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Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Award-winning niche designer uses greenery, pebbles, pieces of furniture to hide concrete
Texan's magic transforms verandas
By MAMI MARUKO
When you step out onto the veranda of Theodore Jennings' penthouse apartment in Tokyo's Shinjuku district, it almost feels like you're on vacation in some other location — be it New York or some European resort.
"A lot of people tell me that. They say this doesn't feel like Japan," said the 36-year-old Texas native as he stood on the veranda overlooking the Tokyo Metropolitan Government buildings and the Park Hyatt Tokyo.
The space has a combination of Asian and European air to it, with pieces of furniture, potted plants and bonsai laid out luxuriously on his 35-sq.-meter balcony.
Not only did Jennings turn his own veranda into a comfortable space where he could hold parties and invite friends, he has also renovated other people's verandas — and at the same time turned it into a business.
"It was an epiphany," said Jennings, who had worked mostly in the financial industry before he started his own company, Vacation Veranda, in 2010.
"One day I was looking out of my window, and I saw all the verandas and I thought, 'This will be a really good idea to design people's balconies,' " he said.
Jennings said he saw all the "empty balconies" with only laundry poles or trash cans in sight, and thought he could transform those idle, unused spaces into "beautiful, lush gardens offering a vacation escape experience within people's own homes."
Using materials ranging from pieces of furniture, potted plants and lights to wood decking and pebbles, Jennings has renovated more than 20 verandas in Tokyo — varying in size and location — in an effort to open up a new window in the nation's outdoor lifestyle garden market.
Jennings said he chose to enter the business after he got positive feedback from his friends and acquaintances for his work on his own veranda.
"It helped me realize that I had good style, and people — people I know and people I don't know — liked it," he said.
Jennings calls himself a self-taught designer who has not received any higher education in design or art, but he said he used to draw sketches of buildings and houses as a junior high school student. He said he also takes after his father, who was a carpenter/plumber working on people's houses. "A lot of my ability with my hands comes from my father," he said.
Many Japanese people still have reservations about having their verandas transformed, according to Jennings.
"They just have a resistance. They think, 'Why does this guy want to do my veranda? This is strange, it's different, I don't understand this.' " Jennings said it took him a while even to get someone to let him do his or her veranda for free.
"I have to educate (the Japanese) that you're not going to die or the world is not going to end because you suddenly start enjoying a little bit of your home life. You get an extra room, and spend time outside with your family and friends. The point for us is to make it reasonable, but to give everybody a little piece of luxury," he said.
He transformed six verandas for free to friends and acquaintances before he started charging his customers. He gradually started getting more work through word of mouth and some exposure in the media, including an article about his niche business in The New York Times.
Jennings charges his clients between ¥100,000 and ¥1 million, although he first takes free consultations to discuss a customer's taste and budget. "Then, I come up with a design that I think would be the most beautiful way to use that space," he said.
He stresses another merit in converting a veranda — which includes greening the concrete floors. "It cuts energy costs by cooling hot concrete balcony floors. Your concrete balcony floor in the summertime can go 2½ times the heat of outdoor temperature. It heats up your house more, as well," he said.
He pointed out that greening a space is something that the government pushes for. "If one applies for a government 'greening program' grant upon greening your veranda, you can get up to a 50 percent refund," he noted.
He procures most of the material to convert a veranda domestically, but he said he has found it difficult to find good pieces of furniture in this country where "the outdoor garden market is underdeveloped." He said he intends to import furniture from Thailand in the future, where there's a wider range in both price and variety.
The veranda business is already flourishing in major cities in the U.S. such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and also in Paris where a lot of people live in apartments rather than in their own houses. Jennings said he "took a model that already worked and applied it to Tokyo."
Last year, Jennings found a Japanese business partner, Akira Kataoka. The 34-year-old Kataoka is Jennings' former rugby teammate at Doshisha University, and quit a company with an intention to start his own business. He took a liking to Jennings' taste for outdoor garden design, put his capital into the business, and now takes care of the operational side of the company.
Jennings said the Japanese and non-Japanese duo work well together, complementing each other in many ways, both culturally and characteristically. "He cares about details and I don't. He's very conservative, and I'm very liberal. Our difference is making the company stronger," said Jennings, noting that Kataoka pushes him to think about the kind of details Japanese clients might worry about — such as how to deal with the plants on the veranda when a typhoon hits.
Last year, Vacation Veranda won the silver medal in the Hibiya Park Gardening Show's Garden Contest — an annual competition that has been held at Tokyo's Hibiya Park since 2003 — in its "Lifestyle gardening" category.
Jennings was born and raised in Fort Worth as the second of six children in his family. "My family was very poor and we grew up on food stamps," said Jennings, adding that his house was in a rough neighborhood, where large number of people fell victim to frequent gun crimes.
He said he wanted to get out of the neighborhood, and receive higher education, unlike his parents and grandparents who never went to college. "This is a spiraling situation where everyone stays in poverty for many generations. Your grandparents are poor, your parents are poor, kids are poor . . . you never see anything else. I thought 'I just don't want this for the rest of my life,' " he said.
With an advice from his high school teacher, he transferred to two prestigious boarding schools in Massachusetts, Philips Academy Andover and North Field Mount Hermon School, and graduated from the latter. Later, he went on to study economics and East Asian studies at Oberlin College in Ohio.
His first encounter with Japanese was when he took a semester off in his second year at college and took a course in Japanese language. "My Japanese teacher was strict but excellent. She helped me get my first foundations in Japanese," he said.
While in university, Jennings came to Japan for a summer program, and then enrolled in a one-year program at Doshisha University in Kyoto. This was when he studied Japanese culture in depth.
After graduating from Oberlin, Jennings went to work for a finance and banking company in London for a few months before he was sent to Japan in 2000 by his employer. He has lived and worked in Tokyo ever since.
Now he hopes to turn his company into a major presence in the outdoor garden market.
"We want to be the Louis Vuitton of outdoor lifestyle garden design shops," he said. "If we do well in Japan, I hope that it turns out to be something we can do in another part of the world. That's definitely my goal."
For more information on Vacation Veranda, check out www.vacationveranda.com