Rethinking Craft Traditions: FabCafes Kyoto x Bangkok

This online meetup between FabCafe Kyoto and FabCafe Bangkok took place against the backdrop of Design Week Kyoto in February 2022.

Kyoto is an important centre for traditional craft industries like the weaving and dyeing of kimono textiles. Kyoto brands and makers are well known throughout Japan and fetch a premium. The city also attracts new generations of creators hoping to put their own unique spin on a craft tradition.

The situation is very different in Thailand, where traditional crafts are seen as deeply unfashionable in a country that’s rapidly modernising and urbanising. Attitudes are now changing, however, as Thai creators begin to rediscover local craft industries and use their training as artists and designers to push the boundaries of materials and design process.

Kalaya Kovidvisith, co-founder of FabCafe Bangkok, was responsible for bringing together the six Thai creators attending this event. She told us earlier how the pandemic had altered the cultural dynamic in Thailand by prompting a reverse migration of creators from Bangkok to local areas:

Before Covid, Bangkok was the centre of Thailand. It was the place where people moved for jobs, where everything happened. Quality of life in rural areas was seen as poor. But during Covid, so many people moved back to rural areas and they wanted to have the same things culturally they had in Bangkok. That led them to look again at local crafts.

All of the creators speaking today come from the Isan region in the northeast and were handpicked by Kalaya as examples of how modern design sensibilities are breathing new life into craft traditions. Profiles of the six creators follow below.

What are the defining characteristics of Thai design? Kalaya points to an explosion of colour common to tropical countries, along with a wide range of materials and adaptations to local climate in a country of many latitudes. She also draws our attention to latent eroticism and sly humour in a conservative society where to be openly critical is often taboo.

The Creators

Fidular, by Lamtharn Hantrakul

Fidular is a modular fiddle system invented by Thai musician and creator Lamtharn Hantrakul. It allows traditional stringed instruments from East Asia to the Middle East to be combined in new ways. For example, the neck of a dan bau, a single-stringed zither from Vietnam, can connect to a hexagonal snakeskin resonator from China to create a novel sound. The parts may look authentically traditional, but they are skillfully engineered to be interchangeable. Lamtharn sees Fidular as a trans-cultural technology:

Whenever there’s a new technology like 3D printing or rapid prototyping, or a new material like carbon fibre, we often see these applied to the cultural majority first. That’s why you’ll see carbon-fibre violins and cellos, but you’ll rarely see a carbon-fibre erhu or koto. The idea behind Fidular was to counter this design narrative by studying how fiddles from the Asia Pacific to the Middle East are made, and then design a piece of technology that is optimised to embrace cultural plurality.

Craft To Be, by Chatchai Duangjai

Outside of his day job as a Honda automotive designer, Chatchai Duangjai started Craft To Be with the idea that handicrafts could be something more than the function traditionally assigned to them. His research uncovers new uses for craft materials like wicker and bamboo by applying the latest manufacturing processes and prototyping methods. Chatchai’s first product is a stunning bicycle frame sculpted from bamboo fibres using a vacuum infusion method. He told us how it came about:

I began my research by asking why we don’t normally see crafts as part of everyday life. Customers nowadays buy products that reflect their personality, and the design process for local handicrafts isn’t fast enough to keep up with trends. I also found that wicker products tend to have the same function, such as a basket, due to limitations in the forming process. The same material tends to produce the same output. So I started to experiment more with Thai handicrafts and the material I chose first was bamboo, the fibre of which is actually stronger than metal in some ways.

Ranad 2021 Thai Alto Xylophone, by Taylor O Studio

If Craft To Be is all about giving new form to old materials, Taylor O Studio takes the opposite approach by updating a timeless form: the ranad, or Thai xylophone. By applying its signature minimalist and monochrome look to a design that has barely changed in centuries, the award-winning studio has divided opinion in Thailand over the extent to which classic or “sacred” designs should evolve with the times. In their thoughtful balancing act of tradition and modernity, the team draw great inspiration from Japanese design:

The simplicity and philosophy of Japanese design is an inspiration for many people and designers around the world, including Taylor O Studio. Japanese designs never become outdated. They are timeless and reflect inside values in a delicate way. Therefore, we would be really delighted if we could have any chance to collaborate with designers in Japan.

Color Blind Ice Cream, by IceDEA x FabCafe Bangkok

Prima Chakrabandhu is an ice-cream designer, a role the architecture graduate invented for herself by applying design principles to the craft of making ice cream – something she learned from her father in childhood. Prima’s company IceDEA collaborated with FabCafe to produce Color Blind Ice Cream, which playfully subverts the vibrant food trends popular in Thailand. The idea came to Prima when she was asked by a client to create a colourful ice cream:

Making a colourful ice cream is quite simple and it’s something you’ll find everywhere on the market. I decided to play with perception, so when you taste the green one it’s actually strawberry, and when you taste the pink one it’s actually chocolate. What happens is that you become colour-blind. I got the chance to redesign this with FabCafe Bangkok, so I designed everything, including the packaging, according to a colour-blind taste pattern.

Elephant Dung Brick, by Boonserm Premthada

Humans and elephants have lived side by side in Ta Klang village for 400 years. Now, Thai architectural designer Boonserm Premthada has pioneered a low-tech construction method using an overlooked material that happens to be locally abundant: elephant dung. Each elephant produces up to 100kg of dung daily. As well as being used for fertiliser and biogas, dung can now be mixed with cement, moulded and dried to make bricks, using a novel production method that also creates local jobs. Boonserm explains how the elephants’ plant-based diet means their dung is high in fibre and the bricks are surprisingly load-bearing:

The brick is 80% dung and 20% cement and water. It weighs about 2 kg and you can see it has a fibrous texture. The compressed strength is 2.41 mPa, which almost meets the standard of 2.5 mPa for concrete masonry. The bricks can also be made in multiple colours. This year we’ve been invited to exhibit at the Versailles Architecture and Landscape Biennale in France, where we’ll install a pavilion called the Elephant Theatre made entirely from these bricks. As an architect, my responsibility is to all people everywhere. I don’t have a philosophy in my work. I just have an attitude, which I express through my materials.

Cheap Ass Elites, by Saran Yen Panya

Artist Saran Yen Panya is cofounder of 56th Studio in Bangkok and his work is a running commentary on wealth inequality and high-low culture. He begins by showing us a Hello Kitty beer mug that he claims is everything that’s wrong with Thai design, before moving on to Cheap Ass Elites, the project he is best known for internationally. The idea came to him during a study trip to Sweden, when the inequalities he’d grown up with in Thailand became painfully obvious and he felt a need to express them in object form:

I wanted to express this dichotomy, this contrast between something that’s considered tacky and cheap versus something that’s considered expensive and tasteful, so I did this chair. I wish I could say it was 3D printed, but basically it’s just a cheap laundry basket cut away on one side and then attached to a painted wooden structure. Funnily enough, I named this Cheap Ass Elites and it opened a lot of doors for me. I was asked to exhibit this collection all over the world and I priced it ridiculously high.

Crosstalk: Sharing lessons between Japan and Thailand

The meetup continued with questions to each creator from Kelsie Stewart of FabCafe Global and Isao Kitabayashi, founder of Design Week Kyoto. Isao has been instrumental in forging a future for Kyoto’s craft industries that balances tradition with contemporary market forces.

Isao: Many craftsmen want to join the digital movement. For example, this is a 3D-printed Buddha made by a craftsman in Kyoto. He carves it in wood and then scans it for printing. It’s combined with a drone so that Buddha will come down from heaven. There are lots of opinions about this, both good and bad.

Lamtharn: Obviously, 3D-printing a buddha image has very strong significance in many cultures. I learned with Fidular that you can get very scared if the community will like it or not. I like to use the example of food here. If it tastes good, it feels good. Culture is meant to be experienced. And if the experience is positive, then you’re doing something right.

Isao: Fifty craftspeople opened their studios during this year’s Design Week Kyoto. Many of them want to collaborate with international designers, but craftspeople also want to protect history and traditional feelings. The important point is to respect each other. Japanese people need to understand your background story too.

Kelsie: It’s very cool that these Kyoto studios and factories are opening their doors to let people come and learn and make connections with them.

Isao: Bamboo is also an important material in Japan. There are lots of bamboo trees in Kyoto, but not enough people to cut them down. Chatchai, how will you get bamboo at an industrial level for your designs?

Chatchai: I actually didn’t think about that yet. I based this project on a very local scale and I can’t see a future for the product at the factory level. It will still be custom-made, one by one.

The future is local – with new possibilities for collaboration

Kelsie: I’d like to hear any ideas from the Thai creators about collaborating with Japanese manufacturers or designers.

Saran: I am very interested in the art of fermentation. Japan is amazing when it comes to this. Thailand is also a land of rice, and Japanese sake and Thai rice wine are similar. I think there are ways to actually elevate our rice game.

Lamtharn: Just hearing the others speak, I think it really comes down to this idea of cultural counterpoint. Whether it’s woodworking or fermentation or musical instruments, I think it would be amazing to find these counterpoints and do something between the two cultures to highlight them.

Kelsie: Coincidentally, FabCafe Kyoto has a community called Counterpoint and it’s a creator residence. There’s already a place for you to be installed!

Prima: Personally, I would like to explore the local food scene in Kyoto. The sweet shops, or anything that can inspire me to make something that has a sense of Kyoto and maybe mixes in some Thai ingredients.

Chatchai: The level of handicraft skill in Japan is really high, so it would be great to learn about it. I still think this kind of work should be local, or halfway between local and factory work.

Kelsie: Earlier, Isao was showing us the breadth of different studios and factories in and around Kyoto. There are still so many small, sometimes family-based, manufacturing hubs in Japan.

Boonserm: Local is the future. My work is not located in a city, it’s in the middle of nowhere. But the world is boundless, so my work is located everywhere in the world. That’s why I talk about attitude as the most important thing.

Kelsie: I actually got goosebumps when you said the future is local and I couldn’t agree with you more! With the pandemic, people are learning how to work from home and they’re going into local areas and experiencing the charm and the possibilities of being in those areas.

The full video of this online meetup is now online. If you’re interested in collaborating with any of the creators featured here, get in touch with us at FabCafe.

Watch the video


David Willoughby
Freelance Writer

David thinks and writes about sustainability, technology and culture, and has reported on many of our hackathons, talks and other events. He also works with Japanese companies to help tell their stories to the world.

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