Daniel Ting Chong's Desk

Peep the illustrator, designer and artist’s workspace in The Woodstock Exchange

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon

The high-pitched helium raps of Quasimoto serve as soundtrack to the cross discipline design studio Only Today that Daniel Ting Chong shares with studio mates and fellow illustrator-slash-designers Jade Klara, Emma Cook, Jordan Metcalf, Hanno Van Zyl and Adam Hill. Dan's dressed in the same uniform that he’s been wearing every day for the last five years: sneakers, jeans and T-shirt.

A lot’s done changed since he first rented a space here, pre-renovation, even before adidas took over the building for their Three Stories project during the 2010 World Cup. Back then when rent cost R30 a square metre, parking was abundant and your only real food option was The Golden Plate, things were a lot quieter. Albeit a lot grimier, too. Now it feels like a shopping centre at times with randoms often walking into the office and perambulating the perimeter like it’s an art gallery, poking at the designers and pointing, like, “How much? How much?”

“It felt like a bit of a fish tank so we blacked out the windows. Also my desk is right here next to the toilets and I really don’t need to know the ablution habits of my colleagues and neighbors,” laughs Dan.

Dan laughs a lot and his resting facial expression is a smile. You’d look the same if you didn’t have a boss.

“Not having a boss is great. Not having to deal with all that. Although working with some clients can feel like working for a boss. They’ll tell you that they’ve chosen you for a particular job because they want your particular style, and then they’re always sending stuff back, telling you to put in more green and gold, asking for more 'wow factor'.”

Dan works on his wows every day between 07:30 and 18:00, and if you’re going to spend that much time at work then you may as well make it comfortable. Sharing a desk with a MacBook and an iMac is a Kidrobot Parra toy, an Etch-a-Sketch, some reference books from a project that he’s busy working on, paper samples, a Pantone formula guide, a Fokofpolisiekar cereal box and an unopened bottle of Absolut Vodka. The wall above him has prints by studio mate Jordan Metcalf, Chinese shop sticker packs, posters by Peet Pienaar and a business card sized sign, “Hey, you. You look especially handsome/beautiful today. Keep it up, champ.”

This style of motivation isn’t the norm, instead it’s more of an ironic take on hip-hop culture and “making that paper,” to use the parlance of Daniel Ting Chong. From the Richie Rich woodcut holding bags of dollars to the little postcards reminding the crew to “work hard and make money” these are in response to South Africa’s insistence on getting creatives to work for exposure.

Dan can’t make it rain using exposure. If he’s going to work he needs to get paid. And get paid he does, doing everything from making soap to designing socks to coming up with restaurant concepts to illustrations for AFCON merchandise to creating pillowcases to decorating collectable toys to exhibiting at art galleries... The exposure is the cherry on top, and happens via magazine covers for the New York Times, talks for TedX, Loerie gold, collaborations with Nike and the Mail & Guardian reckon he’s one of the 200 Young South Africans that you should take to lunch.

But how did Dan get here, a place where he’s able to work for himself, on his own terms, pick his projects and do things his way?

“I took design in Std. 8 and my teacher there, Andrew Putter, was pivotal in inspiring my creative perspective. Already then I knew that I’d do something creative. There was this project in std. 9, where we had to push a product that could sell, and so myself and two other guys came up with a creative showcase for young artists called I Eat Soup, which we sold from Bread And Butter in Cavendish. That made me realize that I could make money doing what I love.”

After school the lowbrow art movement happening in Cape Town’s east city seduced Dan further.

Warren Lewis was also a product of Andrew Putter and a bit of a God. He was doing all this cool shit and would often come talk to us at school. He invited me to exhibit at The Bin where I did a few R100 shows and was included in that adidas exhibition where a bunch of us designed sneakers for them.”

While studying at Vega, Dan was awarded an internship at Peet Pienaar’s The President agency, where he stayed for a year and a half.

“At college you don’t really learn anything, but with Peet I learned more in the first two weeks than what I’d got out of college. His thinking is ridiculous. Like how we reimagined what a magazine is and could be. I owe him a lot.”

After this Dan went his own way, shacked up with some like-minded individuals and just kind of figured things out as he went.

“We didn’t really know what to charge or how to quote but we all kind of figured everything out together and we’re a lot more professional than what we were three years ago. Now we outsource all the businessy stuff, collaborate on the bigger jobs together and are always busy with our own things.”

Dan says that while there’s merit in doing one thing well, he finds more enjoyment in learning different processes. For the sock thing, he learned all about the rag trade and that particular technology. And then there are the woodcuts adorning the studio walls, which he made on CNC routers, a machine usually reserved for joiners.

“Knowing about different things really helps, knowing different materials, why not do signage in glitter, you know?”

What other pearls of wisdom does Dan have for aspiring freelancers?

“Don’t have meetings if you can send an email. There’s this guy we know, Will Bryant, an illustrator from Portland, who gives himself an award after each meeting, this little thing with, ‘I survived another meeting that could have been an email.’”

So if he’s not in and out of meetings all day how exactly does Dan fill a typical day? 

“Usually I start my day with a coffee at Field Office. Sometimes I’ll have breakfast at Superette but it’s not really viable dropping R100 every morning. I respond to all of my email in the morning, my iCal is my PA, and then we all eat together at the boardroom table. We built our kitchen out of some reclaimed wood and Red Bull gave us a fridge that they keep stocked. Otherwise I don’t really have segmented times, and just flip between all the different projects that I have on the go to keep things fresh.” 

If you want to see more of that fresh then you can visit danieltingchong.com, because right now the man's got to work, and so we're outta here.