What’s in a name? For Fong-Chan Zeuthen, the founder of KAZE Interior Design Studio, the essence of her company’s culture. In Japanese, “kaze” means wind – a symbol of expansion, growth and freedom of movement. And the company that Fong-Chan has built over the past ten years attracts the kind of employees who thrive in an environment where change propels innovation.
As the company celebrates its 10th anniversary, we ask Fong-Chan and Khoa, the Managing Director, about the daily life at KAZE office, the biggest milestones and why, in business, it’s important to always be on the move.
Fong-Chan, why did you choose Vietnam to set up your design studio?
Fong-Chan: Vietnam chose me first! The year was 2002 and I was a fresh graduate with very few prospects, simply because there were not many opportunities for young architects in my native Denmark. As it happened, a Danish furniture company with a production facility in Vietnam was looking for staff, and my professor picked me as the most adventurous of the lot. He was right about adventurous, for I immediately set off for a country I knew nothing about.
And I loved it. What many expats find offensive – the traffic, the noise, the smell, the unfamiliar food – didn’t bother me in the least. If anything, it was like homecoming. In Europe, I never felt Asian. But the moment I landed in Saigon, everything felt right: the clothes fit, the food suits my taste and it’s warm. After all, Southeast Asia is in my genes.
So you took to it like a duck to water?
Fong-Chan: Well, yes! Despite it being a rough, male-dominated world, I loved the two years I spent at an outdoor furniture factory in Binh Duong researching suppliers and developing new materials. When my next employer, a small interior design company, was acquired by DWP Thailand, I suddenly found myself part of a much larger organization that gave me an opportunity to learn systems and processes, and how to be creative with limited resources. And finally, as the Interior Design Director in Vietnam for ONG&ONG Singapore, I learned how to be a good leader.
All these different experiences shaped me as a future business owner. Even though the idea to start my own company would come later, throughout the years I was taking mental notes of what to do (and what not to) if I ever decided to establish my own design studio: giving feedback constructively, becoming an effective facilitator, a good leader. Then, one day, I felt I was ready to set off on my own journey.
Was it hard to do it all on your own?
Fong-Chan: Technically, I had a design partner who came up with the name, while I provided investment. But after 1,5 years, when the financial crisis hit, he exited and I became the sole owner of the company, and that’s how things have been since 2010.
Khoa, and how has your journey with KAZE been so far?
Khoa: It’s been quite a learning curve! When I look back at my career trajectory, joining Fong-Chan when she started her own company ten years ago was one of the wisest decisions I’ve ever made. Not only is she someone I deeply respect, but her background [in architecture and Scandinavian design] are the fields I have been fascinated with since my university days. And I was really attracted to the idea of joining a company where I could develop my skills across all disciplines. And that is exactly what KAZE offered.
How would you describe KAZE’s corporate culture?
Khoa: KAZE is an adhocracy, meaning that our organizational structure is highly flexible and embraces frequent changes. In order to challenge assumptions and instill a culture where words like “impossible” or “never” are not thrown around, we also need to constantly be pushing ourselves. Admittedly, adhocracy is not a natural fit for Asian people, but since Fong-Chan has built a convention of trust, the team is comfortable to speak up when something is not working for them.
How is the team planning to celebrate the Big 10?
Fong-Chan: The plan was to give our team and partners a big celebration with all the bells and whistles, but 2020 and large gatherings don’t mix well, so the anniversary party will have to wait. But don’t expect a “normal” celebration at the Hyatt! We will do it the KAZE way. One birthday gift we have already given ourselves is our new office in Thao Dien: the KAZE house that represents our identity.
In the past 10 years, what were some of the biggest milestones that come to mind?
Fong-Chan: The goals we set for ourselves in 2010 have all been achieved: becoming a household name in the business community in Vietnam and an established business in the region, as well as counting big international hospitality chains among our clients [KAZE became the first Marriott-approved interior design vendor in Vietnam]. And we ticked all these boxes while remaining a boutique studio. We had many opportunities to expand but larger size does not necessarily translate to better operations or increased revenue, I find.
What are the company’s vision and mission?
Khoa: I see KAZE as a bridge in the design industry. One that connects Vietnam and other countries, sharing cultural values, craftsmanship and other elements in design inspiration. We are also a bridge between different backgrounds and generations. If you look at the team’s make-up, KAZE has members from all over the country, as well as overseas, all learning from one another.
When hiring for KAZE, what personal qualities do you look for?
Khoa: Although a good cultural fit is very important, what matters the most is your potential. So if you pass the design test that we ask all applicants to complete, we will make sure to find a role for you within the organization that will help you grow and achieve your career goals. In hospitality design especially, you need people who are highly specialized, so when we come across someone with unique skills, whether it’s space planning or storytelling, we will welcome you on board, even if you don't have much experience.
What’s the secret to growing from junior designer to Managing Director?
Khoa: When I joined KAZE as a 3D visualiser, I wanted to learn as much as I could. Whatever task I was given, I took the ownership and handled it with enthusiasm. I like to be challenged, and Fong Chan is good at pushing you to do your best. Gradually, step by step, I got to where I am today.
Please tell us about upcoming projects you’re most excited about and what lies ahead for KAZE?
Khoa: We are currently working on a hotel for a local owner and it’s one of those rare projects where you can really let your imagination run wild. What KAZE is bringing to the table is our expertise working with international hotel chains plus a local touch. It’s fun but also a great opportunity to do something meaningful by contributing to a locally-grown concept.
Fong-Chan: What’s next for KAZE? If in the beginning of our journey we were seen as a pioneer of Scandinavian design in Southeast Asia, today we are known as a solid player in high-end design. Nowadays our clients don't realize that we have our heart in Asia and our head in Europe; what they see is the high quality of the product we deliver.
Perhaps because Khoa and I have achieved so much in Vietnam, we are sometimes perceived as a local brand, whereas in fact we are an international company with over a decade of experience in the country. Which makes us fairly competitive in the region and further afield. My vision, aside from keeping up the quality, is for KAZE to become a household name that comes to everybody's mind when they want quality design with a Scandinavian crust and an Asian core.