Sometimes all it takes to spark a businessidea is the realisation that you can do what other people are already doing –only better. Sasi Paton and Michelle Penfold were both employed as artists atan American commercial art studio that was contracted to work on the Lost City.“I went back to South Africa to work on the project and realised that SouthAfrican companies were bringing in international commercial art studios becauseno one was offering the service locally,” recalls Sasi, “We saw a huge gap inthe market for people with skills like ours so we packed our bags to come backhome and set up our own local operation.”
With just R250 each, the partners startedPaton Penfold Studios out of a garage in Durban, offering commercial artservices to entertainment and retail developers. “We were young and veryambitious,” says Michelle, adding that their biggest challenge was to convinceclients that they were on a par with international companies. “They were usedto dealing with overseas operations like the one we had both worked for inRhode Island, so it took a great leap of faith for them to give us a chance.And when they did, the pressure was really on us to deliver excellent work.” And deliver they did. Their first big localproject was for the Gateway Shopping Centre. “They initially had Americanartists in mind to do the project but we convinced them we could do the projectourselves. It involved constructing the 6-metre high suspended figures that canbe seen at Gateway,” Michelle relates. The partners agree that one of thebiggest advantages of being involved in work that occupies a public space isthat it acts as a showcase for what your company can do. The Gateway projectgave Sasi and Michelle the foot in the door that their company needed andopened doors to bigger projects. “One of the projects we’re most proud of isthe work we did in the public viewing galleries downstairs at the aquariums atuShaka Marine World. When we started it was a blank cement wall and we createdthe entire themed environment, doing everything from the sculpting andinstallation of props to the scenic painting,” says Sasi.
She adds that, unlike set building for filmor theatre, commercial art needs to be lasting. “It’s not like creatingsomething that’s going to be dismantled after a couple of weeks and this meansthat we need to choose our materials very carefully. I believe that ourknowledge and use of different materials is definitely a key strength,” shesays. Although no longer the only player in the local market, Paton PenfoldStudios continues to maintain a competitive edge due, in part, to suchtechnical know-how. “There’s a lot more competition than there was when westarted but our competitors tend to do more of a mix of things, whereas weremain highly specialised in our field, particularly in the three-dimensionalwork that we do,” says Michelle. But it’s not all about creative flair ortechnical knowledge, as Sasi explains, “From an operational point of view, it’s an enormouslogistical challenge to co-ordinate projects of the size we are involved in. Itinvolves artistic, mathematical and engineering capabilities. We draw on a hugedatabase of creative people who we need to co-ordinate so that the whole thingcomes together in the end. Strong project management skills are vital to makeit in this industry.” She adds that it was a challenge initially to sourceexperienced local commercial artists, “But we solved that problem by employingpeople who had the artistic ability and then teaching them on the job. As longas they had the basic talent, we could develop them.”
The scale and type of work is physicallydemanding but Sasi and Michelle insist on a hands-on approach. “We are involvedin every aspect of the project from beginning to end. We are very committed toseeing things through personally and I think that has helped us to deliverexcellence in all our projects, including those that had very tight deadlines.”The completion of each new project adds to the company’s growing body of workand continues to open new doors.
Contact: +27 82 453 0701/2; www.ppstudios.co.za