“Even before you get into the space you get a sense that this is home,” Tuan Le, creative director of The Lab Saigon, smiles. The entranceway, scented with the oil used to treat its wood, is a first welcoming taste of nest by AIA. It was designed by The Lab, on the second floor of the Bitexco Tower, and its new event annex and Blank Bar—which used to be called Work—features District Eight’s modern-industrial furniture.
The event annex and Blank Bar are the latest projects in the creative partnership between The Lab and AIA. “It’s a long story,” Tuan laughs.
“It began when we had the concept for nest by AIA,” Nhon Ly, AIA Vietnam’s chief strategy and marketing officer, and driving force, adds. “We knew what we wanted to do—and the question for us at the time was who could help us. The Lab’s Work Saigon had just opened on Dien Bien Phu. We saw it in a magazine…and it was close to what we wanted,” he remembers. “So, we went to take a look and there were lots of creative elements we could see that could work for us.”
“We ended up having a meeting with Tuan. Initially, he didn’t have much of a reaction,” Nhon Ly recalls. “About two weeks later, he came to deliver a presentation. Whatever we had in our head was on the slides.”
Building Nest By AIA
When conceptualizing what became nest by AIA in 2013, the pan-Asian insurance company had begun with a simple question: “Can we create a space that facilitates long-term conversations with our clients?”
“The original idea was to create a space where we could change the image of life insurance in Saigon—a public space where people could come in and start seeing life insurance in a different way,” Nhon Ly remembers.
The Lab’s finished design combined Scandinavian and Japanese influences “to create a lofty but warm, raw but refined space” that reflected AIA’s “innovative customer service model” that removed the counters and divisions that usually separate customers and staff. “We intentionally removed the counters,” Nhon Ly explains. “We wanted people to be impressed by the customer experience at nest.”
“And we wanted people to not just have a bench where they sit and wait to be served, but a sofa set—like a living room—and a bar that serves them refreshments while they wait,” Tuan Le adds. “And then there are the transparent cabins where workers work. We wanted to promote the openness and transparency that was needed in the industry—keep in mind this was 2013.”
Adding District Eight’s Modern-industrial Touches To Nest By AIA
Through the entranceway is a long bookcase with stepped seating—a “bookcase stadium” as Tuan describes it, “where you can sit and you can read a book but that you can also use as an event space.” There’s a “living wall” covered with plants. And there are lots of tables and chairs—many by Vietnamese modern-industrial furniture company District Eight. “We wanted it to be comfortable so the furniture became very important,” he remembers. “We find District Eight have a really nice balance between comfort and aesthetics—as well as the quality. Every little thing here, we try to put a lot of thought into it.”
Despite its aesthetic and functional appeal, the bookcase stadium wasn’t perfect as a venue. “Whenever we organized an event [there] we would have to move out our existing customers,” Nhon Ly concedes. “Once we had the chance to have a separate space for events we took that opportunity and here, now, we can organize events any time without bothering existing customers who are there just to work or have a coffee,” he continues.
“In this event space annex, there are features like the round egg pivot windows,” Tuan says looking around. “And here, we didn’t just want to do an open ceiling. We wanted something for people to look at and take photos of when they’re here,” The Lab’s creative director explains about the swirling wooden nest that forms the centerpiece of the ceiling of the annex. “A lot of these little touches are where we try to add value to take that financial hub concept to the next level.”
The Barely-there Design Of Nest By AIA’s Blank Bar
Now, the cafe has evolved from “Work” to the anti-design, barely-there branding of “Blank Bar.” It’s a refreshment bar serving single-origin coffee, fresh juices, loose-leaf tea, and homemade pastries. And it also shows an evolution in the target audience.
“Work Cafe came from our Work Saigon on Dien Bien Phu, which was a co-working space. When we stopped that line of work there, we [also] didn’t think it was relevant anymore to this space,” Tuan says. “We, of course, still welcome freelancers and digital nomads. But we want to open it up and work with young professionals and families, and Blank is a blank canvas for all of that too.”
“And what do I usually order at Blank?” Nhon Ly asks. “The banana bread. The first time I had it, I had to text Tuan immediately to say ‘This is my favorite banana bread.’ It’s the best thing ever.”