Ramesh Subramaniam

Architect and interior specialist Ramesh Subramaniam talks about his globally creative job and how it has shaped his view on life

by Sandra Foo

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Ramesh Subramaniam’s apartment is a very impressive display of contrasting elements. Traditional Indian rugs framed on the walls and an antique Chinese cabinet offset the clean, contemporary lines of the furniture. The mostly neutral palette of the interior is given a pop of color by way of red pillows on the gray couches and brightly graphic-print carpets. The entire apartment is an interior design-lover’s dream home.

Of course, this is only to be expected, given that Ramesh is himself an architect and interior designer. Currently the Director of International Design of the global architecture and interior design firm M Moser Associates, Ramesh’s easygoing and cheerful nature belies a keen, creative mind, and it is easy to see why he is at the top of his game and so well respected among his clients and peers.

A graduate in architecture from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Ramesh has lived an extremely eye-opening life. Having worked in Washington, DC, before coming back to Malaysia and working for Australian architecture firm Davenport Campbell, Ramesh has had the opportunity to work in cities all over the world, and experienced working in both Eastern and Western cultures. Now, in his fifth year at M Moser Associates, which specializes in designing workspaces, Ramesh develops design concepts for local and multinational clients, abroad and at home; one such project he has run is the design of the jaw-dropping Google Malaysia office in Kuala Lumpur.

“I fly to our offices in other countries to work on different projects,” he explains. “I come up with the concept ideas, and the local team carries out the execution. I get involved with client presentations and just making sure the concept gets carried through all the way, and move on to other projects.

“I do a lot of mentoring as well, so it’s good for me to be in a different office so that I can meet junior designers and work with them. It’s always good for people to buy into the concept. If I just worked on the concept with my team, and then just hand it over to, say, the Shanghai office, then there is no ownership of the project. I like to spend time with them so that they feel more involved in the design and decision-making process.”

His current running tab includes projects in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai, San Francisco, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur, which means Ramesh is on a plane practically every week. As interesting as it is, he acknowledges that working in different countries does not come without its challenges, as he shares some of his anecdotes from his travels.

“For instance, in China, I can’t work without an interpreter. It’s funny because the clients insist on meeting with me, but then I can’t communicate with them, so it always has to be through an interpreter. It was very awkward when I gave my first big presentation in Guangzhou to 35 people in the room. I had to learn to pace myself because the interpreter kept stopping me and saying, “No no, I can’t translate all of that!” he reminisces with a laugh.

“Once when I was out for dinner in Shanghai, it was difficult enough to hail a taxi, and when I got into the taxi I gave the driver my hotel card so that he could see the name written in Chinese. But it was really small and dark, so the driver couldn’t read it! He was screaming at me in Mandarin, and then I remembered this application on my phone called Shanghai Taxi Guide, which allows you to type in the address and then translates it into the Chinese alphabet. So I showed it to him and finally he knew where to take me! I was sitting there thinking, You will go to my hotel, I’m not getting out of this taxi!”

India comes with its own obstacles, but they’re interesting to see. Even though the caste system doesn’t really exist anymore, there is such an underlying element of that. I remember I was having lunch in the office pantry once, and I stood up to get my own fork and spoon, but then they said, ‘No no no, he will go get your fork and spoon!’ And someone else really did get my fork and spoon for me, and got my water and coffee for me as well! I never realized how prevalent this system still is, even though the bigger perception is that it isn’t anymore.

“It’s similar to China in terms of giving face time, but the difference is in their perception of face time. There is a whole team of people doing a client’s work in my office, but I am the one that the client is willing to give face time to, because they think that I am the only one who brings any value at all, because of my job title. They don’t give the same respect to the people who are doing the work; it’s almost hierarchical, and it’s very strange. So I always try and give credit where it’s due and make sure the clients know who does the actual work.”

Ramesh also draws on the differences between working in Asia and working in the United States. “My favorite location is San Francisco. I designed the M Moser office there, and it’s just nice to go there and be back in America. It’s very different working there, though: they’re still very conservative, whilst Asians are much more open to new ideas,” he elaborates.

“The Americans are all about ‘How can I better my workplace for my people? How can I give my people more so that they are more productive?’ They just want to motivate their employees, give them a good, comfortable and conducive environment to work in and keep them happy, because they know that if the people are happy, their productivity levels will increase. In Asia, it’s all about perception and first impressions: ‘How beautiful can you make my lobby? How cool can you make my café look? What will the neighbors think?’ To me, that is the biggest difference between the cultures, and I like it.”

Nevertheless, Ramesh enjoys what he does and witnessing the progress in design concepts around him. “Local clients are slowly seeing the value of pushing the boundaries. Many of them are still conservative – they want their own desks and big workstations – but they are slowly moving away from enclosed rooms towards open workspaces. They can see what’s happening in the rest of the world. Our jobs are more to educate, to tell people and not just give them what they ask for. They hire you for your services, and if you just give them what they want, you’re not doing them or yourself any justice.”

Ramesh cites fashion as his creative inspiration. “I like brands like Issey Miyake and Alexander McQueen, and I always look at what they show on the runways. I think fashion is a very big influence on what everyone does, and fashion designers know how to predict trends,” he says.

“I also get a lot of inspiration from hotels and cafés. However, I do think the whole industrial look that cafés have – where they use recycled timber and every chair is a different chair – has been done to death. Then again, it’s a matter of doing what you can with what you’re given. For instance, in Paris, there are cafés in old buildings, where the building itself is already so beautiful that they don’t need to do much to make the café special. Our buildings tend to be newer and don’t have the history or character to be used as a base, so establishments tend to add too much in an attempt to create the atmosphere they want.”

As for his own personal tastes, they are evident just by looking around his home. “I like a lot of gray, with little hints of one color. My predominant color tends to be read. I like clean aesthetics. My carpet is probably the brightest thing in my apartment, but I do like that little element of surprise, the little punch that people don’t expect.”

In spite of the support he gets from his team, Ramesh doesn’t discount the toll the demands of his job can take. “The perception is that because you’re always flying around the world, it must be a glamorous job, but it’s not all of that. It’s fun, but it’s very tiring, and I end up work very long hours. I’m with clients all day, so I only get to do my own work at night,” he reveals.

So what, then, keeps him motivated? “My holidays,” he chuckles. “What I do – having to constantly come up with new ideas – is extremely draining, and sometimes I end up drawing a blank. So I take short breaks whenever I can, and I’m much better when I come back.”

Much like what he does for his clients, Ramesh has also learned to push his own boundaries, which is a creed he lives by. “I don’t hold back on anything that I want to do anymore. Whether it’s going to a particular place that I’ve always wanted to go to, or living my life the way I want to live it, no matter what anyone says,” he declares. “I used to be more reserved and think, Oh, maybe I don’t need to do that, I can wait to do this, but now I just do it, if the opportunity arises. We shouldn’t take things for granted, because if you wait too long, the opportunity might not come again.”

And much like all the contrasts in his work and his home, Ramesh’s own interests outside of work contrast with his professional life. “I bake insanely. Baking is very therapeutic for me, especially when I’m stressed with work,” he reveals. “Baking is a science; I don’t have to think about it, and I just follow the recipe. I love coming home and baking a cake or brownies, and I’ll take it to work the next day because I won’t eat it. So for those couple of hours, I don’t have to think about work; I’m just following a recipe and watching a cake rise. It’s amazing.”