Ushers in a Better World

Feverishly creative and out-of-the-box, Bali-based interior designer Caroline Usher discusses designing Mamasan, growing up in New Zealand with Peter Jackson, and making the world a better place with her upcoming project, SoulBytes Food & Wisdom

“I hate being put in boxes,” says Caroline Usher, reclining on her sofa with a dramatic flourish. “With every project I take on, I reinvent myself as a designer. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I never do cut-and-paste interior design.”

The New Zealand-born designer, who’s called Bali home for ten years, is known among the island’s glitterati for her never-ending supply of energy, impeccable work ethic, and unflinching eye for detail. Having created some of the island’s most striking and memorable interiors, Caroline’s now set to take on one of her most unique and fascinating projects to date, SoulBytes Food & Wisdom, a soon-to-open café-with-a-twist in Seminyak, Bali’s pre-eminent entertainment precinct.

Caroline, it would seem, was set up in early childhood for a life of creativity. “My mother was a Milliner by trade, a hat-maker. She taught me how to pattern make, and by 13 I was designing my own clothes. That’s how I started.”

“Mum had a real passion for antiques. Sometimes she’d take me out of school so that we could trawl around the most fabulous auctions houses, collecting antiques. Then I’d go on a hilltop and imagine how these and other objects might look in different scenes and environments. From an early age, my imagination was exceedingly vivid.”

Her penchant for thinking up elaborate fantasy worlds was fostered by the natural beauty of her homeland. “I grew up in Pukerua Bay, not far from Wellington. My brother and (film director) Peter Jackson were best mates. They shot many shorts using a Bolex, and also Peter’s first movie to gain cult-notoriety, Bad Taste. It was a special place: oceans, farmlands, native bush. You really couldn’t help but be inspired.”

Although the design of commercial spaces – mainly restaurants and hotels – has now become her great creative love, it was in the film industry that Caroline had her first professional design experiences. “I leapt straight into the movie industry at 17. To begin with, I worked as production runner, assistant buyer, and buyer. I then worked my way slowly up the ranks and ended up designing sets for commercials, TV dramas and feature films.”

Caroline’s time on film sets had an enduring effect on her creatively. “Designing for film massively influenced me. Film sets are so diverse; each film is its own world and every scene is different.”

“Working with such high-profile directors as Martin Campbell, Lee Tamahori and Robert Pearson taught me the vital importance of theatre. Now I design mainly commercial spaces, but the theatrical element is still there. I still love to create theatre. When people walk into a place I’ve designed, I want them to feel they’re in a place with a story. I want them to be looking around everywhere, intrigued by everything they see.”

But how did Caroline go from designing film sets to fitting out some of Bali’s pre-eminent hospitality venues? “When I arrived in Bali, I wasn’t even designing anymore. I had felt creatively stifled while working in the British film industry. Shepperton and Pinewood studios had insisted on putting me in boxes (did I mention I hate boxes?!). I felt it was time for a career change, so I enrolled at the Fitzwilliam Institute in London, where I studied marketing and events.”

Mamasan proved to be Caroline’s great break. “I moved to Bali in 2008, and was employed by Will Meryck of Sarong restaurant – before, that is, he became ‘Will Meryck’ the celebrity chef. At first, I did his marketing work; I profiled him and created ideas for events. But then, when the hosts of Jakarta’s 2010 Culinary festival, who were meant to design Sarong’s stand, bowed out, I was called on by Will last minute to step in.”

“It was frantic. I was on the next plane to Jakarta, worked 36 hours straight, no sleep – all on my birthday, by the way. And keep in mind I had never been to Jakarta, didn’t speak a word of Bahasa, and had no idea where anything was. But I ended up designing the coolest stand there. Will took me to a bar that night, handed me a sizeable tip, and said, ‘Will you design my next restaurant, Mamasan?’ The rest, of course, is history.”

“In many ways,” Caroline goes on, “Mamasan remains the project I’m proudest of to date. I was in charge of so many things. I even marketed the venue as I was designing it. It’s what launched me as a designer of commercial interiors; the project I’m best known for even today, seven years on.”

But Caroline’s creative affair with Meryck would soon come to an end. The idea of starting her own company and the creative autonomy this would bring, were becoming evermore tantalizing prospects. “In many ways, leaving Will and going freelance was a big leap of faith. Mamasan notwithstanding, many people at that time still didn’t know who I was. But I’ve never looked back.”

“A few years and several incredible projects later, I now have my own business, Ushers by Design, and my very own design team, who are amazing. They’re the ones who deliver my vision. I conjure it up in my mind, and they take on the task of understanding it and turning it into reality.”

“We’re now at a point where we have the luxury of being able to be selective about what projects we take on and what clients we work with. My team and I are building a little family, so it’s really important for us to surround ourselves with the right energy, with people who understand who we are.”

Here Caroline comes to SoulBytes. “This is what we love about our current clients, SoulBytes. They really understand our integrity, how important it is for us to work freely and not be put into a box. We absolutely adore working with them, and are loving every stage of the project development.”

SoulBytes Food & Wisdom is a soon-to-open Seminyak café with a startlingly fresh concept; a café where customers can, not only eat deliciously innovative dishes and drink top-quality original coffee blends, but also be reminded, as they eat and drink, of what’s important in life, of ways they might lead richer, more meaningful lives.

“Inspiration is so important,” Caroline asserts. “If I’m not inspired by a client’s brief, I know I won’t give it my all; it won’t work. That’s what we loved about (SoulBytes founder) Ilario Colli – his energy and passion was truly inspiring. As soon as I met him, we knew we’d be interested in taking on the project.”

“SoulBytes is an exceedingly unique concept,” Caroline goes on. “Ilario aims to create more than just a café. We’re filling the space with reminders for us to be good to and connect with each other: from a hug spot on the floor where, if two people are standing on it, they hug, to a device-free afternoon once a week; from a once-a-month charity lunch buffet, to a kindness box where people can leave encouraging notes to strangers. SoulBytes aims to make the world a better place.”

And it seems the SoulBytes interior design is as fresh as the concept it brings to life. “It’ll be a completely unique space, unlike any other café you’ve seen. When I first saw the space, I knew exactly how I wanted it to be. I visualised in every detail, right down to the colour scheme. Each area in the café will be a world unto itself; eclectic, contemporary and soulful. But it will all fit together perfectly. The SoulBytes concept has so much depth and character – and its interior will too.”

Ushers by Design:

Instagram: @ushersbydesign

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