking system. It's difficult to borrow money here as a foreigner.This can be frustrating for solving short term cash flow problems but I guess it could also be seen as a good thing. It makes you more creative in solving such problems, so you end up with less debt overall.

Do you have family here. If yes, what nationality is your wife?
Yes. My wife Judy is Australian. I have a daughter, Casey, 18 and a son, Zac, 20, who is studying at the Central St. Martins School of Art in London. Casey has just been accepted by the same university group.

What do you think the future holds for you?
I hope to further develop my interest in eco anything, such as recycling. I believe we should work toward a world which is happy with less, not more. It's much more fun now to work with people and enjoy the experience; and I'd like to do more art.

How do you evaluate success?
If you wake up in the morning and want to get out of bed to do something, you've succeeded.

What do you do with your free time, if you have any?
I enjoy this (working with art). I don’t play golf. Artists are artists 100 percent. It's a bit like musicians. I need to travel more. Like my recent trip to Burma.

Are you involved in any local charities?
Yes. One I strongly support is the WWP Thai group, who raise money through an annual calendar. Also a church group that looks after Burmese women. I like to offer opportunities to provide employment.

For more information contact:
Underwood and Brush Restaurant
Visit website: www.underwood-phuket.com and www.brushphuket.com
Tel: +66 (0)76 261104 and +66 (0) 76 340348.

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