Bangkokian Tachamapan Chanchamrassang ran away to London in her 20s to become a visual artist. The UK capital became the training ground for the now 40-year old artist and laid the foundation for a triumphant return to her home town where she is now an in-demand designer of eclectic home furnishings, known as Pomme Chan.
“I started drawing when I was ten. I was really into Manga back then and copied that style of drawing. My mum was an air hostess. My father worked in real estate. I watched my mother at work when I grew up and she inspired me to become a working woman. My dad gave me an idea about business. That’s why I made a start in architecture and interior design.”
But Pomme Chan’s youth was not without its dark side.
“I was very introvert because my parents were very strict. If I turned up five minutes late, my father would punish me. I needed to get out of there. I invested myself in education to be able to have my own life and follow my dreams.”
She managed just that with a BA in Interior Design from Silpakorn University by the time she was 19.
“I then did an internship with a big interior design company and fell asleep after lunch every day. It was so boring. I would go to Asia Books and look at graphic design and fine art magazines. I did short courses in 3D, web design, flash animations and Adobe Dreamweaver to figure out what I was into. Most of the graphic design I liked was British. I had to get to London to get more knowledge. But I knew my father wouldn’t allow me to go.”
Pomme Chan turned to an uncle and her mother for help and told her father two weeks before her departure about her plans. “I didn’t ask for permission. I just left. At age 22, I got off the plane in London and enrolled in an LCC foundation course in graphic communication. My father didn’t talk to me for two years.”
The young artist bloomed in the British capital.
“My course assignments really opened my mind. They were designed to help students find out what they liked. One day I walked past Selfridges in Oxford Street. They had a window display that was partly painted on the window itself. I thought that was really cool. I loved that kind of packaging and how companies used illustrations. I realized then that I wanted to be an illustrator involved in product packaging. But when my course was over, my father pressured me to return to Thailand.”
Instead of giving in, Pomme Chan asked her family to stop sending her money and, like many budding artists in London, worked several jobs to make ends meet.
“I got several part-time jobs and did my own work at night – at first everyone rejected my portfolio but I was astute enough to ask what I was doing wrong and adapted. I began to get better commissions but it was never enough money to quit the punishing side jobs.”
She realized that she would hit a dead end and went to her bank to ask for a loan.
“I explained my dream to the banker. I cried. And they gave me a 7000£ loan. It meant the world to me. By that time, I’d lost a lot of weight because I didn’t really have the cash to eat well. I took five months off, paid my rent, did a proper website and portfolio.”
Pomme Chan partly puts her change of fortune down to turning her back on London’s Thai diaspora.
“My life changed for the better when I stopped hanging around with Thai ex-pats. There was too much gossip and a lot of Thais looked down on me for working several jobs at the same time. Leaving the comfort zone, connecting with British friends who all did part time jobs and all struggled, that helped a lot.”
In 2007, Pomme married a French doctor.
“Things were looking up then. I got some international jobs. I learned how to tell a story with my portfolio. I learned how to discern whether an image might be too personal or too commercial for a product. I didn’t consciously work on a style. My style is my work. I don’t think about it. It took me five years to sustain myself financially with my art work.”
In 2013, Pomme Chan began to focus on home décor, particularly wallpaper. She also started to reengage with home.
“Friends in Thailand reached out and we eventually opened the What If shop on Sukhumvit 31, which sold wall paper and kitchens and also had a restaurant. I began to travel a lot, setting up the shop, while getting offered more jobs and was soon on too many flights between London, New York, Hong Kong and Bangkok. I grew apart from my husband.”
Pomme Chan also felt that London was changing. Brexit began to raise its ugly head.
“London’s charm lay in the fact that it was so multi-cultural. I still go back and see my friends. But when my marriage ended, I had enough. Bangkok was becoming more cosmopolitan. And London got more racist. People started calling me Asian in the street. In 2014, I returned to Thailand.”
Pomme Chan landed with both feet on the ground.
“I opened Pomme’s Studio on Sukhumvit 26. Within six months I had lots of jobs and a team. But I didn’t treat my staff well and I had very high expectations. When one of my best employees quit, I realized I had to look into management skills. Back in the UK, everyone worked with straightforward honesty. That could be brutal. In Thailand, respect, speaking softly and smiling is more important. I had to get used to Thai working culture.”
Pomme Chan got married a second time.
“I opened a shop with my husband. We imported furniture from China. But working together, we didn’t get on. We quickly decided to let the shop go and save the marriage.”
Happy Pomme has changed to Happy People Studio and the new shop, Swoon, showcases carpets and wall paper. All of Pomme’s employees are female.
“Men don’t survive a week in my business. They’re not fast enough and they are not good at multi-tasking. It’s a skill issue, not a gender issue. In my studio, there’s no job description. My workers have to do stuff that’s not creative. Some people can’t do illustration and management at the same time.”
Pomme Chan eventually reunited with her family.
“When I was 30, I asked my dad why he did what he did. Why I was never allowed to go to the waterpark? I never knew what playing was until I played with the kids of my friends. My father didn’t know how to raise his kid. He only knew what his father did to him and he passed it on. My mother told me she couldn’t help because she lacked education and was stuck in a job without prospects. I made peace with them.”
The artist’s current projects run the gamut from highly commercial to extremely eclectic.
“70% of my projects are now in Thailand, though we do have big clients in the US and China. I’ve been selected to contribute to the Thailand Biennale. A walkway with dinosaurs is being constructed in an abandoned part of Korat zoo for which I am creating a fresco of tiles presenting the animal kingdom.”
Pomme Chan recently developed a project called Ping Pong Show, a series of sexually aware patterns for beanbags and other products, created in collaboration with OMT.
“Thai people want to forget about the illegal sex industry. I don’t think being a sex worker is any lower than what I do. My patterns address the link between sex and nation. And we are starting a campaign for Pure Leaf, a tea drink, for International Womens’ Day, encouraging women to say no.”
It’s very quiet in Pomme’s Happy People studio in Thong Lo. The high-ceilinged bright room is crackling with shared missions and intense concentration. Pomme runs a tight ship. But she alsways remembers her struggles, far from home.
“We have to nurture our artists. We offer three scholarships for struggling students. This year we ask them to produce one artwork each that defines their happiness.”