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Village craft skills transform interior design

Update: May, 12/2013 - 14:42
In the bunker: Pham Thi Kieu Phuc inside her showroom Module 7 located on Xuan Dieu Street in Ha Noi. — VNS Photos Thai Ha

A change of career in middle age seems risky, especially when leaving a high-profile staff job to run your own business. Thai Ha reports


Pham Thi Kieu Phuc had a job at Air France that many might envy. But after involving in decoration to Ha Noi Opera Hilton Hotel in 1996 when she was Air France officer, she set that career aside in 2000 to found Module 7, an interior design company.

"I don't have any regrets," she said. "I have to take risks. That's what inspires us to achieve success."

At first sight, 43-year-old Phuc is a quiet woman. However, like the lacquer she works with, she has many complex layers. Her products emphasize traditional materials from craft villages in Viet Nam – wood, bronze, lacquer – and she tries to maintain an intimate connection with the design process and the local artisans who make her products.

"Ethnic craftsmanship embodies reflection, meditation and inspiration," she said. "Working with artisans, I feel closer to my own truth."

However, while Phuc loves the beauty of traditional handicrafts, she doesn't object to using foreign products.

"I have never had nostalgia," she said. "On the contrary, I have been in many western countries that even make me feel confident following my own direction."

As someone who stands "between Europe and Asia", she feels that her products reflect the Vietnamese cultural identity through an international prism.

"Although I live and work in Viet Nam, I have experienced working conditions in foreign companies," Phuc said. "These products reflects a style and form not entirely Western, but not completely Vietnamese."

When she started the business more than a decade ago, there were almost no lacquer tables, chairs or cabinets on the market. Since handmade lacquer products require significant efforts, producing small goods such as cups, plates and bowls is far easier than making furniture.

"Nowadays, traditional lacquer is no longer really produced because it costs so much. There is no fake lacquer, but people often buy low-quality lacquer products," the designer said.

The furniture market in Viet Nam also lacked creativity, she said, with many designs imported or borrowed from other countries and others outdated. Since design was a very new industry in Viet Nam, she had an easy time entering the market without doing any prior research.

Asked what element her lifestyle and designs had in common, she cited silence.

"I love the silent, discreet nature of lacquer products. They have inner beauty from many grinding and painting stages," Phuc said.

Between cultures: Products by Module 7 reflect a style and form not entirely Western, but not completely Vietnamese.

Her designs have many origins. Some are inspired by the objects of Vietnamese everyday life, such as conical hats, fish trap, rocks and trees. Others are inspired by Japanese design principles, following the Zen philosophy "Less is more".

Phuc has gone to almost all the Northern craft villages seeking inspiration and never gotten bored. To the contrary, sitting and observing the job of handicraft workers is the most interesting part of her job, she explained.

To her, lacquer will forever be an object of mystery, as there are many ways to complete products such as connecting them with bamboo and covering them in gold or silver.

She especially likes bronze handmade products, as she feels that the hammer marks left in the product reveal the artisan's emotion.

As for wood, "there is no closer and warmer material", she said.

While many imported furniture items are copies of famous designs around the world, Phuc vowed that she would never use or buy a copied product.

"If you buy a designerproduct, the most interesting thing is the creativity of the person who designed it," she explained. Since 70 per cent of her clients are foreigners who buy Module 7 products to ship home, the designer believes that her firm has real potential overseas.

"I plan to build a place where I can co-operate with other designers to display our products to customers all over the world," Phuc said.

She plans to partner with a number of craft villages that have experienced difficulties in output due to failure to innovate and help them improve their designs and market them online. She also plans to work with scientists to produce environmentally friendly products.

During the production process, she aims to avoid adversely impacting the environment – an issue that many villages are currently facing.

Phuc also intends to invite young people to participate in a design competition. The selected design will be produced from traditional materials and a percentage of the profits will go to the designer. — VNS

Old and new: Examples of interior decorative products by Module 7 emphasise traditional materials from craft villages in Viet Nam - including wood, bronze and lacquer.

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