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Pia Jane Bijkerk is a stylist
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I'm reading
Pia Jane Bijkerk is a stylist
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Pia Jane Bijkerk is a stylist
Pass it on
Pass it on
"I didn't want to do it the way it's usually done, which is from ground zero. I like to come into things sideways."
Conversations
1 January 2010

Pia Jane Bijkerk is a stylist

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Pia Jane Bijkerk

Kate Bezar on Pia Jane Bijkerk

While from the outside it might look like Pia Jane Bijkerk lives an idyllic life (she’s an interiors stylist, published author and photographer … and lives on a houseboat in Amsterdam with her French partner), she’s refreshingly honest about how anything is rarely as perfect as it might seem.

Not one to keep her dreams on a shelf gathering dust, Pia’s put in a lot of hard yards to make them a reality. The only thing is, they now all seem to be coming to life at once!

This story originally ran in issue #22 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KATE BEZAR: This connection seems great. You must have pretty good wireless on the boat.

PIA JANE BIJKERK:
It is great. The landlord’s wonderful, he’s really passionate about boats so he’s done everything himself and everything’s hooked up. We didn’t have to do the internet or the TV or …

One of those things that just felt like it was meant to be?

Absolutely. You know when you move to a foreign place, doing all those little things can be so difficult.

Why did you move to Amsterdam?

Well, I had moved to Paris first. I packed up everything I had in Sydney and put it into storage and left. Then it was really difficult for me to find work in Paris. I’ve heard that a lot. It’s bad enough as it is because this [the styling] industry is quite tight, but going to Paris is like a thousand-fold worse. If you don’t speak French fluently, and even if you did but are not from Paris, then that’s a tick off your name … They’re just not really welcoming to new or overseas talent. They really like to keep it within their own circle. Then there’s also the living … I’ve since realised that Paris is very different to visit than it is to live in. When you’re visiting you’re not dealing with the everyday things like going to the post office or supermarket shopping and stuff. I found that I was coming back to my apartment every afternoon after a day out and was just so tense. It’s such a huge city as well, so to go anywhere takes a lot of organisation. You know, it just didn’t feel right. My partner and I, I met him in Paris, ended up coming to Amsterdam for a long weekend because I had a meeting with an agent here and the agency said, “We love your work, and if you move to Amsterdam we’ll represent you.” My partner was thrilled; he loves Amsterdam. That was his first visit and he just fell in love with it; so here we are.

Brilliant.

Everything just went quite smoothly which is a good sign that you’re on the right path, for me anyway, that’s how I think.

How many years did you battle it out in Paris before leaving?

Oh God, how many months? [Laughs] I think I lasted eight months.

I just assumed it was years because you had time to meet someone and form a strong enough relationship that they wanted to move countries with you!

No, no, eight months. I’d met him on an earlier trip the year before.

So how long have you been in Amsterdam now?

I’ve been away for three years, roughly; two years here and roughly eight months or whatever in Paris.

It really does sound like as soon as you moved to Amsterdam things just started falling into place for you.

For the first few months when we were looking to move here we were going back and forth between Amsterdam and Paris quite a bit and we had this standard joke that we would play … We were stunned when we came to Amsterdam at how many people in the street just smile; smile at you, smile at nothing you know, even when it was hailing and everyone’s on their bikes, they’re still smiling. I thought, this is amazing. So every time we’d go back to Paris, in the taxi on the way to our apartment, we’d count how many people we could see smiling on the way. We’d pass thousands of people and not one of them would be smiling. For us that was a real, okay, we’re going to where everybody smiles.

This story originally ran in issue #22 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #22 of Dumbo Feather

So you’ve had heaps of styling work and you’ve obviously managed to put a book together in that time?

Yeah, I had to almost start from scratch again which was quite disheartening because in Sydney I’d had constant work and really good clients … but yeah, I did that here and then the Paris book with an American publisher. She’s awesome. I’d heard so many scary stories about writers with publishers so when she contacted me to do the book I was like, dream come true, but also God, what is this going to be like?

She just contacted you out of the blue?

Yeah, it’s from having my blog. My blog has given me so much exposure. It’s awesome. I’ve been contacted by tons of publishers and for heaps of work from all over the world.

Why do you think that is? I don’t expect you to rave on how fabulous your own blog is, but what do you think it is about it that makes it different to the literally millions of others that are out there?

I have no idea. I really wouldn’t know. The only thing I know I do is put 100 per cent into whatever I do, if not more. Even with something like the blog, which makes me no money because I don’t put advertising on it and actually costs me money because of the amount of people that come to it, I think it’s just me.

It’s 100% me. I don’t know if that means anything, but it seems to work and people really like it.

Also I don’t just put interiors and styling on it, it’s very much all the things I’m involved with and for now, it works.

Why did you start it?

I’d only just discovered blogs while I was in Paris, probably because I had time on my hands and I just got hooked. There were a few blogs that really caught my eye and I started reading them. I was like, wow, this is amazing! These people … I was thinking about all the things I could write about and that’s how it started. One of the things in this industry is that you’re never really told how you’re going or how your work is. We have a saying that goes something along the lines of, if you don’t hear back from a client then you’ve done well. That’s not enough. You want to hear. You put everything into a project or a job and you just want to hear that it’s … you want someone to rave about it you know? We’re artists and that’s what we thrive on, so with the blog I thought, this’d be great – I’ll get some feedback. Even to grow as an artist, having that feedback helps. It’s a platform as well for where I want to go with my work. I really want to create a bit of branding I suppose and I thought it would be a good platform to get my name out there.

How popular is it? How many visitors do you get?

I don’t understand any of that sort of stuff. My partner’s actually in IT and from what he tells me it has roughly 3000 regular visitors a day and, I don’t know, 6-7000 page views or whatever; I don’t even understand what that means.

Do you ever get nervous putting yourself out there, because you are quite open in it, to 3000 people you don’t know?

Yeah. I’m actually very private and my family is ultra-private, so you can imagine the reaction I got when I told my parents that I was going to start a blog.

Mine wouldn’t even know what a blog was.

[Laughs] Exactly. First I had to explain it, and then it’s like, “Well what are you going to write about?” It takes a little while to find where your boundaries are with a blog and now I’ve got a good balance. Every now and then I’ll go to write a post and I’ll think, no, that’s just too personal. I know people love that; they love to see photos of you and they love to know what you’re doing everyday, but I draw the line at that. I’m not Twittering either. It’s too far. Facebook and the blog is enough.

Especially amongst everything else you’re trying to do. I’m curious. How did you get into styling in the first place?

That must have been about six or seven years ago now. Before that I’d had a homewares store on Sydney’s Northern beaches for four years …

You opened that straight out of school?

Yeah, well out of University. I finished my degree and the guy that I was with at the time had always wanted a store. My degree was in Film and Photography and I just felt that I was too young to go straight into film. I wanted to get to know people, characters, get a bit more life experience … I always wanted to be a director and I had a lot of stories, but I wanted to develop characters and I didn’t want to do it the way it’s usually done, which is from ground zero. I like to come into things sideways.

So I just thought, let’s do it, let’s open the shop, and that’s exactly what I did. I went sideways and opened the store.

You obviously had a love of beautiful things even back then.

I think so. I was always … My mum’s a closet artist really; she’s my backbone as far as that goes, teaching me how to make things, even though every time you say the word ‘craft’ she shivers. The thought of scissors and glue just drives her mad, but even when I was a kid she was in there doing it with me, always rearranging my room … You know, that same old story. So I opened the store and then my partner and I split up because going into business with your partner is … well, don’t do it. It was fine, we’re still friends. I took over and then I could just see that retail was going down. We’d had that boom after the Sydney Olympics, which was when I opened the store, but a few years later I could see it declining rapidly. I decided to close after four years, took a year off and went to Canada. My partner after that was Canadian [laughs]. My life is marked by my boyfriends. You know how people are like, “Oh, back in 1995 …” Mine is definitely by my partners.

There was the John phase, there was the Tom phase …

Exactly. I took a year off, he took a year off, and we went to visit his family and just looked after our health a lot. My health had really declined from having the store. By the end I had two stores actually and I was really not well …

From just working too much?

Working too much and having no time to eat. There was no time to do your basic necessities like go to the toilet or eat. My whole life revolved around these two stores and it took me three or four months to recover. I also wanted to see if I was ready to go back into film. I thought,

I’m just going to let whatever take its course and see which direction my heart follows.

So I dabbled in everything. I dabbled in the film industry with a girlfriend who owns a studio and I still had clients from my store so I did decorating and what not of their homes. Then I was sitting just on the wharf with a girlfriend and she said, “You should go into styling.” I was like, “What the hell is that?” I had no idea. So she told me and I was like, I think I could do that. I got some contacts, I emailed agencies, photographic agencies, and that’s how it started.

Who gave you your first job?

Saatchi & Saatchi. It was a nice big one, a catalogue for David Jones (DJs). It was assisting Jenny Booth, this stylist in Sydney, and she’s now one of my dearest friends. After that stint I assisted other stylists and they weren’t like her at all. I think if I had assisted one of the others first then I would have been put off and thought, this is not for me. It can be quite bitchy. Saatchis and DJs became one of my regular clients when I was in Sydney. I was doing a lot of their catalogues, and it was excellent.

How do you try to stay away from that whole ‘bitchy’ side of the industry?

I think being freelance helps tremendously because you’re not in it, you’re not in the offices, and when you get regular work that’s when you start noticing it. I tend to not pursue it that way. I’m always about growing in my work; if I sense that it’s stagnating then I’ll try to correct it. I’m just not good with that at all.

It’s nice to know that you can succeed without being like that in it.

It’s something I really struggled with when I first started because my life actually revolves around human rights and sustainability and is very much about the person you are, but I was seeing how you had to be to succeed in styling … I’ve got big goals for what I’d like to achieve, but I was really thinking, I don’t know if I can do this, maybe I’m never going to be able to achieve what I want to achieve because I refuse to become that person and I will not treat somebody else like that ever. I had a real kind of, how am I gonna do this?

So how do you reconcile the part of you that’s passionate about human-rights and sustainability with the fact that your job is ultimately about making people buy more stuff?

Again, that first year was real make or break it for me because here I am making things look pretty for people to consume and I was distraught by it. I was like, I just don’t know how to do this. I just did tons of thinking and researching and I thought, with what I believe in, I can just preach to the converted or I can try to reach the masses. I want to be able to make the converted minority a majority.

I thought, what if I can use this to my benefit, what if I can make a bit of a name for myself? Then maybe I could help swing things to the balance and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I choose you know. I choose my clients and my blog is very much about local work, handmade work and sustainability. Even though I’m still promoting products, each and every one of them is within my core beliefs. I can also tell you that the me that I am, that my partner and my family knows, is a lot more opinionated than what you see on the blog.

You do get a taste for it on the blog. I know from there that you’re passionate about Tibet’s independence …

Yes. In Sydney I did a lot of work with the Tibetan community and I still continue to when I can. My friend Tempa is Tibetan. His father was a prisoner for 14 years and I made this pact with Tempa that I won’t go to Tibet until there’s peace. I love everything about Tibet and Tibetans, but I thought, it’s unfair for me as a westerner to go and visit their homeland when they can’t do it themselves. I would love to see it in my lifetime. My thing is that I do what I can to help.

There was also a beautiful piece of styling work that you did for an African non-profit on your blog recently.

That was through my agent, The House of Orange. They have a charity organisation called Orange Babies, started by the founders of the agency. They work a lot with children in Africa with HIV and mothers. I’ve got so much work on at the moment, because I’m working on another two books, so I had said to my agent that I couldn’t take any styling work until September/October, but then they mentioned what they were doing to raise funds for Orange Babies and I said “Okay, but just that one” because any opportunity to be able to help that directly is wonderful for me. They did a fashion show, a catwalk, as part of Amsterdam Fashion Week. Ten of the fashion stylists in the agency put together the show and everything was made out of recycled pieces and secondhand clothes put together perfectly. My contribution was doing the promotional photographs and the concept was a reverse goody bag. When you go to fashion shows you get a goody bag from the designer or whatever, but this was the reverse. You brought a piece of clothing to the show and we sent it to Africa. It was actually the first ever fashion show that I’ve been to. I don’t do fashion. That’s another thing I stay clear of because that’s again even worse, but it was fun.

I’m worried about you. I’m worried that you’re working as hard as you were when you had the two shops and not even going to the toilet.

I know, me too, but I said to myself that I would never do that again, so I’m always checking myself cause that was really hard. I’d like to think I’ve learnt a really big lesson there as far as keeping a balance.

Sometimes it’s hard when it’s in your nature though, isn’t it?

Exactly. I feel like for me it’s all happening at once. Everything I’ve worked hard for in the last 10 years is all coming at me right now, but it’s like I can’t enjoy any of it because I’m just trying to keep up with it and keep it here. I’m battling with myself as far as trying to keep the balance and still enjoy it. Even in the styling industry it’s very common for people to just work so hard and I said I’d never do that. It’s very much about being busy all the time, being run off your feet and you’ve got so many clients and I thought, I don’t want to do that. This is like a lifestyle choice as well for me so that I can have a bit of down time, look after my health and keep it in check, yeah. I’ll be alright, don’t worry.

Oh good, I hope I don’t add too much to your plate doing this for Dumbo Feather.

No … What I particularly like about Dumbo feather is that it reminds me of a part of myself. There’s a depth to what you do and that’s exactly what I always felt was missing. When I was on a styling job I was always so interested in the people of the house – the house is just where they live you know. In this one story I’d been asked to put together I focused on the people: “How did this happen?”, “Where did you get this?” – but it just wasn’t at all what the magazine wanted. It wasn’t good enough, it wasn’t expensive enough, and I said, “But this is real. That’s what you’re supposed to be about; real homes with real people.” You probably know where I’m going with this … Anyway, we happened to be in another house shooting and it was … huge. It was so, like, nobody could afford this place. Anyway the editor turns to me and says, “This is the sort of place I’m talking about,” and I said, “But none of your readers can afford this,” and she’s like, “But it’s something to aspire to.” I was like, “It’s not realistic; they’re never gonna get this.” I just thought, this is not for me; I’m not doing this; you’re giving these people false … like, let’s be real. The people who have this house have either had money in their inheritance or whatever …

They’re in the 0.001 per cent.

Let’s not continually aspire to something that is not our life, let’s enjoy what we have. Let’s see what we have right in front of us and around us.

That’s where my philosophy of ‘enhancing the everyday’ comes in because it’s about seeing what you have, not what other people have. That’s why I love homes that are real – it’s the people inside that actually make it.

Why is it, do you think, that beauty is so important to us?

[Sighs] I don’t know. I mean, even with me and writing my blog, there is so much that I don’t say. I get a little disheartened every now and then because I feel like when I am realistic about my life I don’t get much of a response. You put yourself out there and people kind of back off because it’s not pretty, it’s not Paris, it’s not … You know what I mean? It’s like people don’t want the real you. I have so many people come to me and they think that my life is just incredible. I’m like, “No. I have things going on in my family just like everyone … There are so many things going on in my life that you don’t know; my life is just real like everybody else’s.”

Of course.

But you can see them blank over. They don’t want to hear that, they just want to believe that I live in this incredible houseboat and that I just did it by clicking my fingers.

People just don’t want to know that it’s hard work, I suppose.

I wonder why that is. We’re brought up to believe in fairy tales and I guess as long as the dream of a fairy-tale is still alive then there’s still a chance that it can happen to you.

Yeah, but it’s like the Princess Mary [of Denmark] thing. I mean, wonderful story and amazing, but her life must be really … I mean, imagine making that change. It didn’t just happen overnight; she literally had to change herself to do that. She chose that and good on her, that’s awesome, but people just want to believe that she’s this princess. I’ve never understood that. I get a lot of people asking me about starting up their own businesses, doing what they want, and I’m very encouraging because, you know, that’s what I do; but they don’t realise that it’s hard work just like any other job.

If not harder.

If not harder, exactly. The other day I gave the analogy that … I think that I got it from that George song Breathe in now. Do you remember that song? There’s a line in there, something about having a dream on a shelf. A lot of people have these dreams on their shelf and they just let them sit there. I’ve never done that. I pick it up and I go with it, but it takes the fantasy out of it. The truth of achieving this dream is that it becomes your reality and that means there are all sorts of things involved in it. There are lows, there are highs. Then there are other people who just let that dream sit, they just let it sit up there and they prefer to fantasise about it. I say to these people, you have to decide whether you prefer to fantasise or whether you want to take it on.

If you take it on, you have to know that it will no longer be ‘a dream’ in the sense of what a dream is. It will become your reality and it will have everything that reality has.

Are there some things that you wish you’d left on the shelf?

I think that whole ‘having a shop’ dream that a lot of people have … It would have been good if I’d left that, but I never regret anything because that four years was like my business degree. It was insane. I feel like I got a masters in bloody small business and it taught me so, so much: how to save money and all the expenses necessary. I think people don’t take that into account. The book is another great example. Writing a book has been a dream for my whole life, but now it’s a reality, it definitely loses that ‘wowness’. I would not give that up for the world; I love it; but, yeah, you don’t get to the end of it and go, “Wow, I’ve written a book.” I see my book on a shelf and I just look at it and I’m like, yeah …

If you’re anything like me, I don’t even really like reading through it. All I see is the stuff that I could have done better or differently or, you know.

Yeah, exactly, that’s also for me. I don’t talk about the things that I don’t like about the Paris book, but there were plenty. You work with other people, that’s the case with any job isn’t it, and there’s always going to be things that you’d like to change.

Can you tell us what the next two books are or is that secret squirrel?

The immediate one I’m working on is an extension of the Paris book and it’ll come out in April 2010 I think. It’s Amsterdam: Made by Hand, so that’s good.

Gorgeous.

It’s closer to home so I can get out on the bike, although it’s actually been more difficult. When my publisher said to go ahead and do it I was like, great, this is going to be so easy, I’ve been living here for a year and a half and I’ve got so many contacts. I think I just gave myself a bit of a false ‘it’ll be a breeze’ kinda thing, and it’s not. It’s actually more difficult than the Paris one.

Why is that?

Well, for so many reasons. The Paris one I started in April of last year, but this one I didn’t start until July and everyone goes on holidays in summer. Even the shops! I mean it’s the middle of Amsterdam, I was shocked. “This is an international city people, you don’t leave,” but apparently they do. So there’s that and the French are much more … Everything that’s good is on the outside so it’s very easy to see what’s beautiful. It’s easier to find because they’re very proud of it and they display it. The Dutch are the complete opposite. They keep everything that’s good inside and sort of away from view, so the outside just looks like a hole in the wall. There’s no websites, well not that many, so it’s very much about walking into these places that look half dodgy and then finding this incredible world within. It is quite exciting, but it’s just a lot more work.

When you do find the places and the artists it’s wonderful. I ride home like I’m riding in the clouds you know!

I imagine the book will be that much more valuable for readers because you’ve done those hard yards.

I always try to anyway, it’s just that it was easier with Paris. Also, maybe I’m even more attached to Amsterdam so that’s why I want to make it even more special or something, I don’t know. Yeah so that’s that book and the other one is with Murdoch Books in Australia.

Will it be Sydney: Made by Hand?

No. It’s nothing to do with the handmade, it’s the ‘My heart Wanders’ project that I started ages ago on my blog – it was a project for people to send in images for a book. I started that last year and it just took off; like it just went mad and I got inundated with emails. I couldn’t even look at all the photos there were such a lot. While this was going on I’d been contacted by a Sydney publisher. We worked together to create a proposal and what not, and then that publisher ended up passing it on to Murdoch Books and they just fell in love with it. We’ve just spent the past few months negotiating a contract and I just signed it the other day and sent it off, so yeah it’s pretty exciting, a bit scary. I think this one’s scarier because it’s my dream book, the book I’ve always wanted to create.

It’ll be a really big, nice coffee table book, but it’s not the original project, which was other people’s photographs. It’ll be actually more like a travel memoir describing my journey of following my heart, I suppose.

Beautiful.

So as soon as I finish this one, I start that one in October.

Congratulations.

Thank you, yeah, it’s a bit scary though. I don’t know why. I suppose it’s just because it’s more personal isn’t it? Whereas the ‘made by hand’ one is other people’s work, so …

It sounds like you’re doing less and less styling for other people, but more styling for your own projects.

I think so, because I really love this. I don’t know how other people do it, but I can’t write books and style at the same time. I’m not that multi-talented, unfortunately.

Yet you seem to be quite disciplined. Do you ever find it hard to sit down and start writing?

Right now I’m going through the hardest time ever to get myself motivated, but it gets done. I think I’m pretty good with self-discipline. When I was a teenager we travelled a lot, we lived in different countries, and one of the last places we lived in was Italy, in this tiny little village where nobody spoke English. My parents always included us in conversations about things and they gave me a choice of either doing correspondence from Australia or going to boarding school in Switzerland. I was like, “I’m not going to boarding school.” I’m really close to my mum and I couldn’t imagine living away so I did correspondence from Canberra and I excelled. I did really, really well and I got, what is it when you get the top score? Dux? So I got that, and when I look back I think that was probably really good grounding for self-discipline and maybe that’s where I really excel, in my own space. Then we went back to Australia and my grades went back down. I’d had two years of not having any friends so coming back to go to Pittwater High and seeing people that I knew from when I was a little girl, yeah, definitely didn’t help my grades. Boys too. I was 16.

And what’s the plan? Are you going to stay on the house boat for a while longer?

It’s really weird because when I moved to Paris I packed everything I owned into storage and just took a small suitcase.

I didn’t mind that I didn’t know what the future held, I was really taking a step into the deep, but I think it’s changed.

I’m with my partner and I’d like to start a family … and I also feel very compelled to be back with my mum. So I feel that pull, but, yeah, I don’t know what the future holds.

The beautiful thing is that the kind of projects you’re doing you can really do anywhere. As long as it’s stimulating you.

That’s right. I’d always had that ideal to move up north, to either Northern NSW or Queensland, and have the beautiful house with the big yard so I could grow my veggies, have a goat or whatever and raise a family, but I sort of feel like that’s almost … I’m really enjoying my life now and feel like if I start that now, I’d be missing out on a whole bunch of stuff and I’m not ready for that quite yet.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Pia Jane Bijkerk

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