INTERNATIONAL LUXURY DESIGNERS ARE FINDING IN BANGKOK THE SPECIALIST CRAFTSMANSHIP SKILLS IT TAKES TO MANUFACTURE THEIR PRODUCTS.
Mass production is a dirty word at Lotus Arts de Vivre. In fact, the grandiose luxury jewelry and interiors brand is so against doing anything in big volume that it rarely produces the same design more than once. Five is practically unheard of.
The company, established by the German-Thai Buren family in the 1980s, is one of a number of internationally recognized luxury brands that has made a home for itself in Bangkok. These companies, intent on producing luxury goods of the highest international standard, have found in Thailand the right blend of dedicated craftsmanship skills and Eastern exoticism to create products not just of impeccable quality, but also with a unique brand story to tell to their rich, demanding clients from around the world.
But dispelling the myth that international manufacturers only work out of Asia because it’s cheap, these companies instead say they are based in Thailand for the superior local craft skills, be it from traditional Thai industries like silk weaving and model making, or fine imported techniques, such as Japanese lacquer work or shagreen veneering.
“Just look at the Thai garland,” says Nicki von Buren, today’s chief operating officer of Lotus and the son of founders Helen and Rolf von Buren. “Throughout Asia different countries have their own garlands, but the Thai garland is put together so much more elegantly, it’s so much tighter. And that’s the Thai style. You look at the Indian one or the Indonesian one and it’s all rather loose. But Thailand is tight. You see it in the ornate design of old houses and even the food presentation. When things are put together here, especially for our business, they’re done at a much higher level.”
For Lotus, that originally meant creating one-off, elaborate jewelry pieces out of all-natural materials for an extremely wealthy clientele of society women, but the company has since moved into home furnishings: extravagant statement pieces, many of them entirely unique, designed principally around a single material, and embellished using craftsmanship skills that draw on a range of Asian traditions—Thailand’s included—with much of the design direction coming from what the craftsmen produce rather than what they’re told to create.
“These are artists, not machines,” says Nicki. “We have to be introduced, have to get to know them, build up a rapport. We leave a piece to them and they embellish it. It doesn’t always turn out good but you can’t discard the bad; these people have a passion and we’re not always going to see eye to eye.”
But whatever piece the company is working on, it always comes back to Bangkok, where Lotus’s in-house team of highly skilled artisans finish, assemble and create their own flourishes for jewelry and furniture. Tucked away behind a dreary stretch of Rama 3 Road, the compound welcomes visitors into a vast warehouse (the Theater of Indulgences, in Lotus speak) in which their many highly valuable decorative items are displayed, from gnarled pieces of wood embossed with the silver faces of primates to perfectly polished banquet tables shaped from the roots of trees.
“We could not do this anywhere else in the world—impossible,” says Nicki. “Every piece of nature is different and it has to be handcrafted with a certain set of skills. You cannot approach it with a mass approach.”
In many ways, the Buren family and its business are a throwback—luxury pre-LVMH and Kering groups. The family lives in a compound of nine classic stilted hardwood Thai homes shadowed by skyscrapers on the most modern stretches of Sukhumvit. To keep up with the demands of a company that produces so few of each item, Ralph von Buren, Nicki’s father, still turns out fresh designs on a daily basis.
“That’s how it always was before. That’s how it was,” says Nicki. “And what do they say now? Luxury for the masses! Well, that doesn’t quite sound right to me but that’s the way it is now.”
Though Lotus’s approach to luxury flies against the mass appeal of some of the biggest names in the market, they and other local luxury purveyors seem acutely aware that, because they are based in Thailand, the outside world might perceive their products as being of lower value than their lauded European counterparts. Alexander Lamont, a British designer who, like Nicki, spent much of his childhood growing up around Asia with his antique dealer father, is quick to dispel that assumption.
“There’s often this belief that because you’re in Asia you should be cheap compared to any European companies doing this sort of thing,” he explains from his own little craft empire in Northern Bangkok. “It’s quite a challenge. Early on nearly everyone I met had in the back of their mind that everything is cheaper and maybe even easier for a luxury brand working from Asia. I would actually say it’s much more difficult to work here.”
Lamont spent several years working with various craftspeople in Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia and China before consolidating his business at one Bangkok facility. Hidden down the back streets of Northern Bangkok, the workshops of Alexander Lamont turn out the rarefied kind of objet d’art furnishings which most people are only familiar with from glossy Elle Decoration spreads of immaculate living spaces curated by New York’s best interior designers.
Walking through the maze of rooms and half-height doorways that make up the Lamont production facility, you’ll find a sedate operation of people sanding, drawing and painting, while the more heavy duty business of high-end cabinet-making—“you can count the workshops at this level on one hand”—takes place next door.
But where the craftspeople at Alexander Lamont differ from those at Lotus, is that Lotus deals mainly in traditional Asian crafts, while Lamont has built his business around craft both imported from European tradition, and from experimenting with materials to produce entirely unique new finishes himself.
He’s perhaps best known for his cabinets and tables covered in shagreen (stingray skin) veneer—a material he says took a good 12 years to get to the bottom of, aided by the most respected shagreen restorer in France.
The big challenge for luxury in Thailand, he says, is not a lack of craft skill; rather a lack of exposure to what’s possible, and what the best luxury brands in the world are capable of: “You have workers who on the whole have no real reference for what it is you’re asking them to do. The people working in Hermes in Paris are walking past the store and see it in media and as part of their culture—the quality and French tradition is part of who they are. It’s subtle but it permeates somebody who makes something and brings that extra level of expertise.”
Why then, given the limitations, did he decide to open a business here? “We considered China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Burma, and if we had chosen any of those countries I think running this business would have been more difficult. Those countries have become dominated by cheaper production whereas in Thailand, although there is red tape and customs and all those problems, it’s still quite possible to do what you want to do. I may have been able to build a bigger business in Vietnam or China—and that’s still possible—but that’s not really what I was cut out to do.”
Pieter Compernol, a Danish national whose father-in-law is one of the city’s top antique dealers (a trip to his river-house warehouse-slash-showroom, Fifty Years Arts & Antiques, is like entering one of the finest museums in Bangkok), also built his furniture brand, P.Tendercool, around techniques imported from Europe.
He specializes in tables made from huge slabs of antique East Asian hardwood sourced from around the region, polished to an immaculate finish and held aloft on lithesome bronze legs. But he also has struggled with craftspeople not exposed to the highest level of luxury finish, sometimes in areas where Thailand has a background within the craft.
“The technique for making our table bases is just the same as 5,000 years ago,” says Compernol. “Basically you have a box of sand, you put something into the sand, you take it out, you have a lump of bronze. That’s in three parts bronze casting. But it was very disappointing for me because foundries here were really not willing to investigate and research making table bases. I told them, look guys—and this was during the worst economic crisis—you have been doing this forever. It’s the same thing. it’s just a different model you put in the sand. And nobody wanted to try it. The potential is here but still in Thailand most people like to do what they’ve always done; repeating the same process and not developing materials.”
Operating on a smaller scale than both Lotus and Alexander Lamont, Pieter now has eight craftspeople working directly for the brand in Bangkok, while the casting of the bronze work he outsources to an Italian foundry-worker who claims to have worked with the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali. “None of our craftspeople have ever left the company.” he says.
Pisek Khetsanthia has worked with Compernol since the company began eight years ago. A carpenter since he was 12 years old, he’s now production manager for P.Tendercool, overseeing every stage of production including quality control. According to Pisek, every table-top takes an entire month to complete, depending on the specification as well as other factors like humidity, which can damage the quality of a table’s finish.
“Normally it takes you longest when preparing the table surface,” he says. “For techniques like French Polishing, it can take you up to two months—including more than a week of finishing. I don’t know of any other companies in Thailand making tables of this high quality. We keep everything as traditional as possible using antique woods an only natural materials, while most companies use chemicals like urethane to treat the wood.”
Though work at Pisek’s level is still rare in Thailand, things are changing, according to Pieter. “Craft is definitely gaining momentum,” he says. “People are putting love back into their work, and that doesn’t just go for furniture but everything—food, drinks. The work here stands up internationally. I went to Chiang Mai Design Week last year and was amazed to see the quality of the work. So many people are putting love and care into their work, but what’s lacking is a positive attitude towards business.”
He uses the example of one supplier from the OTOP (One Tambon One Product Network) who he wanted to buy carpet from. “I wanted to honor local craftsmanship and wanted to work with this OTOP tribe that produces nice carpets but it was very difficult. We couldn’t get samples. I would say the size I need for a show apartment and they’d say no, we need an order for so many. A lot of companies are like that. They are set up too rigidly and don’t understand the demands of 21st -century business.”
That’s where Saengrawee Singhawiboon comes in. She works for the Support Arts and Crafts International Center of Thailand (SACICT), a project developed by Queen Sirikit which educates farming communities on traditional craft skills so they can support themselves with other industries in between harvests.
Sounds like OTOP? Not quite. While a lot of SACICT’s work results in the kind of throwback curios associated with the term “handicraft,” another part of the project means working with some of Bangkok’s top young design minds on forward-thinking, contemporary products, and then showing them to the outside design world.
“One part of our work is to work with designers to create products that fit a contemporary lifestyle,” says Saenrawee. “We match the craftspeople to designers so designers can visit these communities, judge their capacity for production and develop prototypes that get tested in the international market.”
Though the work is not luxury on the level of brands like Alexander Lamont and P.Tendercool, it is reaching a market for contemporary, innovative and high-priced design. Just at the beginning of this year, one of the designers she works with, Thinkk Studio, exhibited their work in conjunction with SACICT at Europe’s very best furniture fairs including Maison Objet in Paris and IMM in Cologne, Germany.
The words “made in Thailand” may have some way to go before being an internationally recognized mark of quality, but those who work here know that local craft skills are capable of reaching the highest level—and have always been.
“Go to the royal barges, go to the Throne Hall and look at the quality of the work,” says Nicki of Lotus Arts de Vivre. “You can dispel the myth that Thai craftsmanship is inferior in an instant.”