Big Fish

Text by Nadine Freischlad
Photo by Dissy Ekapramudita

INDONESIA – Leonard Theosabrata is a leading figure in Jakarta’s creative scene. Transforming his family’s furniture business was the beginning of a much bigger transformation of his hometown, Jakarta.

We follow Leonard Theosabrata up the stairs of a freshly renovated part of his family’s furniture factory in West Jakarta. The office contains little more than a desk. Warm light filters in through the wooden drapes.

Leo has one of those ageless appearances. Thick-rimmed glasses and casual clothes make him look like the typical urbanites you would meet in a hip Jakarta restaurant on a Saturday evening; let’s say in a place like Goods Diner.

Except that Leo owns Goods Diner and the adjacent Goods Department, together with a group of friends. He’s a driving force behind a number of creative ventures that have changed the city’s beat in recent years.

Leo grew up in Jakarta in the 90ies at a time where clubs were opening up and kids were aspiring to become rock stars. He was inspired by American pop culture, especially design and music, and was able to convince his parents to send him to college in the USA.

With a smirk, he sums up his experience as a young graphic design student in Texas. “Have you seen the movie Dazed and Confused? That’s how it was.”

If Leo started out as a slacker, this changed when he discovered his talent and passion in product rather than graphic design. He moved to California to continue his studies. It felt like he had found his place. But after graduation it was time to decide whether to stick around and pursue a work contract at one of the prestigious American design firms, or to pack his bags and head home.

“I decided to go back to Jakarta because I’d rather be a big fish here than one of many in a highly competitive environment,” Leo says unabashedly. “I said to my friends: I want to be the product designer in Indonesia. I want to make an impact.”

It was 2002 when he returned home. There wasn’t much of a local scene for product design at that time. Leo started out by learning everything about wood manufacturing and the furniture trade at his father’s factory.

“I was drilled by my dad. I still had my red or orange hair, but my dad took me everywhere with him, even to important meetings. We did a lot of furniture shows back then. And we founded Accupuncto.”

As a duo, Leo and his father Yos Theosabrata created a line of stylish and well-crafted chairs. Accupuncto gained international reputation and won design awards such as the Red Dot. Leo’s story could have stopped there. He had achieved his aspiration to become a successful product designer.

But it didn’t feel right. “There wasn’t really any competition” he says, “I got bored.”

In a way, Leo had become a big fish in an empty pond. Then, together with a couple of friends, the idea of Brightspot was conceived: a pop-up market for up and coming local designers that was to take place in varying locations across the city. “Brightspot turned into a springboard for young designers. It works, because people make money there. It wasn’t just a big party, it proved a point.”

Brightspot’s success spawned many imitators. Hardly a weekend goes by in Jakarta without a pop-up market of some kind. But Leo soon realised the industry needed more than marketplaces.

“I saw that a lot of young entrepreneurs possess creativity and motivation but lack the know-how of manufacturing processes. I don’t see how they can grow if they don’t do this seriously.”

This led Leo to set up Indoestri, a makerspace to build capability among young designers. At Indoestri, people take up membership to gain access to welding, wood cutting machines and other facilities of an industrial workshop, and join classes to learn new skills which can be applied to their individual projects.

Whatever drives Leo forward extends beyond building a reputation for himself and setting up profitable businesses.

“I am in the private sector, doing business for profit, but with good conscience. My goal is to support the middle sector. I have been advocating the introduction of micro loans to young entrepreneurs like our vendors at Brightspot.”

Leo is part of a generation of Indonesians who are aware of the privileges of their upbringing and are now working hard to give back to society.

Against the backdrop of widespread consumerism that grew under Suharto’s authoritarian New Order government, Leo’s story is a testament that new attitudes are emerging among the young, post-Suharto generation.

“Self made” is the motto of Indoestri, and it refers to more than the way products are made in Leo’s workshop. It is a reminder that the future of Indonesia is in the hands of individuals who are empowered to shape history through a new brand of personal leadership.

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