Wellingtonian Simon Velvin has grown creative conference Semi- Permanent from a one-day event attended by about 400 people eight years ago to one held regularly around the world, eagerly awaited by the more than 200,000 design professionals and fans who have bought tickets.
Semi-Permanent was held in Hong Kong last year with a 5000-person launch party and will soon take place in Stockholm, Dubai and Los Angeles. There have been 33 events in five countries, satellite conferences in New York and London. High-profile creatives such as activist artist Banksy have taken the stage.
It is finally coming to Velvin’s hometown of Wellington for the first time next month with a commitment from the city council to host the conference every year for five years.
Semi-Permanent is hipster heaven. The Wellington event will have speakers who have created a webcast for Canadian indie band Arcade Fire, worked on cult television show Mad Men, made music videos for Lady Gaga and designed the typography used in London Olympics 2012 branding.
Each attendee will come away with a hardcover book commemorating the event, featuring full-page images of artworks from around the globe.
Velvin might be orchestrating a hub of the design industry’s most admired work, but it was a big leap from his former life as a chartered accountant when in 2004 he decided to simultaneously start his own creative agency and bring the then- fledging Australian Semi- Permanent across the ditch.
Velvin is the first interviewee I’ve ever had hug me.
Velvin is the first interviewee I’ve ever had hug me. When we meet he’s sipping a small strong coffee in a Wellington cafe and he quickly wraps his arms around me when I extend my hand for a professional shake. It’s unsettling and charming, which is just what he wants.
The former accountant from Karori, whose doctor dad was the Hurricanes’ team doctor, hates the social restraints of corporate professionalism.
“How we get access to more creative change is just taking the layers down and creating more fun. In the creative world, I deal with people, rather than faces. Like with you, right now with your reporter face on . . .
“I’m sure if I met you socially you’d be a little different, you know what I mean? I’ve always wanted to talk to the person inside, I always struggle with that.”
Velvin brought the uber trendy design conference to New Zealand in 2004 after two friends of his, Murray Bell and Andrew Johnstone, launched it in Sydney a year earlier.
The 34-year-old put on the first New Zealand Semi-Permanent show in Auckland, where he and his Welsh girlfriend now live. The event immerses Velvin in the controversial, provocative and stylish art world – the opposite of the accountancy career he began. He wanted a change after four years of working at PricewaterhouseCoopers where he saw himself as “a bit of a black sheep”.
After becoming a chartered accountant, he ditched the finance world – “I got over it” – but says he uses all the same skills working on Semi-Permanent. “The auditing framework still applies, it’s all problem solving.”
A few months ago, he turned down a lucrative buyout from the Cannes Film Festival organisers. Tight-lipped on the details, he said firmly that it was not a difficult decision at all.
“They obviously see [Semi- Permanent] as an asset. They’re a commercial beast and one thing we’ve always tried not to be is commercial. If you go to a film festival thing, there is advertising splashed everywhere.”
A quick glance at the Cannes Film Festival website shows the loud logos of beauty product giant L’Oreal, computer company HP, Electrolux and luxury cars Renault.
“We try to report what’s hot and what’s not. Without saying so, we try to represent what’s happening and what’s cool. We call it the most exclusive inclusive thing. We’re not here to make zillions of dollars, but to allow people to network and create things for themselves. Our objectives are more altruistic.”
The show takes place every year in Auckland, Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane. It costs about NZ$100,000 a day to run, and although Wellington’s first event is for just one day, it normally runs for two with between 12 and 16 speakers.
Velvin said the first show in Asia, in Hong Kong last March, was “f…ing hard” because of the high cost of production compared with previous shows.
“We attracted over a quarter of a million dollars in sponsorship to do the show . . . but yeah, it was hard work. There’s no underground scene there. They’re very black and white, there is no grey so you can’t use the charm. You can’t sit there and sweet-talk anyone or have a good yarn.”
Semi-Permanent became a fulltime job for Velvin in 2010 when he sold his Auckland design agency, The Church, although he retains a Wellington branch. Bell and Johnstone, who run Sydney agency Design Is Kinky, remain directors and shareholders of Semi- Permanent with Velvin.
He described the show as having “soul” and being “really raw” – once two male speakers from New York City magazine Vice overheard an audience member moaning there were not enough female presenters, so on stage, one wore a dress while the other took offence, appearing naked except for underpants stuffed with a banana and refusing to talk.
“We let them do it. We don’t brief speakers or attendees, we just let them come and do their thing and it kind of works.”
He said Wellingtonians could expect an intimate, inspiring experience next month, with associated events around the city including workshops at Massey University and an exhibition of works by female artists collective Curvy at city retailer Good As Gold.
“The good thing about Wellington, that I’ve been impressed with compared to Auckland, is that everyone has opened their arms to us here. With the council, I had a deal on the table and within 10 days it was signed. Auckland Council has only supported me [with logistics and venues] twice all the years I’ve been there,” Velvin said.
“Getting a whole bunch of creative people together, in a conference or festival-style event, is where s… happens. That’s the only reason you do it – to create change. We think creative people are going to change the world.”