Jennifer Gampell
868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Songwad Road
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
Tel/Fax: (662) 237-3362
Mobile: (661) 925-7187
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Summer 2004

by Jennifer Gampell

Donna Karan, Nieman Marcus, Gumps, Saks Fifth Avenue, Armani Casa and other icons of international design source contemporary homeware accessories in Chiang Mai, so why shouldn't you? Once renowned for its ancient temples and frenetic aquatic dousings during the annual Songkran water festival, northern Thailand's largest city is becoming the destination for design mavens seeking the latest home décor trends.

"Chiang Mai is a great shopping experience," says interior designer Kristina Zanic, managing director of architectural and design firm DWP-City Space in Bangkok. The co-owner of a snazzy homeware store in the capital often heads to Chiang Mai to find the chic, contemporary pieces she uses to accent the hotel rooms, offices and restaurants of her prestigious corporate clients.

Rich in natural resources, the former capital of the Lanna kingdom has been a creative melting pot since the 13th century, when local artisans along with immigrants from China, Laos and Burma settled in one-craft villages--the Asian equivalent of guilds. For the next 700-plus years, Chiang Mai's wood carvers, silversmiths, potters and weavers handmade everything from teak water pipes to palaces, from basic household items to ornate religious objects, from homespun cotton to royal silks. Jennifer Dyson owner of Living Space--a stylish showcase of lacquerware and modish home accessories on Thapae Road--calls Chiang Mai "the Kyoto of Thailand."

Alas by the last decade of the 20th century, time and tourism were threatening the centuries' worth of venerable, centuries-old traditions. Craftspeople could earn more mass producing schlocky pseudo-traditional souvenirs than creating the beautiful but labor-intensive originals. (And frankly even some of these were pretty démodé.) The retailing norm of the day had become dusty piles of items crammed into dingy, unappealing shops.

A fortunate combination of events has since transformed Chiang Mai's design image from stodgy to stylish. Fed up with rampant urbanization, artsy Bangkokians began relocating to the cooler and calmer north in the early 1990s. (Their numbers increased substantially after the 1997 baht crash.) Many had studied at foreign design schools and returned home with an awareness of new techniques and an understanding of Western merchandising.

Partnering with a coterie of design-conscious expats already in residence, these Bangkok emigrés began
began reinterpreting traditional Thai handicrafts in modern and minimalist ways. For example, designers at GongDee applied gold-leaf stencilling--traditionally used to decorate wooden temple doors--to boxes and lathe-turned vessels. At Chilli, a temple finial or Buddha hand-mounted on a display stand suddenly became a chic objet. The designers at Sop Moei Arts helped ethnic Pwo Karen villagers turn their traditional basket shapes into thoroughly modern wine bottle holders and napkin rings. Instead of contributing to the demise of local artisanship, the style boom has become instrumental in preserving it.

The international hoopla surrounding the 1995 opening of the Regent Chiang Mai (recently rebranded as the Four Seasons), northern Thailand's first uber-luxury hotel and spa, helped put the city on the design map. Many of the hotel's antique and contemporary accents were sourced locally and a list of local suppliers was given to guests. GongDee Gallery, Chilli Antiques & Arts, Under the Bo, Sop Moei Arts, and Ban Phor Lian Meun are still open.

Some of the vanguard design-conscious stores--Sop Moei Arts, Oriental Style, the Gallery and Vila Cini--set up in a row of formerly decrepit Chinese-colonial and Lanna-style teak houses on the eastern banks of the Ping River. The popularity of these stylish showcases of ethnic-inspired decorative items and silks raised merchandising standards to chic new levels. The sophisticated newcomers who recast the city's under-appreciated old houses into voguish boutiques also helped fuel the current trend towards building preservation. An assortment of designers--established as well as upcoming--have now joined the original outlets along Charoenraj Road. Thai culture guru, movie costumier, author and designer Paothong Thongchua opened his eponymous store there in 2001. Half Chinese temple, half simple wooden Lanna house, it offers an eclectic array of clothing, jewelry, and cotton fabrics hand woven locally in nearby Mae Jam. Further along the busy street, a locally-trained potter recently Art-On in a tiny wooden shophouse. Set alone in a woodsy glade a couple of kilometers upriver, Aka-Walai Gallery & Tea Room sells locally designed and produced furnishings in a stylishly remodeled 1960s house with a Balinese-style garden.

Meanwhile across the Narawat Bridge on Tha Phae Road, Jennifer Dyson at Living Space was another early proponent of modernising traditional Thai and regional handcrafting techniques. Opened in 1995, the refurbished, decades-old, two-story teak abode creates a counterpoint to the sophisticated products on show: gleaming lacquerware, furniture, ceramics and soft furnishings. A few doors down, the venerable Siam Celadon (for years headquartered outside Chiang Mai in Samkampaeng village) recently restored a 90 year-old Sino-colonial building for its downtown pottery showroom and teahouse. On the opposite side of the street, the team of Thai and western designers at Nova Contemporary Jewelry has created an original line of jewelry in silver, yellow and white gold.

Gerard and Jean Dauplay, who pioneered the elegant European-style furniture and accessories made of bamboo and other indigenous hardwoods, opened Gerard Collection in the early 1990s on Niemmanhaemin Road. Since then, the historically uninteresting neighborhood has evolved into a charming little design hub.

Nimmanhaemin Soi 1, the tree-lined cul-de-sac leading off the main road, feels vaguely SoHo-ish. GongDee Gallery and the newer GongDee Studio (a charming theater space) are long-time residents. So are Bangkok-based Ayodhya (furniture and accessories made from water hyacinth ), Fai Ngam (quality antique home furnishings) and Wit's Collection (ceramics geared toward the French export market). Paradise, a Taiwanese-owned company that started the boom in sandstone Buddha profiles for home and garden waterfalls, recently opened its third store here.

Style has become so de rigueur in Chiang Mai that even the once-tawdry Night Market has climbed on the design bandwagon, especially on the 2nd and 3rd floors of the original building. Some of the better shops there include Chilli, Paradise, Arnut Asia Treasures and Under The Bo.

Chiang Mai designerati lacked an eaterie as stylish as themselves until late 2002. That's when Hans Christensen, a designer with Bangkok-based Cocoon homewares, transformed a high-ceilinged 1930s abode overlooking the inner moat into The House, the city's first fusion restaurant. The décor is Indochine more than Thailand. Furnishings such as light-colored wicker chairs, thick beveled mirror, glass chandelier, flowery Chinese pillows evoke the various decades of the building's existence. The Pacific Rim cuisine, however, is completely of the moment. Hans and his Thai chef are Jamie Oliver devotees. A second branch of Ginger--Han's self-described "anti-Cocoon girly fashion and girly homeware" boutique--just opened behind the main house, in addition to a trendy new wine and tapas bar.

The recently opened Dalaabaa Bar & Restaurant joins The House as a trendy alternative to the city's fairly mundane dining options. Created by Walailak Khenkum, one of the original partners in Aka-Walai, this clever conversion of a large 1950's villa is set in a garden in a quiet residential district. Silks and soft furnishings are Ms. Walailak's specialty and this is reflected in the fuchsia, magenta and amber tones as well as in the comfy fringed cushions and the staff's chic attire. The exterior combines Thai touches, such as the traditional window frames, with a Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced glass wall treatment. The subtle lighting from the silk ceiling shades and the soft chill-out music keep the ambiance understatedly hip. Food falls into the "nouveau Thai" category.

Despite the boom in shopping malls, superstores and other obvious signs of development, Chiang Mai still exudes a more user-friendly ambiance than Bangkok. It offers interesting free city guides, most with dedicated sections on designer shopping. One of these--Art & Culture Lanna--focuses entirely on style-conscious outlets.

Many wholesalers now bypass Bangkok and head directly to Chiang Mai where they can cover more territory in a shorter time than in the capital. "It's the place to be if you're in this kind of business," comments Jennifer Dyson. The dealers often head straight for Baan Tawai, a fast-growing village, 15km south of the city. A car, at least one day for shopping, and enough space back home for all the furniture and decorative purchases are prerequisites for any such expedition. (Fortunately for the retail shopper with less time and inclination, many Baan Tawai shops also have downtown outlets.)

'Contemporary Thai style' has become such an accepted part of global design vernacular that it's hard to imagine a time when Thai spaces and products weren't featuring regularly on the pages of modish publications such as Wallpaper, Travel + Leisure and Elle Décor. And we should expect more to come. Says Caryl Brill of Thai-based Bambou Ltd. who sources and develops exclusive products from around the region for prestigious clients in the US, "Thailand's high-end design boom is just beginning".

Copyright 2004 Jennifer Gampell