Vu Hoang Anh is an independent product designer from Vietnam, studying in the US at Ohio Wesleyan University and later attending the New York Arts Program. Shortly after his return to Vietnam in 2012, he worked at furniture and design brand District Eight and later setting up his own creative studio.
Vietcetera meets with Vu Hoang Anh to learn how he conveys stories through his work and to learn more about his efforts to enhance the value of craftsmen in Vietnam over the last nine years of his career.
How did you start this job?
I never imagined I would be doing my current job. In the past, I studied traditional art, specializing in sculpture. My field of study was very close to visual art, and it became a solid foundation for my work later.
Within two years of graduation, I tried any job related to design and aesthetics, including sculpture, architecture, and graphics. In 2012, I worked with District Eight for five years. Currently, I’m doing freelance product design work.
You compared your job to a ‘floater’ (a person who can do many types of work). Why is that? How do you approach your product design work?
When we “touch” any field, there are always problems. I myself think I’m just solving puzzles. The client’s brief is a puzzle, and I am the one to figure out the solution using product design. The product here can be anything like a chair, a bookcase, or a deck of cards.
An Italian graphic designer once said, “If you already chose design work, be thoughtful and you’ll be able to design from a simple spoon to a sophisticated building.” It means, for design, there is no fine line, as long as we – designers – constantly learn and cultivate different areas of expertise. At the end of the day, all designs involve solving humanity’s problems and improving lives.
What factors influence the freedom in your product design process?
With my background in art, I want each product’s quality and thought process to improved and be more refined than industrial products. When I was working with District Eight, before, I focused on indoor furniture; now, I can freely create anything.
Currently, my design is developed from ideas that I personally want to share. Many people tend to create products first and then integrate a story. In contrast, I only develop products once I completely understand the problem and establish a concrete idea.
At the same time, I want to enhance the status of Vietnamese craftsmanship. The relationship between the designer and the manufacturer is not simply about one person making the request and the other executing it. Here, both parties must communicate and, together, develop a final product, one that the designers are satisfied with and the manufacturer is proud of.
Can you talk more about your product design process?
Someone once compared my design process with cake-baking. To bake a cake, I need to have all the ingredients ready, which is – in product design – having the information exchange with customers. In the process of molding ideas, I also pose questions for myself and my customers: Why did I make this product? What is the value of the finished product?
These questions seem very simple but must be screened through many layers of thinking and personal experience. After gathering enough ideas and thinking through them, I can begin to compose.
Take the Toan Dan Cards (All-People Cards), a new project I completed after a long period of doing furniture design. The cards I received are just a set of Vietnamese faces but I know I can give more value than just a blueprint.
The front of each card is an image of a Vietnamese person like a doctor, a worker, or a farmer. In addition, the pattern on the back of the card is inspired by rice grains, a typical symbol of Vietnam. When the cards are turned upside down, the pattern looks like a field of rice paddies, a little reward for players after each game.
As a result, anyone who holds the deck of cards understands the spirit of the people who created the product; that is to take the Vietnamese character and embrace Vietnamese society – equivalent to seeing ourselves in Western playing cards. The deck of cards not only meets the design requirements of the U Tron Team but creates a wider spiritual impact for users.
Another example is the chair design project for Pizza 4P’s space at Saigon Center. When I started to learn about this business, I noticed that they always designed pizza stalls to be at the center of the restaurant, surrounded by guests’ dining spaces.
This coincidentally aligned with my values – bringing the carpenter’s work to the center. From there, I developed the idea of Pizza 4P’s dining chair from my previous Center Rays chair design and created a collection that included bar chairs, two different versions of dining chairs and benches.
The image of the word ‘Human’ (‘Nhan’) (人) for chair legs enhances the artisanal value in products we use every day. This idea not only matches Pizza 4P’s values but also harmonizes with the architect’s design concept.
Did you ever think that you were creating extraneous products?
My products are not for fast-consuming markets. I offer limited products, only for customers who have certain insights and criteria. They have all heard of my products, as well as understood the requirements and work styles of both sides.
In addition, my product is not dependent on temporary styles or constrained by trends. This is also the reason why I always try to imply stories in each design. Consumers can understand and decide whether they want to buy the product or not.
How can you refresh yourself after nine years of work?
I always try to think positively in order to bring good results. Thinking is a daily process. If you wear a negative attitude and bring inhibitions, you can still solve the problem, but not very effectively. Conversely, if we look at the issue in a proactive and positive way, we can always perform beyond our imaginations.
Besides, living in my own world, it is easy for me to envision an idea, but it is difficult to designate the idea for communication, deployment, and execution. To avoid this, I spend more time communicating with the craftsmen. I listen to their experiences, decisions, reasons, and working methods. As a result, I adjust my requests accordingly or join them in testing new methods.
Adapted by Lan Vy Mai
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