Marlies Bloemendaal is the co-founder and creative director of Ministry of New, a collaborative workspace in Mumbai that’s been recognized globally for its concept and aesthetics. Marlies was born in Netherlands, spent her early years in Nigeria, studied in Belgium, and has been living in India since 2007.
Since there’s been so much, and well-deservedly, written about Ministry Of New, we wanted to shift the spotlight on Marlies’ life and work. Over a Sunday brunch in Bandra’s Kitchen Garden, we spoke to Marlies about her childhood, education, creative influences, life in India, and about the past, present and future of Ministry of New.
Could you tell us about your childhood and early growing up years?
I was born in the Netherlands in a small village called Teteringen. It was very close to the border between the Netherlands and Belgium. My dad was always travelling for work (he worked for a global dredging company), and for a few years, we moved with him to Nigeria. So my early years were spent there. Then once we moved back to the Netherlands, my mother decided to have us stationed there so we could get a proper education and have some stability.
What were some of your early creative influences?
I grew up in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. When I was indoors, I was drawing most of the time. I was always quite creative, and drawn to design and interiors from a very early age. I used to make my own clothes. And I used to make clothes and houses for my dolls instead of actually playing with them, and also tree houses with swings and bookshelves.
Initially, I thought of being an architect but my father made me realize that I wasn’t so good at mathematics which is important for architecture. So after my high school, I moved to Antwerp to do a Liberal Arts course, and then eventually studied design and illustration, which I really enjoyed.
What were some of the highlights during your initial days in Antwerp?
The education system in Antwerp was very different. It was more strict and schoolish as compared to Holland. But it also made me more creative because they were open to experiments. The experience at the school was quite intimate as everybody knew each other, and we had a good mix of Belgian and Dutch people.
I lived there in a house with nine other students, and there were always these women’s magazines in the tiny kitchen we all shared, and one of those magazines was Flair. It was the most commercial and popular women’s magazine in Holland and Belgium. After my education, when I had to make a choice to either stay back and find a job or leave, one of my flatmates and a very good friend half-jokingly suggested that I work for flair. I was already working with bars and restaurants during my summer holidays to make some money. I honestly didn’t like the magazine at all. I thought it was quite commercial and loud. But I decided to take this up as a challenge.
I had just bought a giant Mac in my last year of school and learnt graphic applications on it by myself. So I made this creative job application and sent it across to the magazine folks. Apparently, they really liked it and called me for a meeting. When the art director asked me what I would like to change in the magazine, I ended up pointing out to pretty much everything. She liked that I was so straightforward and hired me.
So that’s how you got into the editorial world?
Yes. At the publishing house, I was able to do more than just graphic design though. I ended up working on a lot of new magazines from scratch. We used to work in small teams and that was really great.
Then at some point, I became a freelancer as that made more sense. I was working with a lot of publishers and agencies, doing a lot of art direction work, shoots, etc. And I used to still go to the art school in the evenings where I did silkscreen printing, screen printing, metal-etching, among other things. I ended up putting my work in exhibitions and made enough money to travel for about 2-3 months.
Where did you travel to?
So in the 1950s, my grandparents had traveled to India, and my dad drove from Amsterdam to Bombay with some friends from the university in 1958, when he was 20 years old. India is my dad’s most favorite place. And it was not a surprise for anyone that I chose India as my first travel destination.
Thanks to my family, I had a strong connection with India before even coming here. I knew a few people here and got hosted by various families who were all very protective of me and treated me like their daughter. It was very sweet. I stayed in Mysore, Hyderabad, Delhi, and Bombay at that time. I instantly loved Bombay.
What were some of your first impressions of Bombay?
This was about 20 years ago. Since I stayed with all these families, I immediately got involved in their daily lives. I stayed in Bandra and then in Malabar Hills for a bit. Eventually, I ended up making my own friends and used to return to India every once in a while.
In 2007, I ended up coming with a magazine to do a story on Bombay. Zenzi (a now defunct iconic bar lounge in the city) had just opened at that time. I absolutely loved the international vibe. It was my kind of crowd, and it seemed like the kind of place I wanted to be in. That, for me, was the main moment when I decided to move to Bombay. I told my colleague at that magazine that once we go back to Europe, I am going to sell my apartment and come to Bombay. And within a month, I was here.
How was your initial experience when you moved?
Initially, I kept working with the agencies and publishers I was working with in Europe as it was really good money. For some of the bigger projects, I would go back for a month or two. Juggling between two places can be amazing if you can handle it, but I really missed having a base after some time.
Then one day, I ended up meeting Vogue India’s art director at a party and started working on some special projects for Condé Nast. Even though I had decided that I won’t do editorial work in India since I wanted to do something completely new like product design, but editorial is what I ended up doing (laughs).
It was a great experience and a good way to meet new people though. Bombay is such a welcoming city, especially when it comes to the creative scene. There is hardly a feeling of competition as people really support each other. There is a sense of community, which is something very unique to Bombay. And that really helps because otherwise it is a difficult country for business owners (both Indians and expats) with all the bureaucracy, red tapes etc.
How did the first Ministry come into being?
At that time, I was a consultant with a Dutch design government organisation. I was getting them in touch with the right people and finding a space for them to have an office here. So I found this warehouse in Mirchi Galli in Lalbagh which was a complete mess but I could instantly visualize what it could become. I absolutely loved the area. And I thought it would be so inspiring for the Dutch creatives as it was right in the middle of the city and was one hundred percent Bombay, with all the old mills and local bazaars.
The organization didn’t like the place though, so I decided to take it up for myself. I was anyways looking for a new studio space at that time since the one I had in Chapel Road in Bandra had a really negative vibe to it. In fact, its ceiling pretty much came down one day! The Lalbagh place was big and expensive, but I thought I could invite more creative people to work out of there. I saw it as a collaborative creative space. At that time, there was no concept of a co-working space here, so that was pioneering. That was the first Ministry of New in 2013. It started very organically.
The Lalbagh place was big and expensive, but I thought I could invite more creative people to work out of there. I saw it as a collaborative creative space.
Then how did you end up moving to Santacruz from there?
It was going good at Lalbagh but the landlord decided to get more rent out of the place since I had completely redone it. Then somebody suggested that I look for another place and keep the Ministry going, and they said they would invest in it. While the investment didn’t happen, I ended up getting this space in Santacruz.
By then, I knew I was onto something. People really liked the space and I had some great members. Then eventually, with people’s suggestions, I decided to make a business out of this. I got a new partner (Natascha Chadha), new investors, and a new place (Kitab Mahal) in South Bombay. So it all just came together. I decided to make this space a flagship and do everything for “real” this time.
The town Ministry has already become quite iconic and has got such rave reviews for its décor.
To be honest, it was a totally rundown space but had a lot of charm. The natural light and energy there was just amazing. I didn’t do too much design actually; just renovated the space and did the decor. The charm of those high ceilings, atrium, shutters and doors was already there. I kept everything very simple like a blank canvas except for the library which everybody really loves.
Bombay is such a welcoming city, especially when it comes to the creative scene. There is hardly a feeling of competition as people really support each other.
Now that it is a much bigger business, what are some of the challenges for you as a creative person?
As a designer, it’s easy to create work for other people but difficult to do it for yourself, especially if you don’t have the headspace. I have to now manage the team, sales, marketing, business development etc. – do all that business stuff which includes a lot of excel sheets!
However, I now use my creativity in other ways. A lot of my creativity goes into the everyday things at Ministry itself like curating interesting events. Though we don’t usually realize it but there are a lot of small, daily things where creativity plays an important role.
A lot of people (including some high profile celebrities) have been asking me to help them with interiors though, but let’s see.
When you talk about daily management, you sound like a very hands-on person.
I am. It’s got to do with my hospitality background and with being Dutch. In Holland, you start fixing your own bicycles and stuff at the age of eight or so. As soon as you start studying somewhere and living on your own, you learn how to fix your own plumbing, paint your own house, do carpentry work, etc. Everyone in Holland has huge toolboxes and there are so many DIY stores around. Everyone is super hands on. So that’s very much in my nature.
It’s so different here though, and it can be really frustrating at times. Sometimes, I want to just take the hammer out of the carpenter’s hands and fix stuff myself (laughs).
How has your relationship with Mumbai evolved since you moved here?
It has been interesting to see it change, but in a way, it doesn’t really change. Bandra, for example, has changed so much in the last ten years that I’ve been here, but the everyday life – the streets, bazaars, chai (tea) stalls, etc. – remain the same.
Also, I am one of those few people who really enjoy the everyday trip from North to South Bombay. I do it six days a week, and it’s my ‘me time’. I use my morning commute quite productively. Since I don’t get disturbed, I am able to get a lot more done. At the Ministry, I have to be very social and interact with all my members, which I absolutely love and enjoy. But at the end of the day, I just want to zone out. So the ride back home gives me that space and time.
I also love seeing the city with a new perspective every single day. I never fall asleep during the rides as I am always curious to see what’s going on outside. There is just so much to see and there’s always something new on the same old streets. I still see the city both as an insider and outsider. My friends in India are usually surprised by how much I know about the city.
Though we don’t usually realize it but there are a lot of small, daily things where creativity plays an important role.
Do you travel a lot?
I had this idea that once I moved to India, I would travel so much, but I really love being at home in Bandra. Also, most of my time goes to work which I obviously enjoy because I have created my own work. Then twice a year, I end up going to Holland for my visa and to see my parents.
Having said that, I have started travelling again too. I recently went to Jaipur, Sri Lanka, Ajanta, and Singapore.
What do you end up doing over the weekends?
Over the weekends, I usually just hang out with my friends. We all love great food, so we often do cookouts or go out for dinners.
Also, I love sailing…well, I am Dutch. So I started sailing in Mumbai two years ago. It’s a way to empty my mind completely. It’s a very hands-on activity as well, and we have a fun crew from all walks of life. After sailing, we all end up going for drinks and stuff. That’s my escape over the weekends.
Lastly, what are some of the future plans for Ministry?
In the context of events and collaborations, we get a lot of requirements on a daily basis but we are now being very selective about it. We are looking at good collaborations with people who have the same standards as us and are experts in what they do. We want to do a whole range of new events but with a long-term vision.
I also want to focus on the ‘New’ of Ministry of New. I want this to be a design-led space that really focuses on innovation, sustainability, new connections, and new media. And that helps our members as well.
With the Ministry, everything has been very organic. I still remember the first exhibition that happened at the town Ministry called ‘Girls Only’. We hadn’t even finished all the work at that time, and people started pouring in by the evening and they all loved the space. We had to personally explain to everyone what the space was all about, as they wondered whether it was an art gallery or an event space.
And we got so much amazing press after that. I guess that happened because it’s a good story. It’s something completely different in a city like Bombay. It’s a happy and happening place.
I also love seeing the city with a new perspective every single day. I never fall asleep during the rides as I am always curious to see what’s going on outside. There is just so much to see and there’s always something new on the same old streets.