About Ho Chi Minh's Design Scene
Recently I have had the chance to visit Vietnam twice – particularly the impressive Ho Chi Minh City (HMC) – for events related to design. Coming from Tokyo, HMC firstly appears like a jungle. You are immediately surrounded by thousands of motorcycles, heavy noises, chaos.
Nevertheless, a few hours later, you feel yourself a part of this wave of energy, and you start feeling at home. This is what happened to me in my two recent trips to Vietnam. “Flowing creativity” is the best definition for Vietnam nowadays. In a country where the median age is 30 years old, everything changes rapidly, from the spoon to the city.
My Italian friend Giuseppe De Francesco is a photographer and lives and works here. He explains that HMC is a new frontier for architecture and design. Many companies, mainly from Japan, are investing here, especially since the last two decades. I can see countless constructions sites, cranes everywhere. Unfortunately, most of the buildings in the historical centre are still today demolished to make space for the new constructions, contrarily to the recent global trends of restoration and adaptive reuse. Nevertheless, someone is shyly trying to change this tendency.
One of the most compelling examples is L’Usine, well known for starting the trend of modern, French bistro furniture that is now commonly found in new cafes around Vietnam. On their website, they state: “We were overwhelmed by a Saigon story, and we want to bring our vision of that to the world. From the start, we wanted to build a brand and a lifestyle that cherishes authenticity champions quality and celebrates heritage in everything we do”. Blending local heritage and modern design is thus the new approach, shared by several brands and entrusted to young Vietnamese architecture and design firms.
One of them is Vo Trong Nghia (founded in 2006), renowned worldwide for its unmatched ability to use bamboo. VTN Architects often adopt natural and local materials to create a modern green architecture with a contemporary language, while conserving a regional style and design approach.
District Eight (founded in 2010) is another firm, specialized in furniture design inspired by the industrial age. "Things were built to last, and there was a well thought out element to even the most utilitarian objects or machinery," says the co-founder Darren Chew.
Winner of several design awards, Rice (founded in 2012) is a branding and creative studio working to turn HMC into a regional design hub. During my short stay, I have visited often one of Rice's best works, the Vietnamese boutique chocolatier Maison Marou. Again, here the local heritage is the main inspiration for this work, featuring a traditional style of Vietnamese printmaking called Dong Ho, practiced for 21 generations. In the words of the head of strategy - Vu Quan Nguyen - “Design, like music or film and other commercial forms of art, is a business for the misfits and the weirdos. Not the cool kids in town. Let’s find pride in being uncool.”
This team of “un-cool” team of architects, artists, and designer is radically changing HMC and its international image. Dozens of coworking spaces and shared offices are rapidly flourishing around the city, hosting hungry and foolish local and foreign creatives.
Thuy Duong Nguyen Phan is the Editor in Chief of ELLE Decoration Vietnam and lecturer of Graphic Design in University of Architecture of Ho Chi Minh City. With its young and dynamic team, ELLE Décor Vietnam is one of the most active magazines in promoting the most recent trends in design.
I have met her the first time at Vifa Gu 2019, the first edition of a design “Exhibition of Urban Lifestyle” organized by Hawa. Many furniture brands and interior stylists across the country, as well as from abroad, gathered here to display the latest trends in interior design. Vifa Gu 2019 mainly targeted people of the millennial generation, currently around 35% of Vietnam’s population.
One of the emerging brands participating was TOT (TÔT), a new furniture brand founded in 2017 by a group of entrepreneurs and design professionals, from both Vietnam and Sweden. Leandro Martinez-Pesce - a partner of the company - guided me through their impressive booth at Vifa Gu. Their fresh and excellent products are “designed with a story and are suitable for any urban home”. Design flexibility and entry-level prices will ensure a long life to this brand, that recently opened a large showroom in Ho Chi Minh City.
Shortly after my first trip, Thuy Duong kindly invited me again in Vietnam as a speaker at the seminar “Sustainability in Design: future architects embrace eco-design", co-organized by Elle Decoration with the American brand Kohler (market's leader in plumbing, bathroom furniture and tiles) and RitaVo. The conference was hosted at the Hong Bang International University in HMC. Four speakers, including myself, presented their approach and experiences in sustainable design to an attentive audience of young architecture students.
Luigi Campanale (CEO of SCE Project Asia), Olivier Souquet (architect and founding member of DE-SO), and Vu Linh Quang, (Deputy Director of Ardor Architects) shared their thoughts on starting an architectural career with a focus on reuse and recycle, precious advice in an academic environment that does not include yet any course on sustainable design. In my presentation, I have introduced my approach to sustainability in five points, with case studies from my recent projects.
The message shared by all the speaker was clear:
it is not too late to start thinking seriously about sustainability, and the new generations of the designer must address their career on this direction since its very beginning.