The Expat: Peet Pienaar

Who? Peet Pienaar
Born: Cape Town, South Africa
Age: 40
Profession: Creative director of The President design and publishing agency
Education: BA in fine arts at Stellenbosch University
Currently reading: Fantasic Man magazines
Last film watched: Angry Boys
Gadget: My Apple laptop

When did you first visit Argentina?
I came here on holiday with an Argentine friend five years ago. I was interested in South America and had always wondered whether other Southern Hemisphere countries have the same disjointed feeling as we do from the north.
When I came to Buenos Aires, obviously it looks very Parisian and all that, but in some ways because of the light, it feels like other Southern Hemisphere countries. It was familiar, which was very inviting.

How long were you here for?
Then, it was for 10 days and I came back the following year for three months, and I kept returning every six months. We came here and started doing some work for MTV, as we’d presented our design portfolio and immediately got work to do for them. That meant we started a company in order to get more work.

You were busy those first 10 days…
Although we were here on holiday, we’d shown our portfolio as I knew the head of MTV’s creative office. So I thought I’d make a connection and see what happened. From there it just grew, so I then had to come back, see them, then set up a company.
I was staying in a very small hotel in Recoleta, which was nice and a bit like a family looking after me as it didn’t have a big hotel vibe. It was very nice as it was very central although it was quite touristy.

You returned six months on and have been coming and going since.
Yes, this time round, I went back for two months and am now here for nine months, the longest period. As the whole Argentine way of doing business means becoming friends with them before you start doing business, I started spending time with clients and getting to know people. I knew I had to do that as it was advice from other Argentines!

Did you return to Recoleta?
Yes, I kept that as my space, and because I knew it, I knew how to get around from there. Once I stayed in Palermo but I found it too dislocating, so I went back to Recoleta.

As you come and go, is it easy to make friends?
Yes, in some ways, as we hold a festival in South Africa so we have taken a lot of designers from Argentina there. And when you do something like that, you get to know people well and that turned into a group of friends which I can move in between. If people know you are here for a short time, they make an effort to spend time with you, but if they know you’re here for a long period, they might not want to do that. So in some ways it is a positive to have people know that you are going. And in South Africa it’s the opposite so it’s nice to get a break!

Do you feel integrated?
I do. I feel as at home as I do in South Africa. I have a few strong friendships with people who are my best friends whether I’m here or there.

What can the two countries take from each other?
Let’s take the education system, for instance. In South Africa, obviously we have poverty and the issue of how you develop people to take them out of that. The education system here, in an amazing way, has innovated people instantly and that is applicable to South Africa. We need institutions where you educate people en masse. And education is not elitist. In South Africa, it is.
But on the opposite side, something that is very clear in South Africa is the mix. If you’re good at something people will mix with you, yet here it’s all about class and not necessarily how good you are. That is something I think Argentina can look at, at how people can overcome classism completely, by looking purely at brilliance. That is something here for me that is quite problematic.

What do you miss about South Africa?
Clear air! As it’s quite polluted here. Cape Town has very clear skies.

And from Argentina?
The food. I miss the unpretentious restaurants. In Cape Town all the restaurants are pretentious and I love the bodegones here. It’s so easy to eat normally here. There’s a little parrilla right next to my house on Alvear and Montevideo. It’s really small, and all the locals go there.

How easy has it been setting up a business here?
It’s been difficult. Obviously there is a lot of bureaucracy which we aren’t used to and it was difficult to find a local partner. First we got the wrong partner… then we had to get out of that and get a new partner… but now it’s all good. It’s also a learning curve.
People always warn you that you have to have a good sense of “screening”, when it comes to people. I have no sense of that at all and I can’t differentiate between people as I haven’t been here long enough. So you need people who can help you with that kind of thing and obviously we learnt that the hard way, by having the wrong person at first!

And the shop opens in two days.
I don’t want to count my chickens but yes! We have a similar concept in South Africa so we are reapplying it here. Our workspace is above our shop and the latter is a way to interact with the public. It’s important that people can access us without having to set up a meeting, that they can come into the shop, see some stuff, then start speaking to you. There’s also the instant idea of seeing how people are reacting immediately you put something on a shelf. We’ll be selling an amalgamation of stuff we find cool from South Africa, here and from Brazil.

What have you found in Argentina?
There’s a few designers making interesting stuff, like Federico Lamas who is doing amazing drawings.

Does Argentina inspire your work?
Definitely. There’s such a rich history here — look at the architecture — and most of the things that existed 50 years still exist. Shopping malls have killed that in South Africa. You still have access to old craftsmanship here and that is inspiring.

Have you travelled much?
To Calafate, Comodoro Rivadavia, Bariloche, Córdoba and up north. Comodoro was interesting. It’s not the most beautiful place, in fact it’s incredibly ugly, but the city was founded by South Africans so there is a strong connection. Almost all the surnames are Afrikaans surnames, and some people still speak it. That was incredible for me to meet these people and speak to them in my language. It was so absurd, and also really odd, very pure, like Dutch, and they used a lot of old-school words. They love it when South Africans visit. Everyone calls their friends up and says “Oh, you must meet so-and-so” and everyone comes.

Any lost-in-translation moments?
I’ve stopped going to school as I can’t learn a language that way. I’d rather have a personal trainer who doesn’t speak English so I spend at least two hours, three times a week, having some kind of Spanish lesson with them. I try to double on my money!
And I’m not sure if this is lost in translation, but spas in BA… you think you’re going for a massage and it’s the complete opposite as they are mainly gay spas…

What do you do in your spare time?
I try to get out of the city so I’ll take a bus as they are so amazing to travel on. You can get on a bus on Friday night and arrive in a new place on Saturday and spend the weekend there. It’s refreshing to get out, as Buenos Aires can keep you here.

What’s your most Argentine characteristic?
Being personal with people, whether it’s business or not. I’m finding that interesting, finding more out about people before going anywhere else. People would think that is strange in South Africa.

After this week’s taxi fare hikes, will you take one ever again?
I try not to as I like to walk or take the bus. One driver was on the PanAmerican motorway and he ran out of petrol. I had to wait three hours in the taxi for him to come back.

South: it’s the new north
Dividing his life between two Southern Hemisphere countries for the past five years, Peet Pienaar is low profile despite what having what could been seen as a jetset lifestyle, putting together projects for MTV and setting up design and art festivals.
Hands on with his business, he has been busy cutting out hundreds of leaves from different types of paper, to decorate his company’s second store which launches this week, an interior which is set to change on a three-monthly basis once it opens.
Although it may sound simplistic, those leaves are likely to have a greater meaning to them, given that the man creating this nature scenario inside the shop was named one of 20 reasons to be in South Africa by the influential international magazine Wallpaper* last month.
What is interesting about Pienaar is the intrigue he maintains about the links between his birth country and his adopted home.
He says: “For us, there is much more connection between south-south, rather than south-north, because of the temperatures, the seasons, the ex-colonial history and the developing economies. There is also a very strong ex-colonial European background which is very similar. But if we go to Europe, we don’t have any connection. I go there and I really can‘t see myself there.
“But if I come to Buenos Aires, I can see the problems in South Africa really clearly. And I also see things in South Africa that show me clearly what is not working in Argentina. But I don’t see that at all in Europe because there isn’t any connection.”
Inspired by those similarities, Pienaar is also working on a new magazine project which will be trilingual: in Spanish, English and Portuguese, giving the bilingual Correspondencia edited by Juan Ignacio Moralejo (and also featured in Wallpaper* but in the top-20 reasons to be in Argentina section) a run for its money.
“As we want to see this southern hemisphere connection more, and see if we can’t bolden that, we are starting a magazine about that too, called Paris Fading Like a Childhood Memory, looking at trends in the Southern Hemisphere. I haven’t been this excited about a project for a long time,” he says.
Perhaps the rest of the world should be looking south. Victoria Ocampo founded a literary magazine entitled Sur in 1931, after all. And perhaps the rest of the world should sit up and start taking note of the south.
“We are so used to being looked down upon by the north. The other day I was reading some articles about Argentina and South Africa in The Monocle. And they got it so wrong and it was so ignorant that I thought ‘just don’t write about that, we’ll do our own stuff.’”

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on November 4, 2011
Photo courtesy of Mariano Fuchila

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