Creative Thailand

Suwan Kongkhunthian: Yothaka 4.0 When there’s no ready-made formula for how handcrafts must apply to the world

Writer : Editor Team

Translator : Parisa Pichitmarn

Photos : Teeraphon Pittapatee

    If Thai brands like Jim Thompson are considered a turning point for Thai brands and for adding value to weaved products after the second World War, a turning point during Chatchai Choonhavan’s government, where a battlefield was turned into a field of commerce, then there can only be Yothaka, an export furniture brand made from water hyacinths that was founded in that era.

    It is considered an important page in the history of Thailand’s creative brands, when the company’s founder, Suwan Kongkhunthian, managed to bring the very first Thai furniture brand, all designed by Thai designers, to the world’s furniture and handicraft fairs—and to much success continuously. Today, Yothaka is 30 years old and it’s been a journey of 3 decades for a brand now known in the handicraft world market as “quality handicraft.”

    “Some people call Yothaka a cat with nine lives,” Suwan Kongkhunthian, founder of Yothaka and director of Yothaka International Co. Ltd. says with a laugh when giving his interview to Creative Thailand. He shares his journey from the very first day up until now with us.

    Yothaka’s Journey

    The brand was founded at the same time that the country’s economic was growing immensely before the economic crisis happened. While others suffered from problems, Yothaka, which was made from water hyacinths following meticulous research, went the opposite way and grew to success unlike others.

    “We grew in a way that I never expected it to reach that level. We use a lot of water hyacinths and had to hire a lot of workers as well,” Suwan Kongkhunthian says.

    Yothaka is quite like a door opener for new designers and brands of later generations. Many creative businesses and designers that were born in the same era as Yothaka have all gone defunct, but what’s important is that Yothaka is not merely surviving, as Suwan’s works continue to be outstanding and contemporary.

    In the recent grand opening of retail extravaganza ICONSIAM in November 2018, the world-recognized opulent event had chosen Suwan Kongkhunthian to showcase his craft in the form of an art installation. The large piece, named “Carpenter,” showcased all facets of handicraft with its bright, vivid colors, as well as through texture and form.

    “I didn’t really have any inspiration, I was just having fun and going all the way with it. Normally, when you are creating furniture, you cannot do this. When I continued doing it, it just went off the grid because I didn’t think about it at first. I played with very bright colors and lots of contrast. The new generation may not be into the colors because its combination is difficult. The whole set of chairs here—not a single one of them is the same—and I think it should be a good inspiration for designers in regards to color,” Suwan mentions.

    Besides that, Suwan and his Thai brand Yothaka have also been chosen to design the furniture in the Louis Vuitton store at ICONSIAM. Normally Louis Vuitton must only use their own brand’s designers and it is considered a first that a Thai designer was given this duty.

    What has ensured Yothaka’s contemporary spirit and survival until now is its design identity, quality, a love for crafts and hard work. Suwan comments on Yothaka’s work ethics.

    “We are very strong in skill and design. We have survived because of our identity. We are selling something made by hand which is a craft, but we are not selling tradition. Our identity is to apply, where we must bridge the work between the designer, the designs and skill. These kinds of things are not taught in universities but can only be learned from experience. Some people ask how I do it and I think it’s from experience and guesswork. Have there been times where we designed incorrectly? Yes. But experience teaches you what to do and how much is enough.”   

    Adapting, Being Disciplined and Hard-working

    Suwan says, “People may think Yothaka has it easy now, but that’s not true. We still must work hard consistently. Yothaka still designs two collections per year and we have always done that every year, no matter what the economic atmosphere. I think if the economy is bad, it means you have to work even harder.”

    Enter Yothaka’s studio today and you’ll see their past collections, a display of technique development and designs and material usage that Suwan calls “a mishmash of many things, but doesn’t look off when they come together.” Yothaka’s positioning has made them able to meet every market, be it Europe, Japan or Thai. It also responds to various target groups, be it designers, architects, coffee store owners, etc. Today, Yothaka’s extensive inventory includes not only their original water hyacinth furniture, but also minimalist pieces all the way to works with heavy designs and vivid colors in the Baroque style.

    “I’ve been in the fair circuit for 30 years and have been to shows all around the world. Those who do something that is very Western have by now already all quit. If you sell something that they already know how to do, they won’t remember your name. But if you sell what you are, if offers a new alternative. I still believe that craft will always be able to sell.”

    At the latest product fair in Paris, Yothaka became the talk of the town thanks to their their booth’s wall which was completely hand-woven with ropes. “I know what I want to sell. We just brought the whole thing from Thailand, using the macramé rope technique. Foreigners walk in and are completely befuddled. At these product fairs, I try to show that we are really good with craft and it’s true, in the end we did get orders.”

    As the person who designs every piece of furniture, Suwan also designs by sketching by hand, because he wants the lines and curves to be different. Suwan says, “Craft work and to design craft work has no definite answer nor any ready-made formulas. I have tried to teach people and have worked with many designers to the point that I now understand that to design craft, it goes down to whether you have good taste or not and whether you have the eye for it or not.”

    Learning from the West: Understand craft from the perspective of its users

    The brand’s precision and taste are partly derived from what Suwan learned from his Western customers. “When Westerners look at craft, they don’t look at it on a deep level and only see it as part of a whole design process. Thai people are more thorough and note every little flower or colour. I learn from the West because they are my customers and I learn what color rhythms can get to them, whether or not I can go lighter or darker.”

    “One example was when I first started doing water hyacinth furniture. My craftsman told me that we had to coat it with lacquer or else it wouldn’t last long. I told him to, but to make it look matte because I’ve had Westerners asking me if our work could be less shiny. The more natural looking it is the better. When I came back, I did that, but then Thai people told us it looked like a piece that wasn’t finished yet and it was then that I learned to understand and distinguish between differing tastes of different countries.”

    Most importantly for him, something to be careful with when it comes to craft is “to not cross that line which can render your work as outmoded. Whether it’s outmoded or not is a factor and what’s difficult is whether the designer truly understands the work behind craft or not, which makes all the difference.”

    Future of Craft

    Currently, craft is making a comeback, as can be seen from fashion brands and trends from furniture designs.

    “It’s a cycle of business when things disappear or return again. Before the World War, Louis chairs were in, but after that, fineness was replaced by industrial design and modern work. It became the minimalist age in the past 30-40 years and now people are starting to get bored with that. Now is the time that you will see change again.”

    “No matter how much the world changes, craft work has never disappeared from the world market and just differs whether it is very popular or not. It’s making a comeback now and I can say that it’s a great opportunity for the Thai market, but you have to go the right spot and way.”

    This 2019, Yothaka’s will feature a new collection of water hyacinth furniture, after a hiatus of designing new pieces for 10 years.

    “Is it difficult to revitalize water hyacinth that the market had killed off? Yes, but for me, I don’t want to desert what we used to do, and now seems like the time for it to return,” Suwan says before adding, “In this age, we talk about change all the time. The question is, do you change yourself? For Yothaka, we have been changing for a long time and always have since the day we first started.”

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