An interview about Tal’s journey in Asia

Event design in Asia: like learning a new language

Designing the most prestigious event ever is one thing. Doing it again in a completely unknown part of the world is another challenge. After 20 years of experience in designing and executing event concepts, Tal Frank was suddenly taken to Seoul, Tokyo and Shanghai. During this adventure in Asia, while exploring unknown countries and cultures, Tal and his company SOFrank managed to bring life to three majestic events that he sees as the crown of his career. “Every event design must tell the right story, only this time, I first had to learn a whole new language.”

How does a designer of décor and event concepts from Amsterdam suddenly end up on the other side of the world? Like most adventures, this one started close to home. In Europe, SOFrank has made a name for himself as a designer who knows how to give a unique personal touch to events. He was always driven to create things, with roots in audio-visual design, decoration, arts and stage entertainment. As a designer of décor and brand experiences, he found his perfect job, where he can combine all his former creative
disciplines into one design.

And so Tal got the call from one of his partners, MCI Amsterdam. In 2014 MCI was approached by a very prominent client. This client envisioned a very exclusive dinner show in Beurs van Berlage, to show their appreciation to investors and partners. “Back then we had no idea that this assignment would eventually take us to Asia. Doing the job in Amsterdam was challenging enough, because their guests are truly the world’s most elite. We had to create a lasting impression on people who’ve seen it all. It’s the kind of client that simply expects to get what they have in mind. They will easily double the budget or completely change the design
at the very last minute.”

Teaming up in unknown territory

Shortly after the event in Amsterdam, the client approached MCI again, complimenting them on the concept and execution. “The full team was asked to work for them again the following year, only this time in South-Korea… Suddenly we ended up in Seoul, with the same familiar team, but surrounded by a culture, language and currency completely unknown to us. The mission itself was extremely challenging: creating a splendid dinner party with stage performances for the most elite of the country. They didn’t ask for my design so they could tell their guests: ‘this is created by the famous Tal Frank’. I had no reputation at all, so my purpose was simply to turn their large budget into a magnificent never-seen-before scenery.”

Tal quickly realized that it would be impossible to produce a design and decor of this magnitude in Asia without leaving Amsterdam behind. “No one knew us there, we had no suppliers and we couldn’t trust on our familiar routines and networks.” SOFrank decided to team up with the Production Factory for executing the décor production. “They had already worked in various Asian countries. Their experience was extremely valuable to us, because even 20 years of experience in Europe could not prepare us for the
challenges we faced in Asia.”

Doing business turned out to be an entirely different game in Asian countries. It takes months of informal meetings before building a mutual trust with local contacts. The moment SOFrank set out to find the right local partners, language proved to be only one of many barriers. “We entered a completely different culture, where a simple ‘yes’ can also mean ‘no’.”

An approach that proved effective when selecting the right supplier was sending them the technical instructions for building the design. Without providing a sketch of the final result. “We asked them to recreate the actual result, to convince us that they understood the design. We didn’t make things easy for them, but there was no other choice. We feared that our Dutch directness would affect their way of working. Even an inch of misunderstanding would put the whole design at risk, so this was the only way to be sure
we understood each other.”

After getting familiar with the Asian working culture in Seoul, many lessons proved valuable again when the team followed their client to Japan and China. “By then we knew that such a project in unknown territory required us to become incredibly determined, and brave enough to take drastic decisions. In Japan we took residence in the office of our local partner who crafted the decorations, for six whole weeks! No client had ever dared to suggest such an extraordinary measure, but luckily they agreed that this was
indeed no ordinary project.”

Translating demands into aesthetic harmony

Before Tal could set his partners to work, he first had to come up with a design. One that would not only be functional, ensuring there would be enough room for guests, staff and equipment, but also express the unique theme of the event. “My instructions allowed for some artistic freedom, to say the least. The only guidance was one sentence: ‘Tal, please visualise ‘The value of longevity’.
That’s all, good luck!’”

That explains why coming up with the design demanded equally as much effort as constructing it. How to visualize such an abstract idea, in a way that would fit the local culture while being original at the same time? “Once again I had to abandon everything I knew. For example: we see white as the colour of peace and tranquillity, but did you know it’s associated with funerals and mourning in China?” The Japanese are particularly sensitive to symbolism. Tal spent days in Japanese museums to get familiar with their styles and symbols, learning where to be creative and where not to.

After learning the cultural sensitivities, Tal’s creativity was only constrained by the technical possibilities. The design had to fit the venue in a way that was both beautiful and functional. With clear lines of sight to the stage performers, all cables and technical equipment neatly hidden away, while waiters can freely move around. “Designing is about bringing all these demands together. I tried to take everyone’s needs into consideration, so if our technician needed a larger projector than I planned, my design had to give way and sometimes the whole plan had to be redesigned.” In a way, Tal felt like the conductor of an orchestra, bringing all the loose elements of the event into one harmonious performance. It took months of adapting, rethinking and redrawing. “Because when it finally all fits, it turns out that the venue’s ceiling would collapse under the weight of our beautiful plan…back to the drawing board.”

One evening; months of efforts

One important question remains. Did Tal actually manage to pull it off and turn the designs into a success? “Why do you ask?” he laughs. “Is it that hard to imagine? The client still looks to us for their events and they received nothing but praise from their guests. I guess that must mean something from people who probably saw Beyoncé perform at last week’s dinner party.”

“In some ways my job is very strange. To see months of efforts and energy put into it, all playing itself out in one majestic evening. But the memories and things I’ve learned will last much longer. Asia is no strange place anymore, and I’ve become even more fascinated by its people and cultures. I especially remember walking in the streets of Tokyo amongst millions of people, without hearing a single voice or sound. It truly felt like another world… Deconstructing and wrapping up the event the days after was harder than ever, but I’ve never taken home more with me from an experience than from these projects in Asia.”

*All these sketches used in this article are an impression of the design, but do not reflect the actual result.