Petaling Street: Penny Ng’s Happy Place
The Originals. A series of portraits with some of Malaysia’s most original and disruptive talents.
Episode Four. Penny Ng. An Original Designer. Co-founder of MentahMatter.
Brought to you by The Glenlivet
Human centric designer Penny Ng, co-founder of design firm MentahMatter, is known for her work in preserving historic buildings across Petaling Street and Chow Kit. Not just for the sake of renovating a building, but with the purpose of bringing new life and energy to these areas. The much-covered Rex KL is one of her most recent projects.
To put her money where her mouth is, Penny has her own office in Chinatown and opened a few F&B outlets as well. While design is an exciting and meaningful business for her, she loves food. Her F&B adventures include Botakliquor Bar, Chocha Foodstore, and JOLOKO. These ventures provide her daily insights on how people experience and interact with space.
Her passion for old buildings, adventurous sense of spirit, and focus to create simple solutions through her designs are what pushes her forward and why she is one of The Originals. In this conversation, Penny talks to us about her work, what inspires her and why she dislikes comfort.
Kicking off the conversation, Penny took us back to her happy place, Chinatown. After school she would visit downtown Kuala Lumpur and Chinatown and just wander around, without telling her mum, she laughs. She recalls the food, the alleys, the buildings and generally the culture.
Fast forward to today she explains how she is changing Chinatown, “when we started our restaurant, the area was kind of dead. Where our office is, at the end part, that row of shops is kind of dead and really quiet and run-down. What we are doing is, we are trying to renovate the space and use it. This is a very basic approach to start a thing, at least someone using the space, and it slowly will become impactful.”
Although her dream was to become a fashion designer, her interest in beautiful things led her path to become an interior designer instead. “When I was growing up, I slowly discovered that I am more of a space person rather than garments and soft furnishings. I found that I like to observe people and see how people use the space.
As the conversation continued, Penny walked us through her journey about her new adventures. “As I said, I like to observe people. That’s why we own a restaurant. For a designer, after they finish a project, they hardly use the space, as the owner uses it. Since we own a restaurant, every day we face different customers and complaints, so you kind have to deal with it immediately. It’s not like design where you can go back and change it, amend it for other options, but the restaurant is quite direct. So, we kind of find it quite interesting and inspiring.”
Every design element and principle needs to have a purpose. “We always think from a human scale, how you use the space, even a very small thing like a fork or a glass, or the environment, the music, the texture that you touch, everything that affects your mind and brain. So, I think everything is kind of related.”
The design and the restaurant businesses also have clear similarities. She shared, “Why are we going into a restaurant business is very much because we love to eat, and we find out that actually to be a chef is very similar to a designer. We use different ingredients, like using different materials to create a space. To create a dish is kind of similar; the philosophy, the thought, the rationale behind, so even in our restaurant we are quite focused into local produce. And the same goes for our design. We try to use whatever available and try to cut down the carbon footprint and to reduce wastage of materials and also the wastage of food.”
While some people like new shiny buildings, Penny and her partner get excited by old buildings. And while this is a genuine passion, there is also a logical side to it. “There are a lot of old buildings in Malaysia, empty buildings, and there are lot of new buildings that are empty also. I think it’s good to reuse or restore the building rather than go straight to building a new one”. Considering the number of empty old buildings, she has her work cut out for her.
How did it all start? Together with her husband Shin Chang, they build a company with a mutual respect towards simple and practical things. They appreciate architecture, space, green, art and humanity with unity as a basic approach.
“Mentah the meaning is, we believe in an ordinary, primitive and very basic approach. No fancy style or design philosophy. Matter is how we deal with design problems. We believe a simple way to solve the problem can be very impactful too.”
Her work is inspired by everything around her and definitely her travels, too. When asked, architect Sejima Kazuyo has inspired her a lot. Penny likes how she thinks about architecture. “It’s very much related to space, the people and the landscape. Everything is blended in together.”
During her travels to Kathmandu in the past years, she discovered an interesting city called Bhaktapur where she was very intrigued by the city planning. “It’s like a maze and it’s all about human scale. Everything is very narrow and the height, from one house to another house, is very compact. They don’t define the space as living space, dining space, etc., that’s very luxurious to them. I kind of like that, it’s a very open planned living life. So that’s a very inspiring city.”
FOLLOW YOUR OWN PATH
Although Penny is definitely going against the grain of building new structures and buildings, she, rather modestly, doesn’t think she is breaking norms. She explains, “I can’t say that I’m breaking tradition, because 30 years ago that street was really busy and during that time there was another bunch of people making the street happening. I think it’s evolving and a revolution that keeps going.”
She does encourage everyone to follow their own path. “I believe everyone has their own talent, so just believe in what you are into and keep following your path. I think everyone can just do whatever they think is right.”
Most of all she wants people to not copy others. “try something interesting and think out of the box. Don’t give up. Keep trying, keep pushing forward.”
Her own thinking out of the box is driven by her dislike for comfort and boredom. “I never liked comfort, we always like challenge, and never like something really safe. If you have a life to try something, why don’t you do it totally different? Keep exploring, keep experimenting.”
On her final note, Penny feels that originality is hindered by the advancement of technology. “You can get a lot of information online. You can copy anything, immediately”. She continued, “you can copy, but don’t copy and paste. You have to analyse it, make it different and create something new out of it”.
Watch the video of her interview here.
Penny Ng is an original designer and one of UNRESERVED’s The Originals.
This series is brought to you by The Glenlivet