· Personality · · T. Maria Cruz · P. Nick Bayntun

Nini Andrade Silva

«I no longer need much to be happy»

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A story that you could write a book. A book that have a name already: «Ela» (She). And she is the one that many people know as the «Garota do Calhau» (pebble girl), that girl from Madeira who became one of the divas of interior design in Portugal. And it is Portugal, and her passion for Madeira, the archipelago where she was born, that Nini Andrade Silva takes to the four corners of the world. The island she calls home was where it all began. Where creativity came to life, over and over again, through design, projects, painting, pieces, art. «Ela» gave meaning to disparate words and ideas that came to her at night and created unique and surprising projects, which led to her winning dozens of national and international awards. She became the Madeiran Honorary consul of Colombia, a country where she has had huge success. Nini, «Ela», the «Garota do Calhau», is a woman of causes, and although life has given her moments of sadness, her broad smile is what sticks in our memory. And nobody is immune to her fits of laughter. Almost three hours later, there would be so much more to ask, to tell. But here, in this Villas&Golfe interview, there’s room for just a few of the precious moments.

What is being different, for you? 
It’s to be the same as yourself. This is the only way to be different. 

You can already look back on many years of working, learning and knowledge. Have you stopped to reflect on it?
Life is like a party. There are those who arrived early and are not tired, and there are others who have just arrived and already want to go home. I still don’t want to go home. At the party of life, I will stay until the end. Because I like to work, I like to do things and I really enjoy the day. 

Do you get so involved with the projects that you carry out that, even after they are finished, you are still capable of coming in and tidying up something that is out of place?
Just now, I was tidying up the hotel [the interview took place at the Savoy Palace, in Madeira]. A hotel that isn’t even mine. In fact, it was never mine, I just did the work, but sometimes I feel that things are mine and I come here and if I see something out of place, like the vase that wasn’t there, I tidy it up. 

Black and white are your colours, but you’ve actually filled pages of your life with a lot of colour, such as, for example, through painting.
It’s funny, when I started painting, I painted with a lot of colour, I did flowers. I have a painting of mine, in João Carlos Abreu’s museum, full of flowers, which nobody believes, except when they look at the signature] And then, when I started travelling a lot, I wanted to take a small case, not for fear that they would rob me, but afraid that someone would put something inside it, and one day I thought it was very difficult to take a suitcase with such a mixture of colours, that’s when I came up with the idea of taking black or white clothes – they would go with everything. It became easier. 

And, to complete the outfit, you go with a hat…
I’ve always worn hats a lot. But when I started working in Colombia, they have a hat there called the «panama», I started wearing them even more. Now it’s become a trade mark.

Speaking of Colombia, when did you first venture to this land?
Colombia is a charming country. In fact, when I was invited to go to Colombia, 12 years ago, I’d won several awards, and there were posters at tourism fairs saying «diva of design Nini Andrade Silva». When you searched «design Europe» my name also came up. And the clients who invited me to Colombia wanted a European designer. They called me on the phone. When they told me they wanted me to go to Colombia, I immediately said: «I’m not going to Colombia», if they want to, they can come here. And that week they showed up at the studio in Lisbon. I felt embarrassed. They came to meet me and then I went to Colombia. 

«The clients who believe in me are the clients who win awards»

And a few years later, you became Honorary Consul of Colombia in Madeira. What did you feel when they asked you? 
When the ambassador of Colombia to Portugal came to Madeira she didn’t know what Madeira was like. And when she asked the Colombian embassy who could represent the country in Portugal they immediately said: «it could only be Nini». 

Do you thank life for allowing you to be with certain people and to get to know certain worlds?
I give thanks every day. I’m grateful for being here in front of the sea, I wake up and see the sea; I’m grateful for having been born in Madeira, an island where everyone is like a family. 

You very much like to work. Do you think you will get tired one day?
I only get tired when I’m explaining something that I’m sure will work, but as people have never seen it, are unable to believe in it. The clients who believe in me are the clients who win the awards. I am meant to imagine. It is very difficult to explain to a person something new, that the person has never seen. It is the same as when you read a book, and then go to see the film, it is totally different because everyone reads the book in their own way. At the beginning it wasn’t easy, possibly because I’m stubborn, I succeeded. I always go all the way, even if I explain it 50 thousand times, I explain it until the people believe me and when I see that I won’t succeed, I accept that I didn’t succeed (she laughs).

And what makes you happy? 
So many things make me happy. For example, someone else’s happiness makes me very happy. The other day, I went to a shop and bought some things and the lady who served me said: «you are entitled to this bag». But the bag had nothing to do with me. And there was, behind me, another customer who said: «I would so like to have that bag». But what she bought wasn’t enough for her to get it. So I turned around and said to her, «look, don’t get me wrong, but if you want mine, as I only wear black and white, I can offer you mine». The look on her face and her joy were so great that I left the shop happy. I no longer need much to be happy. 

Do you feel fulfilled with your journey? 
Yes, I do. Sometimes my sister says to me: «Nini, you’re so cocky», and I reply: «I am not cocky, I work for it». In the same way I am not offended by someone who says to me «Nini, I don’t like this in the project». I am able to understand and accept it. I don’t like a person telling me they like it just to please me. I prefer them to say: «Nini, this time I didn't like it». Because, that way, I will think «maybe the person is right» and what if I had done it differently? One day, a young woman came to my studio, she had some stones painted in colours, and I looked at that and said: «I don’t like this at all», but I thought «Nini, calm down, why are you doing what people do to you?» and I told her: «leave the stones there and come back tomorrow». As I went in and out, the more I passed the stones, the more I liked the stones. And the next day, I loved them. When the young lady came back I told her: «I like it so much, I’d like to have two of them in the Design Centre». This is to say that my first reaction was to tell her «no». 

At the moment, you have your studio in Lisbon, and here in Madeira?
I’ve had it in various places in the world. But then I realised that it would be better to focus on Portugal. Not least because I could be invited to the other side of the world, instead of being there. 

And, what about the atelier, how do you manage such a big team?
There are 55 of us. But then I have more than 1000 people who work with me, from carpenters to painters etc., they are my suppliers. In Portugal, we are perhaps the biggest Architecture and Interior Design studio. I can tell you that I have very good people with me. It’s become a family business. I have a nephew who is an economist; another who is a civil engineer, who manages the projects; my sister, who does all the Human Resources, and my brother, who is a landscape designer. But I can honestly tell you that these people on my team are all my family. I don’t consider some of them more family than others. 

«My parents taught us to be fair and that’s one of the most important things»

How old were you when you really started to get more recognition as an interior designer? 
I was in my 30s when I began to be better known. Until then, I just did jobs.  

How was the beginning of your career? 
When I was at university I painting t-shirts, trainers, bags and pictures and then sell them. I always did a lot of things. There was a shop here in Madeira called «Ateia» and I made a lot of things for that shop. Then, when I finished the course, I worked for the Madeira festivals for a long time, I made things for the regional government, for the Secretary of Tourism. Later, I taught for three months, then I stopped teaching and that’s when I went to the United States. When I returned to Madeira, I went to Denmark, came back and went to South Africa, I travelled a lot. 

Did you gain much of your knowledge in those countries?
Yes, yes. A little bit from all of them. Later, I started going to Asia a lot, and that’s where the boom in my career took place. 

And how did you get to Asia? 
I arrived on my own. When I went to the United States, I lived with the Kikibano family. Mr Kikibano, who was the person who had rug shops in Madeira, also had shops in the United States. And he always told me: «Nini, much of our future will involve Asia». Mr Kikibano died very young and I that always stuck in my mind. And as I was doing the fairs in Paris, I noticed that there were many things that were similar, and I started thinking «where does this come from». At the time, I spoke to a friend of mine who was the Foreign Affairs Minister, Luís Amado, and he told me: «Nini, I think you should go to Asia and see what happens there». One day I decided to go. It was then that I did the Aquapura in Dpuro [it even featured in Villas&Golfe], almost 20 years ago. From then on, I started shopping in China, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, India.

Do you manufacture more in Portugal today? 
Today, I manufacture almost everything in Portugal. 

How are your working days? 
Usually, I arrive at the studio and say: «we have a new project». They get so excited.  For example, we’re doing a museum now, the Lorvão Convent, it’s near Coimbra. It is a spectacular, and it’s a beautiful monument! In this case, Inês, who is in the studio in Lisbon, and has a degree in cultural management, did the first read up about the place, studied the history, then she gives us the deadlines and each one starts in their own corner envisioning things. Finally, they come to show me.

It is important to point out that you are not just about decorator… 
No, I’m not. People don’t know that. We do interior architecture; it depends on the client if they want the architectural project or not. Everything that can be taken down is decoration, everything we see that cannot be taken down is interior architecture. And we do that too. 

The projects take your sleep? 
They let me sleep perfectly. I don’t go to bed without an agenda and a pen. I go peacefully and if I remember something, I write it down right away, so I don’t even have time to forget. I have a lot of good ideas in the middle of the night. Sometimes when I arrive at the studio and say: «last night», they already say: «oh no», because it’s a sign that I’m going to change everything that has already been done. I like to feel the ‘wow’ so I change. A while ago I thought of something, I went on the Internet to see if it already existed. An international brand had done something very similar, because this happens, so I cancel that idea and start over. I could easily do the same, or very similar, and that person would never be associated with the other, but it doesn’t make sense. I like to create.  

«I’m not cocky, I work for it»

You have given lectures in a dressing gown. Do you like to feel different?
One should not only do what is thought of as beautiful. Sometimes I give talks dressed in a dressing gown, it’s for people to understand that the ridiculous has a place, and that it’s not ridiculous. And there are places for everything. You have to know who is going to be the final consumer of the works we produce. Normally, people go looking for an ideal, and they go to hotels looking for that ideal, but the truth is that something that might look good here, might look bad somewhere else.  

Do you mumble to yourself a lot?
I do, I do... (she laughs), and I pray. I always have someone keeping me company, my mother, Our Lady of Fátima, my godmother. I feel protected. I have a little star (she smiles). I never feel alone. My mother died very young, I think she is always with me, I am sure she is up there, her, my father…

They were both very special to you. Are there any important lessons that they left you for life?
Yes. We are three siblings. Our parents always told us that we should think carefully before we act. To think about if we are right, if we are being fair with people. It was always a very important thing in our home. Whatever we did, we had to be fair with whoever was with us. So, I try to be as fair as possible. I’ve had people who’ve worked with me leave to go and work in other studios, and if I come across good work done by them, I call them up and say «I went there, I very much liked the work», I wish the best of luck to the people who’ve worked with me. My parents taught us to be correct and that is one of the most important things. People should be fair in life, and with others.

How would you describe your childhood?
My parents were teachers and we lived in a ‘school house’, in Funchal. The house was big, it was different, it had big gardens and we had a room with 40 children in the morning and 40 in the afternoon. I went to another school, I didn’t go to this school [my brothers did, but I was very unruly (she laughs)].

Were you the most ‘mischievous’ as a girl?
Yes. My brother was a very good student, my sister was a very good student, and I was that student who would be passing notes.  

Why did you misbehave, did you want to be different?
Because I wanted to create, I was always distracted. I was in my own world. At school we are ‘forced’ to learn things that have already happened and I wanted to do things that hadn’t happened yet.  

And they wouldn’t let you, is that it?
No, so I always had to be one step ahead. Therefore, I only lasted two weeks at my mother’s school and then I went to another school. But when I got home, I had all those children to play with. We played aeroplane, we skipped rope. I’ve always been used to being in the middle of lots of people.

Was a family of artists.   
My grandmother liked to write poetry, my father sang, there was theatre, there were all these things. It was a world of artists in the house. My brother was an art critic, so he always taught me a lot about art; Uncle António used to say: «Nini is going to be an artist»; my father, before he died, told me «Never stop being who you are». He was a teacher, he was an artist, he sang, but he was an artist only in his spare time. When there was a party, if father went, he was the artist of the party. If my father didn’t go to a party, it wasn’t a party. He would sing. 

And has your relationship with your siblings always been good?
The three of us are different, and all the same. We have the same base. My sister Luísa was in the arts, she was the person of culture, and she was the person who worried about me, has walked with me all my life. When I went to Asia, she stayed in Madeira, but whenever I needed her, I would call and she would answer the phone at four in the morning. Luísa has given me a great deal of strength and helped me to become the person I am today. And so did my brother Ricardo. He is the president of the Garouta do Calhau Association. Ricardo has always helped all those in need. In fact, the three of us made things to sell, and helped at home. But Ricardo has always protected children and the elderly. Today, in the association, we already have an Alzheimer’s centre, we have six day centres, with 600 people, which for Madeira is a big thing, and now they’e building a night centre. All the extra work I do, or lectures, is to help Garouta do Calhau and also other associations in other countries where we have hotels. 

You will never stop being the garota do calhau, do you know that?
When I was a girl and I saw the kids, the pebble kids, the ones who walked on the rocks on the beaches, I wanted to be one of them. So, I would walk all day in the street. My mother told me «no, you have to learn», but I wanted to go out. And if I misbehaved, she would say «you look like a pebble girl». When I grew up, I had my first flower painting exhibition, with the four seasons. And a friend of mine told me that it had nothing to do with me, that I should dedicate myself to something of my own. That’s when I came up with the idea of painting pebbles and that helped me to call myself the pebble girl, which was one of the things I always wanted to be. I started painting pebbles and later I gave the name to the Garouta do Calhau association [before, the association was called the Community and Development Centre]. When I was 50 my brother offered me the articles of a foundation, but then it was all very complicated, and I told him that I didn’t need a foundation because I just wanted to help. So, as the association in Funchal already existed, I just gave it a name, which became Garouta do Calhau, and I was thrilled.

«My father, before he died, told me, ‘never stop being who you are’»

How would be the ideal house for you?
I like my house. It’s not big, but it has a garden and the Atlantic Ocean in front of it. When I wake up, I open the window, I only see the sea. I like living in my house. Is it the ideal architectural design? No, it is not. I could do a much more beautiful project than that, but I feel very happy there. The ideal place is where you feel happy. But if I were to get a piece of land, like this, in front of the sea, here in Madeira [I love the people, I love the whole world and all the places I’ve been, but I belong here], I’d ask the architect Carvalho Araújo to do my house, with one bedroom, a loft that’s all open, studio and kitchen.  I like my house, but I’d like to have that one too.

From the island of Madeira you went on to conquer the world. Was that always your dream? 
I wanted it very much. A friend of mine, Horácio Roque, always told me: «Nini, life’s opportunities come to everyone, some people seize them and others don’t.» That phrase has always stayed with me. In fact, it takes a lot of work; I think you can only succeed when you manage to work your way through tiredness, but then there are people who, when they are tired, stop. It takes a lot of dedication, whatever profession you’re in. There are people who have been much happier having children, having a family, others are happier than me, and they haven't done anything. I am happy doing things. 

What is so wonderful about Madeira?
The other day I was sitting outside a friend’s house. We talked about the weather. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, there were no mosquitoes, nothing. In fact, when I travel to so many countries, which are fantastic, there are mosquitoes, it’s very hot, or you can’t be outside. Madeira has a spectacular climate, which people don’t even appreciate. I love Madeira. I am the person who sells Madeira best. 

How do you deal with the fear of flying?
By facing it. One comes into the world to do things; I can’t just stand here frozen, just because I’m afraid. But I am afraid. In fact, everyone knows that I’m afraid of flying, but I spend my life in planes (she laughs). And great things happen too. On a trip from Brazil, three lawyers were coming together, two at the front, and I was next to the other gentleman at the back, and he very politely turned to me and said «since we’re going to sleep together, I’ll introduce myself (she laughs) ». I thought that was so funny.

And would you write about those incidents?
I would write. I would write a lot. I have another one to tell. One day, on a plane, a man was sitting next to me and he started talking, and talking; he was going to India, so was I... He was Indian. We were in first class. After a while he says «if you're not going to eat, can I have your food?» I thought «in first class and you go and dine on other people’s food, how strange». I asked him, «Why are you doing that?» He said, «when you get outside, you will understand». I realised he was collecting all the food to give to the most needy, who were out there waiting, at the airoport. Wonderful. 

And what title would we give your book?
«Ela». Because in the studio, when I’m arriving, they say she's already arrived, she’s coming», I’m no longer Nini Andrade Silva, I’m «she». I know how to write, but then I don't know how to write it right for a book. 

But that would be easy to solve.
I’d do it with you. I’d like to. That's it, I want to do a book called «Ela» (she laughs). We’ll have to think about that. 
Maria Cruz
T. Maria Cruz
P. Nick Bayntun
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