There are plenty of unique stores around, but none can beat SKULL. Founded by Rhett Hutchence and his partner Vera Ribeiro, the store which is located on Jalan Petitenget and Jalan Seminyak (Bali) host a wide range of fascinating creations (everything from clothes to stylised skulls), and have gone from strength-to-strength attracting an array of customers – even converting non-skull lovers!
Here Rhett discusses the inspirations behind the intriguing items, his love for Bali and why he chooses to reside there with its inspiring environment.
Does coming up with ideas for your designs take a long time? What is the process?
Not now. I think I am on a roll. Skulls are easy. It is one part of our anatomy that can be represented in a million ways and formats, and has been for years. Skulls don’t die. So it is only a matter of thinking of the different applications and various modes of delivery. Some of my works are obviously plays on iconic pieces, the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, Banksy tributes, famous works of art etc. Others are ideas born of me, (maybe), a Pinocchio skeleton puppet, a clown skull, Rubiks skull, Frankenstein’s skull, for example.
Presently my life revolves around skulls. My house is full of them. I wake up and have a coffee, then think ‘I know, a clown skull’, so I’ll usually google my idea to see what else is out there. If nothing, I go for it, or sometimes I have a variation on an already depicted theme. Then, say for a clown, I download a bunch of clown images to show my carver as there are not many clowns in Bali. Next I may have to explain what it is and what I want. “It’s a skull with a clown nose laughing”. I then explain a clowns nose. After about a week, I return to see what’s been made. The nose looks fine one angle – and squashed from another. So I have to explain again, a clown nose along with other downloaded images from all angles, back and forth and so on. Even importing a foam nose to to try get my idea across! So some things go down smoothly, some I must forget to pursue.
I love that the Balinese tend to make use of what the rest of the world may discard or never use. Natural things that would normally decay or rot away, are given second lives here. Stone, shell, plants, roots, leaves, you name it , are all re-born with various other uses. Bali is creative too and I have a ton of ideas to keep me busy. And they do.
Do you remember when the idea for skull-inspired crafts first struck you? And the unique portraits too?
I was looking for something to do when my partner Vera mentioned that she had always wanted a skull shop. You’ve got to have a concept. I thought, interesting, and we dived in head (skull), first. Vera does all the fashion, our SKULL label, and I do the décor/arty side. I have always had an interest in art, but never have been happy with what I’ve made myself. Having been a perfectionist, I would set myself up for disappointment with everything I tried. Bali changed that. Here I am able to to be an artist in the Damien Hirst/Andy Warhol way. I think of the idea, and get other people to make it for me. It is cathartic in a way, and over time has helped me become a bit more comfortable with my own art skills too.
We worked for about a year before opening, getting stock and such together. We currently produce in stone, wood, bone, shell, metal , coral, mirror, wax, horn, paper and resin. That all took time finding the right people. Sometimes we would ask someone to make something and they would not be interested at all – because it was a skull. I still drive by some places and think, what a shame they never took our business , it would have helped them. I think we are on top of it all now, and our inventory is expanding daily almost.
Many of your portraits have been produced with artist Trần Trung Lĩnh. What do you like about working with him and collaborating on these fascinating pieces of art?
I met Lĩnh in Vietnam in 2008 after seeing his art exhibited at a bar. We became good friends and I started to represent him. Lĩnh is amazing. There are millions of incredible artists in Vietnam. Yet they rarely think for themselves. Ask them to copy something, and they can create the most accurate replicas, down to a brush stroke. Ask them to paint something from inside their head and they get a little confused, still needing prompts. Lĩnh is different. A product of the ‘American War’ he was brought up through TV, videos, and then the internet, and thinks outside the normal box. Lĩnh’s work says something in every painting, a social snapshot of what’s bugging or inspiring him. I have done shows in Bali and Amsterdam with him.
We started working together first in Bali. I have ideas, but cannot draw a stick figure that I am proud of. With Lĩnh, I can send him an idea, and he can transform it onto canvas. Sometimes it’s lost in translation, sometimes that loss is a gain. Yet usually, we are on the same track and he delivers a perfect representation of my idea. We don’t always agree on ideas. Lĩnh is a strict believer that pop art is NOT funny, so I got to bring in the reins on some ideas, or they are just cartoons. I love working with Lĩnh, and watching him work – he makes it seem so easy and natural.
When did you decide to open a store, and what makes Jalan Petitenget and Seminyak in Bali the perfect location for it?
SKULL first reared its lovely head on Jalan Petitenget in Kerobkan in August 2013. It quickly became popular and a destination shop. It was interesting watching the world come over to see our baby, to see what worked. To see their faces and hear their excited squeals, and even a few hasty retreats added to the show. Some people LOVE skulls, and I guess some don’t, associating death. SKULL tends to belong to the happy/loveable skull adventure, not the gnarly death type scenario. I have seen people who hate or dislike them, suddenly take a liking to some of ours which is nice.
One could open a dozen skull shops in a row all concentrating on different aspects of a skulls diversity. A happy skull shop, a scary grim reaper one, a cheap Chinese novelty one, the bikey one, a pirate store, scary Halloween type etc – because there are a zillion skull products out there. Our skulls are more decorative and homely. SKULL makes and produces everything from tables to chairs to candles and lamps, books, book stands, walking sticks, art, décor, door handles, knockers, coat hangers, cushions, bean bags, vases and plant holders – to name some of our lines. Petitenget won the 2014 ‘Best Retail Space’ at the Bali Yak Awards, and was listed as the only store in French ‘Vanity Fair’s’ ‘Top Ten Best Things To Do in Bali’.
With the success of our first shop, opportunity came last November to open and expand in Seminyak on Jalan Oberoi, or “Eat St” as the tourists call it, or “The Magic Mile” as locals say, because of it being a most lucrative spot. And all is good. SKULL was lucky to grow organically, and now things are fairly under control. Living in paradise comes with its cons too, but if you are aware to factor in all the translation mistakes back and forth; lost time due to Bali and what they call , “Rubber Time”, because it stretches, and all the ceremonies and holidays here – you can thrive. Things take time here and you have got to realise some skulls have a number of processes before realising any final product, which each process a learning curve.
Petitenget is our baby and always will be. Oberoi is the world we can leave it, and officially, the largest skull store in the world. Haha. Beat that.
Are there any other hobbies that you have which you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I guess, right now, I am happy with what I am doing and what it brings. So, no, not really. I have, become more of a hands on artist though. And travel is an essential part of life for me. My resolution every New Years Eve is to go somewhere I have never been. Ticking off my list.
Bali is a beautifully scenic place to visit, what is it that appeals you to Asian culture?
I first came to Bali in 1972, and began returning frequently after my brother Michael died. I find Bali is a healing island. It doesn’t accept everyone, and can spit some people out. But as far as I am aware, I am welcome. I love the freedom, the culture, the spirituality, which is abundant here. Bali is my home now. And mostly I love that I can get my ideas transformed into reality here.
Where in the world is the best place you have travelled to?
Not an easy question as the world is full of incredible places which have not been destroyed, yet. It is a shame we call cannot live in harmony, and tend to invade and wipe out others cultures. I’d have loved to have seen Europe before WW2 for instance, before Operation Obliteration. I have lived in Australia, America, Manila, Thailand, France, Amsterdam, Hong Kong and Bali. Asia has been a big part of my life. I grew up in Hong Kong, finished high school in Manila, and have spent years travelling around Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia. Europe is still beautiful. America has some of the most diverse landscapes I have ever seen. Hong Kong holds a special place for me, as does Bali. I cannot think of living anywhere but here now.
Is there somewhere you haven’t yet been to but would love to see?
Pretty much the only places I have yet to explore are South America, Canada, Africa, Russia and its bordering countries. I am going to India for the first time in a couple of weeks. Super excited about that. Oh, and Tibet and the Maldives are on my list.
If you were stuck on a desert island, what 3 things would you have with you and why?
My partner Vera – because I love her, my Cat Sushi – as I cannot think of life without her, and a small serviced apartment or house with all the mod cons.
Check out the stores designs here:
Rhett’s instagram : https://www.instagram.com/rhetttttro/
SKULL’s instagram: https://www.instagram.com/skullbali/
SKULL : http://www.skull-bali.com/
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