Doug Gordon, 63, a graphic designer from San Franciso and Marianne Waller, 49, an Australian marketing executive, met last year and bonded over their shared love of Phnom Penh’s quirky objects. Soon afterwards they decided to open an antiques shop to showcase the findings of afternoons spent scouring the city for treasures: from wooden tables and stools to a model rocket from Kampot zoo. The result, ''trunkh.'', on Sothearos Boulevard, opposite the White Building, opens on Saturday.
“As a kid I used to build clubhouses and when we first started with this shop I thought: ‘are we just building a clubhouse?’ We’ve selected all the things that we like in Cambodia: the silly things, the beautiful things, the old things, and then we are making products that are inspired by all of this: tea towels, and a line of bedding.
When we first met she was a marketing executive and I was a graphic and art designer and we thought we might just start something together.
I was going through some transitions. I’m at point where I’m at retirement age but I don’t want to retire: I don’t have a family, I can move around. Marianne quit her job and went traveling with her husband, so she had just returned from an extended trip and I’d just moved here and it was like a light went on. It was after about the fifth time of saying, ‘did you see those little plastic things?’ that she said, ‘Douglas, why don’t we open a shop?
As we got talking we realized that we loved the same things: such distinct things, Cambodian, Khmer, but we’ve never seen anybody embrace it and mix it together and do things and re-purpose things.
Take just an old piece of grid – we put some legs on it, a beautiful piece of glass and when it’s clean, you put a Louis 15th vase on it and it would be amazing. There’s an old wood table, it’s my favourite thing here, it was in the trash and I saw it and thought it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
We went through a lot of names. One of the first was stool, because I love these stools - we decided against that one. Then Marianne made the point that a trunk has many meanings.
It’s is a box that you open up full of treasures, it’s an elephant trunk – a key part of Khmer culture. It’s a tree trunk – stability. And then she came up with this: put an ‘h’ after ‘k’ and you get Cambodia – and I added the dot, a conceptual thing.
We love our location. This area is really changing. I hear dancing and sometimes music coming from the White Building opposite. There are cafés and guesthouses.
I think the neighbourhood is gonna go through a slight renaissance – it’s going to turn into the next East Village in New York.
I go way back to LA in the 60s, San Francisco in the 80s, New York in the 70s, Tokyo in the 90s and I have my favourite little places that don’t exist anymore in all those cities.
The thought of opening up a little favourite place for somebody really excites me.”
“I think Doug is the more stylish of the two of us. I just tend to collect: my house is like this but ten times worse. It’s a lot of weird mixture of really eclectic things that I’ve traipsed around the world with me.I’ve got a polystyrene bear’s head from a Polish flea market. It looks like a real bear and it’s stuck on a wall in my kitchen with all the pots and pans and kind of weird communist things from Shanghai and Russia and flea markets.
A mutual friend introduced me to Doug. He’d come into town and she said I’ve got this great friend, he’s a designer, and you guys would get on really well together. We had our first meeting at Yumi – a little dinner together one night and it was great, we just clicked.
I think one day we were sitting around a pool, having a drink, and we were talking about how we’d sort of traipsed around the world with so much physical baggage and we were talking about the idea that when you’re travelling it’s good to take just one bag – one trunk full of important things and that’s it. The objects here, they are important even though some are fallen down or a little bit broken: for us they are what makes Cambodia such an important place.
Now locals are coming to the front door and saying: ‘what do you think of this thing? Would you be interested in this?’ It might be a piece of furniture or a musical instrument. They think we’re a bit crazy. The guy who we source some of our wood from, at the end of a day when we’d been rummaging he said: ’you guys are mad.’
I think it’s still going to be expats and travelers. When we did the business plan for this we weren’t going to rely on foot traffic – passers-by – at all: Phnom Penh’s not that kind of town, it’s not really a walking around kind of time. But because the Building is here – the Van Molyvann – I reckon maybe 10 people a day stand out the front and take photographs.
We understand that the market here is small: we are dreamers but we’re not stupid. So in 2013 we’re going to start looking at selling things online. If you go on Piniterest or Etsy - I see our stuff in a similar line – a warm industrial look or an urban rustic look: it’s very now. I think it will be going for a while because people are recycling and re-purposing at the moment.
It is evolving, it’s a process. We’ve got ideas about where we want to go with this but in the end its really just us making it up as we go along and if people don’t get it, we’ve still got a great cubbyhouse.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Poppy McPherson at [email protected]