Studio Aeroplane hard at work at their Bangkok-based studio. Image courtesy of Studio Aeroplane.
Over the month I spent in Bangkok, I visited three design studios and a fledgling co-working space. All of them were in houses. In New York City, where I have spent my entire creative career, design studios are in spaces...big spaces, long spaces, industrial spaces, tight spaces...but spaces. Office spaces. You make them what you want, but they are fairly raw and often impersonal. Going to a place of design creativity and having it be a home feels very different.
I had been in Bangkok a week and a half, recovering from a month in Myanmar, when I finally met up with some Thai designers. I met Orn from Studio Aeroplane through mutual Facebook friends. Would I be interested in coming to their favorite Isan food stand? They would have to meet me at the subway station and take me the rest of the way...there was no way to really describe the location, tucked under the highway, a block or so from the main road. I've added an edited screengrab in case you're in the area and find yourself hungry.
And would I mind if she invited some other friends of hers, also designers? No. No...I would not mind at all.
Soon I found myself at a table, staring face to face with a well-grilled snakehead fish, his mouth crammed with lemon grass, my mouth crammed with snakehead fish. Around the rickety table were my new Thai design friends. We shared a wonderful meal and plenty of talk about design and the global economy. Over the next weeks, I would visit some of their studios, visit their student reviews and tour their national design center. This was just the beginning.
Later that week I visited Studio Aeroplane. Like many smaller studios, there are a small number of principals and they scale up with freelancers. The principals, Orn and Saranont, are both Thai natives, who met in New York City. Orn grew up in New Zealand. We got connected because she went to my alma mater, Pratt and it is a small world, after all. Orn worked in New York City for several years in Interior Design before deciding to return to her roots with her boyfriend Saranont, who grew up in Bangkok and stayed for his design undergraduate degree. Saranont went to ITP at NYU and worked at Antenna Design New York. It was slightly surreal to be sitting at a down-and-dirty food stall in the backstreets of Bangkok with two designers with such pedigrees. I was thrilled to get invited to their studio...after a few months of traveling I was starved for creative and intellectual company.
Since I'm from New York I'll describe my trip there in New York City equivalents...although there is really no New York equivalent to the experience of getting to their studio. Imagine taking a sparkling above ground subway to Union Square, except that Union Square is somehow on the East River. There I met up with Orn and Saronont and took a tiny boat across the river to the Bangkok equivalent of Queens, getting off on a tiny dock onto the back patio of a new high-rise development, with a pool, nice outdoor furniture and a huge parking lot. The boat is just for people who live in their building. The boatman knows your face. If I wasn't with Orn or Saranont I would have been turned away.
The studio is more than a studio...it's a one bedroom on a high floor, overlooking the city and the river. They can sleep there and sometimes do. The rest of the apartment is filled with books and two computers, the walls filled with printouts of interiors they are working on, and posters from past shows. The colors, the textures, the computer programs, all of it felt like apple pie from my mother's kitchen...comforting, invigorating, familiar. It felt like home in the sense of a familiar feel—it was a design studio, like all other design studios. And it was an actual home. While they didn't live there, they basically lived there. As you can see from their facebook feed, Studio Aeroplane's work is world-class.
The interfaces and spaces they've designed are clean and classic...which has worked against them from time to time. It seems that their clean aesthetic isn't always accepted, as there is a desire to clutter them up or dumb them down...all in the name of making things easier to "get" for average Thai person. I have engaged in similar conversations here in the States. Saranont and I had a good rant about de-skilling people through over-design and the dangers of removing any opportunity for discovery.
Also at the table the first night was Saranont's friend and schoolmate Thug, who works at FiF House and teaches part time at the technology university KMUTT. Later that week I visited FiF House, where Thug is a lead Industrial Designer. FiF House is also in a home...in this case, in an actual fully detached home, with a parking space and an automatic gate, set among other houses, in a green and quiet spot 10 minutes by tuk tuk from the nearest metro stop. It felt entirely incongruous to me to see a row of sample molded plastic bottles arrayed on a handsome dark wood side board. Their working space was two fairly office-y rows of desks, set next to the kitchen...which was really a kitchen, not a kitchen-esque space set into an office space. The overall feeling was warm and inviting. While I found the interior pleasantly disheveled, the building exterior is pretty modern. The Studio House from the front lawn. Image courtesy of FiF HOUSE.
Their work is top-notch, and they seem to work for international brands in general. In the photo below you can see their front lawn, right outside their main meeting room. FiF HOUSE hard at work. Image courtesy of FiF HOUSE.
Working out of your apartment was something familiar to me...maybe even having a second apartment, as Studio Aeroplane does...but in my limited experience, there was no equivalent of renting a house to work out of in New York City. Maybe this is a fluke of architectural happenstance...New York has office spaces and converted lofts and cast iron buildings. We have silicon alley. But while we actually have plenty of homes in New York, I can't imagine many of my peers renting a house in Harlem to work out of...and we should reconsider it!
My last studio visit, before I had to move on to Cambodia, was to OpenDream. OpenDream is a social enterprise company that specializes in digital design. While I was there I played with some of their recent apps, like Love Not Yet, which is (apparently—I don't speak Thai) a humor-driven sex education app for the Thai market, and DoctorMe, which is a mobile healthcare app for the Thai market.
When I showed up at OpenDream, I had a strange feeling I was in California. Maybe it was all the bikes outside?
Besides the studio being in a residential neighborhood, the warm and friendly environment made the place feel like a real home. Although, with the dogs and the paintings on the wall alongside screen mockups, the offices of OpenDream felt the most modern of all the studios I visited. I may also have felt like I was in California because Keng, the founder of OpenDream, comes off as a Thai Steve Jobs, right down to the haircut. He's built a warm and richly layered environment.
The watercolors are from an afternoon activity one of his employees ran with the studio. Above the red board tracking the office's progress in their agile scrums is a large printout of a camera the office sent up into the stratosphere in a balloon.
The employees walk around, barefoot (shoes off in houses...an excellent custom) with dogs lounging about. OpenDream left me very excited for the digital future of Thailand.
My very last stop was at The Sync, a co-working space a short trip from OpenDream. The Sync is on the vanguard of co-working in Bangkok—there are only, apparently, 1 or 2 other spaces like it in the city. Right now there isn't a critical mass of freelancers, but the culture is clearly building.
As you can see from the pictures, it shares the warm and open feeling of OpenDream's offices...and the walls are covered with art. They have a rotating selection on display from local artists, this month, it seems to be elephant-themed.
Even though I just dropped by, I got a personalized tour of all the nooks in the space—from their large main space on the first floor to their brainstorming spaces and private, members-only reserved desks on the top floor.
Sadly, my time in Bangkok was drawing to a close—I didn't have a chance to take part in any of the Sync's many offerings...but if you're in the area, you should most definitely drop in.
My time in Bangkok really opened my eyes to the high quality work being done in the city and the awesome, involved and connected talent. Bangkok is on the top of my list of cities I want to get back to!