As the Vietnamese middle class swells with disposable income, interest in modern design and custom interiors is on the rise.
The many craft villages surrounding Hanoi have long supplied the city’s elites with bespoke luxury goods, using traditional techniques handed down within established families of craftspeople. These days, imported foreign design has become the new indicator of wealth and the market has been flooded with mass-produced furniture manufactured by or in imitation of foreign brands.
However, a new trend towards modern design with a distinctly Vietnamese style, using locally sourced craftsmanship, is creating new opportunities for both manufacturers and designers in Hanoi.
East and West
One design store that has witnessed this change first-hand is YNOT Design (1/22 Nghi Tam Village, Tay Ho). Located in Tay Ho, it is currently celebrating its five- year anniversary. Tay Ho has always had a demand for modern interiors, mainly thanks to the expat community, but YNOT says that these days over 50 percent of its business is from Vietnamese customers. YNOT is renowned for its glossy and brightly coloured furniture, produced using local bamboo and traditional techniques, which are popular both in Vietnam and abroad.
The founder of YNOT, Marie Hautecoeur, believes that one of the charms of Hanoi-made design is that it uses less industrial production than elsewhere.
“In Hanoi, we are still working with families, small carpenters and workers, this makes a big difference in terms of design and creation,” she says. “You cannot do the same things with a machine as you can with traditional methods. The handicrafts are very good here; the Vietnamese have an incredible know-how that Hanoi continues to promote while Saigon tends towards an industrialisation of everything.”
Marie has noticed the demand shifting more and more towards Western design, and attributes part of YNOT’s recent success to its distinctly Western style with an Asian touch.
“We have a real demand for design coming from the West rather than from Asia. With our creations mixing the two, we are reaching far more clients than before.”
Tradition, Character and Economics
Until last year, souvenir shops selling tacky glitter-encrusted lacquerware to tourists dominated the otherwise charming streets surrounding St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Now they are giving way to a new breed of more sophisticated boutiques catering to both local and foreign customers. One example of this is Collective Memory (20 Nha Chung, Hoan Kiem) a tiny store with a rustic interior, selling ceramics, art prints, pillowcases and a variety of knick-knacks collected from all over the country.
While many of Collective Memory’s products are still designed in Ho Chi Minh City, a city that is often viewed by the Vietnamese as having a stronger foreign influence than Hanoi, the founders Tran and Hoang feel that Hanoi design has a unique spirit and authenticity.
“Hanoi is more traditional than Ho Chi Minh City, it is slower to adopt new trends but it has more character,” says co-founder Tran. “One of the difficulties is that in Ho Chi Minh City a shop will change its collections regularly, while in Hanoi things move slower. There is still not as much choice compared to Ho Chi Minh City, but we hope to change that.”
In a small workshop on the outskirts of Hanoi’s Long Bien District, two young designers are trying to carve their way in this booming market. Woodecor (529 Ngo Gia Tu, Long Bien) is a bespoke furniture company run by two sisters, who do all the work from designing products and operating heavy machinery, to marketing their products online.
“I think we may be the only girls in Vietnam who do this kind of work,” says elder sister Thu. “I work every day of the week, from 8am to 8pm, and it is very hard. I hope that in the future we can make enough money to hire some help. I was an architect for four years and quit my job to pursue my passion for woodwork and design.”
Although Woodecor furniture is all handcrafted out of sustainable and locally sourced wood, with each piece being designed according to client specifications, most customers are still unwilling to pay much more than they would for mass- produced furniture imported from China.
“People don’t realise how much work we put into it, they want unique furniture and they like our designs, but they don’t think it should cost as much as foreign brands,” says Phuong, a graduate from the Foreign Trade University.
Woodecor mainly sells to small cafes and family owned furniture shops. In the future they hope to sell to more private homes and increase their production.
So what is the future of design in Hanoi? Some local design boutiques are also finding success abroad. An example of this is Hanoia (38 Hang Dao, Hoan Kiem), a luxury boutique selling upscale lacquer jewellery and decor. This design company was originally founded near Ho Chi Minh City, but moved north to be closer to the traditional centre of lacquer production. Hanoia operates out of several ancient houses in Hanoi’s Old Quarter and has collaborated with numerous European luxury brands, such as Hermes.
Similarly, new shops such as The Dreamers (1A Au Co, Tay Ho) who produce and sell their own wooden products, furniture and ceramics out of their spacious Tay Ho boutique, are seeking to expand south. However, one of the many benefits of running a design brand in Hanoi is the relatively cheap rent and low overheads, compared to other major cities.
Only time will tell if Hanoian design brands are able to translate their success to foreign markets and expand their reach beyond Hanoi.
Photos By Julie Vola