A designer's journey

Pride. That feeling coursed over me when I found myself at the recent sneak peek of the final episode of the design reality television series, The Apartment: Rising Stars Edition. The 10 episodes for the worldwide search for the next design superstar was filmed at Bandar Seri Alam in Johor Baru. My hometown.

Malaysians, Winston See [Left] and Ernest Loh [Front Row
third from Left] and the other 10 contestants moving into
Bandar Seri Alam in Johor Baru for The Apartment
Viewers across Asia followed the exciting and often nerve-racking journey of 12 contestants from around the world as they battled to win the coveted title as interior design superstar.

But it was interesting that the Season Five contestants were challenged to create their unique designs within nine units of link houses instead of apartments even though the show is dubbed, The Apartment.

The show featured celebrity judges that included international award-wining designer Jamie Durie, world renowned interior designer and business mogul, Laurence Llewlyn-Bowen and American design superstar, Genevieve Gorder.

It was another feather in the cap for UMLand, the award-winning Malaysian developer of Bandar Seri Alam, to have its properties featured in Asia’s biggest design show.

For ten weeks, the contestants from nations like Australia, Brazil, Chile, Poland, the Philippines, Thailand, the United States of America and two Malaysians, lived, worked and created together in Bandar Seri Alam.
At the finale of final episode of The Apartment:Rising Stars
Edition, Winston See [Right] and Aleksandra Flasz [2nd
from Right] just before Flasz was crowned the winner
with See as runner-up
At the end of every episode, the contestants met at the show’s design court, a set located within the Medini Lakeside Gallery, where one of the bottom two contestants was eliminated.

After nine grueling episodes, the contestants were whittled down to two: Aleksandra Flasz, 27, from Poland and Malaysian, Winston See, 31.

Flasz, a full-time model who studied fashion in Vietnam, took part in the show to gain some television experience. She combined design with fashion and art to create something special to emerge the winner of the show’s US$100,000 (RM427,700) prize and coveted title of design superstar.

Meanwhile Malaysia’s representative, See, an architect by training, came close to winning but had to settle for invaluable experience and plenty of home love.

Interest in Buildings

Clad in a crisp white shirt and tan trousers, See looked a vision of laid-back casual, quite unlike the more formal suit and bow-tie he sported for the filming of the season finale.

Winston See, designer extrordinare
The Johor-born See shares that his formative years were spent in Kulai. His father’s work brought the family to Johor and he fondly remembers Jalan Perpaduan, the name of the road where they lived until he was 12. The youngest of five siblings, See has three sisters, two of whom are architects.

When the family moved back to Kuala Lumpur, he went to school in Shah Alam where he improved his command of Malay, thanks to the company of Malay friends.

Just like most youngsters then, See enjoyed playing computer games and his favourite was The Sims, a life simulation video game where virtual people are created to live in houses, either pre-constructed or built by them.

It was during these countless hours immersed in this game that it dawned on See that he was largely focused on creating buildings. This interest in buildings eventually led him to seriously consider a career in architecture.

Having two older sisters who are architects also probably had some influence in his decision too. But the conviction to pursue the path, shares See, grew stronger when his second sister advised him not to take it up for financial reasons. He grew even more determined to pursue this course of studies!

After completing Form Five, See enrolled in a foundation course at Limkokwing University of Creative Technology. His family was not wealthy but his father managed to pay for his one-way ticket and gave him just BP100 (RM550) pocket money when he left for Robert Gordon University in Scotland.

Trials Abroad

Upon arrival, even before he unpacked, See went out to look for a job. His goal at that time, was to earn his keep, find the cheapest way to live and not be a financial burden to his parents.

The four years abroad was probably the toughest time of his life as See juggled three part-time jobs while he studied. Besides washing dishes, he was a waiter and also worked with a small architectural firm.

Winston See and his wife, Amy Ang Yi-Mae
While he worked and saved to pay his own way, he was grateful that his sisters chipped in to help him pay the tuition fees for his first year.

It was indeed a momentous day, confides See, when his oldest sister, an architect who was then based in London, witnessed his graduation. While he had a choice to work in the UK, See decided to return to Malaysia where he joined BEP Arkitek and started his career as an architectural assistant.

Over the span of six years, See was given opportunities to explore his creativity and soon discovered his passion for design. Around this time, he also met his soulmate, Amy Ang Yi-Mae, also a designer, and they were married last May.

Being a Contestant

Sheepishly, See confesses that he had no idea what The Apartment was all about until his wife suggested they join the contest as a pair of contestants. When they registered, they were not aware that this season’s format was for individuals and not for pairs. 

Some of the contestants at the sneak peek event
After a series of three interviews, See and his wife successfully qualified as contestants. But just before the start of the series, Amy suffered a miscarriage and had to drop out of the show.

In spite of this temporary setback, See was encouraged to carry on with the challenge. With his wife as his inspiration, he was determined to complete the journey to the best of his ability.

The first thing he had to do was to move into a house in Bandar Seri Alam which he would share with 11 contestants. He recalls that at first, it was tough as there were strict rules about communicating with family. Every few days their mobile phones would be returned for about an hour for them to make calls.

Despite having lived abroad, See realised that he lacked social skills and experience for social interaction with his housemates. A lot of this had to do with the fact that when he was not studying, he was working hard at his three part-time jobs. With the exception of Ernest Loh, the other Malaysian contestant, See initially struggled to live together with the others who came from various ethnic backgrounds.

Winston See [2nd from Right] speaking at the sneak peek
event, held at the Amarai Johor Baru hotel
Looking back, See said that the first two episodes were the most difficult for him because he had to deal not only with different personalities but also different design principles. While his instincts compelled him to flee from difficult situations, he reminded himself that he was there to learn.

As he got better acquainted with the other contestants over the next few weeks, See noticed that as they rose to the daily challenges, the contestants learned to contribute and to participate as a team.

From the start, See had made himself a pledge – not to be the first to leave the contest – and it was a close call when he ended up in the bottom two on the first episode. But after that, there was not looking back for him. Smiling, he shares that as a team leader, he was extremely proud of the fact that his team didn’t lose, not even once.

By the time they reached episode nine, the remaining four contestants, who by then had developed a very close bond, found it incredibly difficult to see the bottom two leave.

But in an exciting twist of the game, the final two contestants, Flasz and See, were given the opportunity to pick a partner from the bottom two to accomplish the final challenge. While Flasz teamed up with Andres Luer, See partnered with Ally Marrotte.

Pushing the Limits

Curious, I ask See about his use of contrasting colours and the uneven edges in his floor design. He explains how this was a flow pattern he designed to guide guests towards the kitchen, which is usually the heart of the home, and onwards to the master-bedroom and bathroom.

Architect turned artist, Winston See painting a white wall
in the bedroom with leopard spots
In the bedroom, See designed the wardrobe in a dark masculine shade while the dark leopard spots that he painstakingly painted on the white wall, act as a point of seduction.

He explains that the image of the leopard introduces a feminine element in the otherwise masculine room. It’s also a reflection of his wife’s femininity and feisty character.

Having gone through the struggles and successes in his years in the UK and on The Apartment, See admits that he noticed a common thread throughout – that he would push his limits if he were doing it for someone else. In the UK, it for his parents and in The Apartment: Rising Stars Edition, he was doing it for his wife.  

The jury at the township of Bandar Seri Alam [L to R] Dulux
Colour Guru & Guest Judge, Jeremy Rowe, Host & Mentor
Jamie Durie, Guest Mentor & Judge, Andrea Savage and
Head Judge, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen
The affable designer confides that not many people know that his first ambition was to become a psychologist. 

Now that he has found his passion in architecture and interior design, his principle is to combine his first love – to listen to his clients and understand their personalities – with his talent and creativity, before designing something which matched with their tastes.

Suffice to say, See has certainly been enriched by his participation in The Apartment: Rising Stars Edition, and has achieved much – personally and professionally – from the experience.

While he has established himself as somewhat of a local celebrity, See is content to return to his day job at his design house, Paperspace in Petaling Jaya, where he applies his wealth of experience to creating something special for his clients.

A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 3 June 2017

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