The Expat: Susan Kennedy

Susan Kennedy
Age: 37
From: Dublin
Profession: Interior designer, Susan Kennedy Design
Education: German and philosophy degree at Univerity College Dublin
Currently reading: The Short History of the Argentinians by Félix Luna
Last film: Like Water For Chocolate
Gadget: A Nokia disguised as a BlackBerry

When did you arrive in Argentina?
I first came here in December 2009. I was living in New York at the time and it was part of a two-and-a-half month jaunt around South America. I started off visiting a friend in Peru, hiked up Machu Picchu, then came to Buenos Aires. I felt at home and thought “what am I doing in New York?” I had a flight booked for six weeks later but I didn’t take it.
A bunch of friends came to visit and I was in holiday mode for a while. Then I thought that if I could figure out getting some work, then I would stay, and I came across a project undertaking the interior design of a new boutique art hotel in Recoleta. That was enough of an anchor.

At what point did you decide “I’m not going back?”
The lightbulb didn’t go off after week one. It was more about thinking “this is cool” and it evolved. Being in vacation mode, it was easy to stay and I started to wonder what I was rushing back to New York for. Plus the global downturn had its effect on my business so things were quieter. I thought, what the hell.

Can you compare both metropoles?
New York is amazing and there are similarities. Both cities are incredibly stimulating, and has much more diversity but there’s a different energy there. The balance of life here also struck me — it’s more important for people to balance family and work whereas in New York it’s all about work — a huge differentiator.
It’s quite common to hear a foreigner complaining about spending too much time with their Argentine partner’s family but the flip side is that it can be a nice thing. It’s a cliché that New York attracts hungry people who try “to make it” and it’s also more materialistic. The balance and perspective here was refreshing.

What are your first memories?
It was the fusion of things. The old and the new really struck me, the slightly decaying architecture and the über-modern aspects of places such as Puerto Madero. There’s an incredible beauty here, the trees, the jacaranda lining Guatemala street — it’s a green city — but there’s also dog pooh and plenty of graffiti.
Friendly people were also a big contrast. People talk to you when you get into the lift and are interested in what you are doing. It’s different in New York!

Where had you planned to stay for those six weeks?
I had a catastrophe of a first situation when I moved into an apartment with a friend. We rented from an English couple who owned a B&B and they didn’t tell us there was a construction site next door despite us saying we needed some quiet as we were both working remotely. It felt like we’d moved in without the full story so we had to move but before we could, they kicked us out!
We went to Montserrat to an old apartment with high ceilings which had a lot of charm. I was then in Palermo in a typically contemporary, soulless apartment, then a few months ago I moved to Villa Crespo.

What do you do in your spare time?
I play a lot of tennis, which has been a revelation. You can play every day of the year except when it’s raining — Argentines don’t know how lucky they are over the weather.

How did you become involved with the boutique art hotel?
A series of random events! My sister wanted a haircut with an English-speaking hairdresser as I’d been “mulletized”·and she was learning from my mistakes. So I met this American man who was interested in my work and was teaching English to a woman whose husband was building a hotel. It was a lead and eventually Richard introduced me to Carlos who owns various telos, and this is his first “real” hotel.

Was it easy to tap into local experts?
People were extremely receptive to me. There was a lot of networking. I might find a good graphic designer who could then refer you to a good furniture designer, then a printer. Each bedroom has a custom-made table with one of three old maps of Buenos Aires City printed on it, for example, and we went through multiple versions to get the final result we wanted.
I pound the pavement to get my own sense of what the city offers in terms of where to get fabrics, or find high-quality furniture or hardware. I try to amass as much information of a certain quality as quickly as possible, so it feels like you’re working even when you’re not working. It’s trial and error with people. You have to kiss a lot of frogs!

Which streets do you pound for your own ends?
My budget is different to the hotel’s but I’m fascinated by Dorrego flea market and places even less organized than that. I seek out anywhere like that to find things to repurpose which you don’t have to spend a lot of money on. It’s more interesting.
Take fabrics. A lot of things are about presentation in life and I went from high end to low end looking for fabrics. I saw the exact same fabrics in Arenales street after seeing them in Once neighbourhood for four times the price. Those stores aren’t competing but for me, it’s satisfying to uncover that first hand.

Where did you source the maps?
They originate from the 18th and 19th centuries and there are some great resources here. I found photos of them on one of the municipal websites and they were in the national archives on Alem avenue. They also hold some amazing photography which we shall also use.

Has Argentina been incorporated into the hotel’s interior design?
We’re 60 days away from opening at the moment but the front of the ground-floor bar will be a graphic representation of the best Argentine writers, like a silhouette. Outside, we’ll have a graffiti mural incorporating work by five local artists and given that this will be an art hotel, I’ve tried to include as much Argentine culture and art in the design of the space as possible.
It also includes what originally appealed to me in the first place — a mixture of old and new — so there are certain details like tufted headboards which are classically luxurious while metal table legs might give a contemporary twist.

What was your last purchase for your home?
Probably something as mundane as a potato peeler, but I recently stumbled across a (Benito) Quinquela Martín for 200 bucks — an artist from La Boca who painted ships and revitalized the area during his lifetime. It’s like an etching and I’m having it framed at the moment.

Name a lost-in-translation moment.
A perfect example comes in the world of texting and I’m a sledgehammer in Spanish! I try to be coquettish and it’s impossible! I try to have fun but I think it’s pie-in-the-face humour and not very refined…

How do you find dating?
It’s a million times easier than in New York in some senses like meeting people, as men are so much more forward and being foreign I stand out. I’ve had a lot of fun but it’s the same as New York in the end as to develop something serious is tough.
You always have to regulate your response to the sweeping adoration manoeuvres that you get here which are disconcerting. “Oh, your eyes are so beautiful.” They mean it but they don’t, but in the beginning I’d think “are my eyes really the most beautiful?” Now I think it’s all bullshit!

What Argentine characteristic have you picked up?
I’m more open in some ways as I find people very perceptive and engaging with others is really pleasant. Day-to-day contact reminds me more of Ireland and less of the States.

How have you celebrated St. Patrick’s Day?
They go crazy here and I’ve been told it’s the fifth-largest Irish community in the world outside Ireland. The first year I went to meet an Irish guy I’d never met before in the lashing rain, and I ended up on Canal 26 with my pidgin Spanish talking about how we celebrate Paddy’s Day.
Last year I went to a friend’s apartment overlooking Reconquista but I won’t do that again as it was like a blood bath. Maybe if I was 22, but it was jockish and weird…

Would you open an Irish pub here?
There isn’t one here that I really like so I think there’s an opportunity — it’s a project I’d like to do. People talk about an Irish bar called Downtown Matías, but that’s the least Irish-sounding bar I’ve ever heard of!

Finding fabrics and inspiration in Once
Look around you, cast an upwards glance at wonderfully dilapidated French-style balconies on rotting mansions and it becomes self-explanatory as to why so many visitors fall head over heels for the juxtaposing aesthetics of Buenos Aires, and decide to stay for much longer than anticipated.
With a more artistic eye than many, Irish interior designer Susan Kennedy, who has spent the vast part of her professional life in the US, says it was the mish-mash that kept her from taking that flight back to New York City after six weeks in Argentina’s capital.
“It was the fusion of things. The old and the new really struck me, the slightly decaying architecture and the über-modern aspects of places such as Puerto Madero,” she says.
Given the opportunity many interior designers dream of — to work on a shiny new boutique hotel and an art one called Sileo to boot which overlooks Recoleta cemetery — Kennedy is clearly in her element coming up with design ideas from the current shell of a hotel, starting from scratch with local contacts and of course, dealing with the linguistics.
Apart from the city’s rotting yet fabulous architecture, elements of design can be found in so very many nooks and crannies — from vinyl records which have been reshaped into fruit bowls in a San Telmo clothes store, to the hand-crafted mate gourds and straws for sale on the Palermo Soho streets at the weekend or a one-off, crochet-knit cream snood in a fancy boutique. Someone, somewhere, has come up with that idea to create that item. But where does such ingenuity come from?
A year ago, an Argentine hotelier defined to me in an interview that the ability to create something out of nothing has come about from the various crises the country has witnessed. She believed that a new and different energy began to develop after the 2001 economic crisis which meant Argentines needed to look inward for inspiration, and in turbulent economic times, that meant having to produce something out of very little, if not nothing. A concept may have been born out of crisis, she said, but what’s wrong with not taking the traditional path in life?
Kennedy would probably agree, after infamously failing to catch that flight. Spurning one of the biggest and baddest cities in the world for this large and sprawling village, she weaves her way between street markets and fairs, seeking inspiration and ideas from top-class furniture designers or fabric sellers in the rather tatty Once, all in the name of leaving her signature on a Recoleta hotel.

First published in the Buenos Aires Herald on Sunday, July 17 , 2011.

Photo by Mariano Fuchila.

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