This is how, by combining them with technology, contemporary Thai designers are taking craft traditions and local materials to the next level.
By Brian Curtin
Industrialization, we have been told, destroys artisanal craft; craft is rooted in continuity and tradition, while art thrives on innovation; craft is supplementary to utilitarian design; utilitarianism defines design; and each possess different aesthetic values. And so on. But while each category possesses individual legacies and ideologies, they also share methods and materials. Understanding this is useful for unsettling strict categorical distinctions in order to explore their arbitrary and artificial enforcement.
The designers of Slow Hand Design’s Thai Craftology fully embrace experiments with industrial processes and new technology, advancing an earlier period in Thailand when local work was restricted to original equipment manufacturing (OEM). Since the innovations of the Thai companies Yothaka and Ayodhya in the mid-nineties, contemporary Thai designers have proved themselves adept at fusing craft traditions and local materials with cultural interest and new means of production. The materials these designers use, such as bamboo and hyacinth, carry layered significance. Thailand is a rich source for natural materials and indigenous skills which can be seen across an array of products and objects, both elite and popular, and functional and otherwise.
These aspects are to be found throughout the selection of Thai designers curated by Eggarat Wongcharit, one of Thailand’s most eminent designers, for Superstudio Piu during the Salone Internazionale del Mobile (Milan Furniture Fair), celebrated April 8–13, 2014. Here, for example, streamlined aesthetics were offset by the sculptural beauty of carved wood. Modernist minimalism was dappled with rich color, natural forms contrasted with geometric shapes, and intricate details were woven through the ambitious manipulation of space. These designers also gave popular motifs and colors a contemporary finesse, and small aspects of design were rendered with magisterial treatment.
Korakot’s dynamic, shell-like forms, for example, re-figured the structural dynamics of a room, and are derived from his father’s skill in traditional bamboo-structure kite making.
Thinkk Studio employed a minimalist vernacular for furniture that possessed a familiar domestic appeal. The clean lines and geometric shapes recalled some of the greatest designers of the past 100 or so years, but here the implications of a cool, cerebral aesthetic were countered by the aura of warmth and comfort.
Anon Pairot brought a wide range of forms and materials to furniture and lighting design. Anchored by a strong awareness of classic craft production, he turned, twisted, and dissolved conventional space. The sculptural sensibility of the pieces was particularly emphasized by a great sense of the objects as unique rather than manufactured.
Designers are required to be at the forefront of green considerations; and Bangkok is a demanding but inspiring city in this respect. Labrador used feather, paper, and other natural materials for bags, notebooks, and folders that claimed a strong urban feel, a soft geometry that bespoke a contemporary modernism; or the past re-engineered for the present.
Thai Craftology essentially opened out these coded, interpretative aspects so that we can perceive the evolution of cultural forms and consider their place in genealogies, be they national, cultural, historical, or social. This gave the works a particular sense of contemporaneity: in shifting and changing their relationships to tradition, they didn’t entirely abandon tradition, but rather asked us to see it afresh.
Qualy and Srinlim avowed a sense of the famous Thai humor and love of frivolity. The cultural background of these designers ensured that they had no fear of the appeal of the delightful; and both drew on strongly coded elements from Thai culture. For Qualy, this was the lotus flower, among other symbols, and for Srinlim, the Likay operettas where the colors and patterns of costumes and stage settings were always vivid.