When we hear the word “handicrafts,” we often think of oversized woven baskets, lacquer boxes printed with buffaloes, rice fields, or ceramic vases with monotonous images of dragons and phoenixes.
But as Vietnamese artisans become more open about their art and strive to explore new techniques, what used to be “traditional” products have turned into art masterpieces that are worth showing off or given as special gifts.
Here we list five brands that have tapped artisans from craft villages to produce products with modern aesthetics from traditional materials.
Maztermind is a handmade board game brand founded in 2018 that’s intended to build camaraderie among players. Regardless of age, region, or status, everyone can sit together to enjoy a board game, sharing stories that reach a deeper emotional level.
A work of art first, then a board game. Maztermind (Mastermind) has two layers of meaning: the careful calculation of the steps when playing board games and the ingenuity of the "masters'' craft in the design and creation of products.
Choosing a direction that promotes aesthetics instead of mere entertainment, Maztermind has a 750m2 factory and 70 artisans in Binh Chanh. All stages from molding, leather grafting, polishing, tailoring, and honing are completed by hand. The Premium Chess set was only completed after 22 steps of crafting with 15 skilled artisans during 20 hours of work.
Maztermind uses two high-quality materials, leather, and wood, in product processing. Walnut wood is "tailored" for chess because of its beautiful wood grain. Pine wood is best used for the production of ludos because of its paint-holding properties and lightness.
The monopoly set Saigonpoly and Hanoipoly are the outstanding product lines of Maztermind. With the spirit of "bringing the capital into each chess board," the pieces in the Hanoipoly chess set show the most typical features of Hanoi, such as Sword Lake, West Lake, Giang coffee, and so on. For Saigonpoly, there are Bui Vien walking street, Ben Thanh market, Turtle Lake, etc. Many young people joke that this monopoly set has helped relieve some of the tourism demand during the quarantine days.
Clemente was founded in 2021 by painter Hai Linh and interior designer My Linh. Both cherish imperfections, so Clemente's ceramic vases also reflect this spirit — they are crooked and seemingly incomplete but stand out in modern living spaces.
The canvas mosaics at Clemente are handcrafted entirely by in-house artists, using natural indigenous materials such as hemp fabric from Lao Cai and Do paper from Hoa Binh. The hemp fabric is also dyed naturally, with beige being the original color of the material and brown coming from the brown tuber, which grows wild in the woods or mountains.
Clemente's ceramic vases are inspired by nature — Earth, Sea, Sunshine, designed by Clemente and manufactured in craft villages in Vietnam. In the Dat Collection, Muong Chanh pottery products (Son La) are made by Thai ethnic artisans, meticulously hand-shaped from clay, and baked in the ground. Around the lip of the product, there is often a circle of water waves showing the connection between nature and the unique culture of the Thai community.
With the Sea Collection, Clemente has collaborated with ceramic artists from Binh Duong, producing unique, rough Atlantic ceramic products as if "excavated" from the bottom of the ocean. Effervescent glaze covers the surface, imprinting natural traces, like forgotten antiquities imprinted with a hint of history.
Artisans handcraft the products in the latest Sun Collection in Bau Truc. This is one of the oldest pottery villages in Ninh Thuan, with the hottest and driest climate in the country. Therefore, the process of making pottery is also different: ceramic products are shaped by hand and exposed to sunlight.
Đông Phong is the first brand to research and sew Vietnamese antique clothing from the 11th to 20th centuries, founded by Nguyen Duc Huy in 2019. Before Đông Phong, Huy had a long period of learning the craft in traditional villages, such as learning how to dye indigo of the Mong people in Sapa, learning how to draw beeswax on cloth, and how to dye brown roots in Pa Co.
He chooses traditional clothing because everyone only knows about Ao Dai. But traditional Vietnamese clothes are treasures, corresponding to dynasties in history, such as the nhật bình, the ao dai, the five-piece double-sleeved shirt of the Nguyen Dynasty, the Giao lĩnh, the viên lĩnh. The founder's desire is not only to revive ancient costumes but also to revive the traditional Vietnamese craft villages, weaving, and dyeing techniques.
All fabrics for making antique clothes are imported from Nam Cao weaving village in Thai Binh. The costume goes through five stages: weaving, dyeing, drying, styling, and cutting. Dyeing the fabric is difficult because natural dyes are difficult to color and uneven. Some works must be dyed 100 times.
After two years of hard work "learning by doing," Huy has created ten stable dye colors from natural plants, and another 50 colors are still in research and testing. Recently, Dong Phong collaborated with Ba Ngan Art to organize the exhibition "Natural Glue." The exhibition displays 15 sets of Vietnamese antique clothes and 27 silk fabrics dyed with natural materials such as: To Moc wood, Bang leaves, ant's nest, dried lychee bark, etc. The exhibition also recreates a part of the fabric dyeing process, spreading traditional Vietnamese handicrafts' cultural and heritage values.
Phùng Ân Artisan
Founded in 2019, Phùng Ân Artisan was originally a pure Vietnamese gift brand. In its 4th year, Phùng Ân transformed into a design studio, providing two main product lines: home decoration and business gifts, with the primary materials being bamboo and lacquer.
Phùng Ân's philosophy is to be creative - environmentally friendly - towards the future. The products are all "created by Phung An, manufactured by artisans" with natural materials and benign processing methods.
The latest collection, Summer Clouds, is also completely handmade from natural materials. Customers can disassemble the product for various purposes, such as displaying fruit, tea parties, or a decorative tray.
Phùng Ân collaborated with Cong Ton Nu Tri Hue, the last artisan who still retains the technique of sewing left-backed pillows in the Hue royal court, to launch a product line of left-backed pillows (royal pillows). Kings often use this type of pillow with many folds to lay their heads and backs when resting or reading.
Phùng Ân's lacquer works, no matter how small, have to go through 20 stages, lasting 30 days. Grinding and painting, painting and grinding again, the product can have up to 15 layers of lacquer or more to express the smooth, shiny finish to the highest level.
Founded in 2013 by Tran Hong Nhung, Zó Project was born out of a love for the art of calligraphy on Do paper and the desire to preserve a craft that existed for more than 800 years before the danger of completely disappearing. Zó Project connects with ethnic minorities so that they can maintain their previous generations' traditional professions and earn extra income.
Zó Project brings back Do paper with modern products, instead of just using it for drawing or calligraphy as before. In addition to familiar paper products such as notebooks, calendars, cards, and fans printed with Dong Ho paintings, Zo Project also has bracelets and earrings made from paper. In particular, the brand also has a product of Do Van paper folding snail lights, designed by Tomoko Fuse. She started her professional origami career at 19 and is a famous Japanese origami master.
Making Do paper can take months with many complicated steps, including cutting the stem, steaming, peeling, then breaking the peel to separate the fibers, putting it in a pressing frame, and finally drying it in the sun to let the paper dry. To do this, the artisan must be highly skilled because a little mistake can ruin the final product.
Zó Project organizes various workshops on Do paper to bring this art form closer to young people. The workshop is usually held for 2-3 days in Hoa Binh, under the guidance of artisans. In addition to learning and making Do paper, you also have the opportunity to practice dyeing paper from indigo, rosemary, and royal wisteria.
In the past three years, Zó Project has introduced its products to the European and American markets. A stepping stone to international friends and presence on the YouTube Business Insider channel.
Translated by Mi Tran