At the 12th Thailand International Furniture Fair (TIFF 2008) in Bangkok this March, there was a concerted attempt to woo the emerging markets of China and India, both by policymakers and by individual furniture manufacturers.
An innovative line of products called “Future Natural” showed that Thai designers are keen to create a distinctive style for themselves. Individual manufacturers are also interested in reaching out to a newer clientele.
Underlying all the smart packaging, there is a strong feeling that Thai furniture products and designs—that had catered until now to a Western consumer (read the North American market)—are being left behind with the aggressive sales pitch of neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia, who have also been conducting such fairs, and also by China and Vietnam, with their low-cost, high-turnover furniture.
Indonesia—which has a full range of tropical woods, highly skilled craftsmen and the inputs of Western style designers—is also a major player. Rachane Potjanasunthorn, director general of the department of export promotion with the Thai government, said that apart from looking at the new emerging markets around the world, Thai authorities are trying “to emphasize the environmental awareness of Thai manufacturers, which is increasingly becoming important for overseas buyers.”
The Thai approach towards design and manufacture of everyday products was what made the exhibition different. Their exposure to the Western market has made them aware that it’s not enough to merely have innovative designs, but that the tooling and support systems for furniture must be of the highest quality.
The chairs, sofa sets, sideboards and bedroom furniture appeared to be made of natural materials. These include a wide variety of woods, apart from teak, bamboo, rattan, split cane, dried rice stalks, palmyra and, of course, their unique method of harvesting water hyacinths. Traditional craft methods such as basketry, mat and screen weaving are used, but their underlying strength and clean lines are derived from a backbone of high-quality steel, aluminium and chrome, tooled to high-tech levels. A marriage, you could say, of Ikea with local Thai crafts.
The designer is the priest in this bridging of different worlds. The name of Jim Thompson, who created a new look for the Thai silk industry in the late 1960s, is synonymous with the type of design intervention that continues today. By creating a heavier type of raw silk that could be used in Western couture, and by introducing jewelled colours, he revolutionized a once sleepy cottage industry. What’s interesting is that the first high-quality silk and cotton textiles were from Varanasi in the case of brocades, and from the Coromandel Coast in the case of dyed and painted cottons. Even the typical Thai motif that uses a flaming peepul leaf design, in the midst of which Kinnari women or bird-women and dancing figures appear, was originally from the coastal villages of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. In the 17th century, these were items of high value at the Thai court, used both for ceremonies by the Thai King and sent as gifts by him to his counterparts in Europe. The Thai have sustained a high level of design excellence, not just in furniture but also in the allied arts of flower arrangement, food management and lifestyle skills. Though the monarchy is very much a ceremonial institution, as a people, the Thais still look forward to the guiding eye of their queen, or the other members of the royal family.
“We feel our products have immense potential in India,” said Jirawat Tangkijngamwong, deputy managing director of Deesawat, which manufactures wooden floors and wall cladding. Like many Thai designers, they have been inspired by their immediate environment and adapted the form of a lotus leaf in all its variety to create tables that use wooden slats over a chromium base to suggest the shifting play of light on water, or taken the form and colours of orchids to create a sense of enchantment in some of their designs.
Alex Lamont, an English designer, has made Bangkok his home so that he can experiment with the immense richness of the Thai and Burmese craftsmen in his own line of light accessories, sculptured objects and furniture. “Thai producers are about funky cute and hard modern. They do their version of chic in a stronger way than most Asian cities,” he says.