You know the saying, “behind every man is a good woman”? Well, behind Dave Cooper, multi-talented, creative genius, is Stephanie Khan – former BWIA attendant, turned business partner and fiancée.
As the story goes, in 2002, they met, fell in love, and created Hybrid Theory, an art and design company that creates and constructs many of the design elements in ‘big-name’ Carnival fetes. What that says about their chemistry is not immediately evident. However, what it says about their combined creativity is that they’re a design powerhouse.
Khan explains: “The business was created because there was, and still is, a need for creative people that can design as well as fabricate their ideas, not many people can do both. Hybrid Theory was established in order to make design sustainable for Dave and I. Dave always wanted to work within his field as an artist and wanted to make his creativity work for him. Traditionally, artists paint and host exhibitions, but it is not always financially viable.
“Hybrid Theory was a way to create art and become financially viable, so we adapted our skills to create products and services that are in demand as we operate in a country that loves to party,” Cooper adds. “We wanted to change the stereotype that artists are traditionally poor and decided to show that art is a viable form of income by adapting our work to the demand.”
Cooper is animated as he talks about how Hybrid Theory materialised from just two words he liked… to a business.
“Since 1997, I always toyed with the idea of using it as a business name, but wasn’t sure what the business would be about,” he says. “I used hybrid because our business is a combination of various disciplines (art, music, mathematics, technical drawing, carpentry, masonry, and common sense), and theory because we are an amalgamation of many different rules and practices.”
Fatefully, he had taken a commercial direction in his artistic development, years ago, when he joined the street team for local DJ, Signal to Noise. Recognising the talent in Cooper, Signal to Noise gave Hybrid Theory its first, ‘big’ job – to create an entrance for his annual Caribbean Wet Fete event. Signal gave the logos and colours of the sponsors, but Cooper had to come up with the design, transport and scaffolding to rig the final 15-foot structure. With only practical experience in sign making, Cooper, along with Khan at his side, relied on his intuition and delivered an impressive design. Their success with this event, despite the challenges, put plans in the pipeline, and since then, business and their projects have only gotten bigger.
As an artist, musician, writer, and, by day, an art teacher at San Juan South Secondary School, who is passionate about passing on his skills to the youth, creating has been a part of Cooper for as long as many people can remember. Even old friends and acquaintances from his student days at The University of the West Indies (St. Augustine) still talk about the jewellery and other art pieces he used to make in those days. With his creative eye and street ‘know how’, it soon became evident to many that Cooper was the man who knew what they wanted.
“Promoters and friends kept approaching us for help with the visual aspect of their events from ticket layout, promotional flyers, banners, and signage, and then the requests to make the venue more aesthetically pleasing began,” explains Khan.
They soon found themselves in a niche market, creating design elements for fetes.
While Cooper is design starboard, Khan is anchor. As the glue that helps to hold it all together, she chose carnival studies as her major at UWI in order to better understand the financial viability behind Trinidad and Tobago’s biggest cultural event, especially since Hybrid Theory is knee-deep in the festivities, providing design services for mas stalwarts like Tribe and ISLANDpeople. She complements the naturally talented Cooper, with her managerial skills, and communications savvy. Khan is also pursuing a minor in communications. She’s the ‘better half’ to a creative genius, and, as the custom goes in this sort of dynamic, helps to ground him.
Cooper’s design mettle was nationally tested in 2009, when he participated in the Red Bull Art of Can exhibition Judged on creativity, construction and conceptual design, artists constructed art pieces out of Red Bull cans, and Cooper, blew away the competition, with his winning entry of a four-foot Michael Jackson replica, complete with wings and iconic “Smooth Criminal” lean, made from around 500 used Red Bull cans, which qualified him to move on to a national leg of the competition in Jamaica. He didn’t win the competition in Jamaica, but earned tangible rewards.
“It was exciting, because he didn’t expect to win he just entered for fun,” explains Khan, laughing and beaming with pride for her fiancée. “We gained a lot of exposure and recognition as there were articles in Scorch Magazine and local newspapers for the entire week, and he was featured on Synergy TV. The competition in Jamaica only featured Caribbean artist and was an opportunity to showcase work and he received 2nd place in the Caribbean. From this experience we established a firm relationship with Red Bull (Trinidad), and Brydens.”
Over the years, they’ve acquired quite a portfolio and count SandBox Entertainment, ISLANDpeople, Tribe, Tempo, Triniscene, Shal Marshal, Kwesi Hopkinson, Red Bull (Trinidad), Brydens, Hennessy and Tri Star Productions as some of their clients.
As a design team, they know their clients need the outrageous.
“Our clients are people who want more than just a banner printed,” Khan says. “They want something larger than life to add that ‘wow factor’ to their event. We do more than just events as well. We visually upgrade anything for our clients and offer design and consultancy services. From sketches to fabricating costumes, we do it all. In 2009, we expanded our services to include permanent, decorative structures for our clients, which include a sign – “Stone Goddess” – on Carlos Street, Woodbrook, and a Hennessy-branded stage at Coco Lounge.”
As business has grown, so has the need to expand their team. Christopher Littrean and Simon Aboud of SignPost Ltd have become partners, and assist with design and fabrication. Workers are treated like family, and though good staff is had to train and maintain, even with this challenge, the duo has found an innovative way to man staff and nurture upcoming designers, by including Cooper’s art students from San Juan South Secondary School in Hybrid Theory’s projects, and offering them practical training. It’s also extra cash for the teenagers, and early working experience for those who love art.
“We usually hire boys, as they are, sad to say, easier to control than the girls and get less distracted,” says Khan. “We also try to help them improve their English skills, as they realize that to communicate effectively with your team or client you must be able to speak and write well.”
Camels Cooper moulded himself for the Carnival parade.
Cooper pipes in: “The local art scene, hmm…. there needs to be a more active role in Trinidad regarding educating young people, creating creative learning spaces and hosting other artists and events. Carnival arts should be taught to secondary school students. It should be part of the syllabus. We are pushing for this! Local artists also need to educate themselves regarding their rights about patents and intellectual property.
“We want Hybrid Theory to be synonymous with great designs. Our goal is to never repeat the same things, and to be better than our last design. We are trendsetters. Eventually, we would like to develop a non-profit organisation to provide support services for young and upcoming artists where they can hone their natural talents and learn skills to help them in their journey.”
If they aren’t the coolest couple you’ve read about by now, know this. They’re also into reducing their carbon footprint. Whether it’s reusing past projects, using biodegradable products, or purchasing used materials from large companies to use in their design, they’re making a difference.
“We have always been into ‘green art’,” says Cooper. “Recycling is our thing, and we would like to work with others to help create a sustainable Trinidad and Tobago.”
Over the eight years they’ve been in business, Hybrid Theory has become the go-to company for promoters. Still, it must get overwhelming sometimes to be business partners and mates 24/7.
“It can be difficult at times, but we want to make this work,” says Khan. “So we make time to be apart. We also listen to what each person has to say and try our best to not let our passion for our work come between us. We have our differences and just like any couple we argue, but we have common goals that we never lose sight of.”
Clearly, Khan and Cooper are their own hybrid – love and art.
To check out Hybrid Theory’s creations, visit their Facebook page.
Photography of Hybrid Theory (Dave Cooper and Stephanie Khan) by Mark Lyndersay of http://lyndersaydigital.com. Mark is a professional photographer and writer working in Trinidad and Tobago since 1976. His column on personal technology, BitDepth, has been continuously published since 1995. He is currently pursuing a photo essay series about how Trinidad and Tobago pursues its culture and festivals called Local Lives. Both series are archived on his website at http://lyndersaydigital.com.
Images of Hybrid Theory’s work courtesy Hybrid Theory.