When it comes to design, Thailand is probably best known as the world capital for pirated goods. But a new breed of homeware designers has ditched copies and kitsch to take international markets by storm with their stylish, useful products.
"Thailand is a real design hub at the moment, and if you go out around the region it’s not as groovy as Thailand," says Carole Stevens, director of Asian Motifs, a design house producing modern Asian-inspired homeware.
"You used to be stuck for buying things here that didn’t have an elephant on it or wasn’t rattan. And now there are just great things to buy, beautiful things."
Eric Booth, marketing director for Thai silk house Jim Thompson, says homegrown designers are more innovative than ever before.
"Ten to fifteen years ago, the designs here were imported. Thai designers were copying foreign designers — there was no local talent, no local inspiration," he says.
"But in the last five years, I’ve travelled to all the international fairs, and now there are some very, very talented Thai designers."
Utilising Thailand’s natural resources, they are turning out sleek candleholders and silver-tipped chopsticks in hardwood, stunning silk cushions and table runners, as well as ultra-modern furniture among countless other items.
For small-scale production, designers can utilise Thailand’s highly-skilled artisans, Booth says.
"The manual worker is excellent — that’s why we copy things so well," he says, referring to Thailand’s famed counterfeiters who routinely knock off designer handbags the day they debut on Parisian runways.
The increasing appeal of Thai homewares is reflected in rising export figures, with gifts and decorative items earning the country’s coffers 3.7 billion dollars last year, a rise of 76 percent on 1998.
Over the same period, exports of household textiles rose by 31 percent, earning 149.5 million dollars last year.
The designers’ success represents a silver lining to the cloud of the devastating 1997 Asian economic crisis which forces many businesses to change tack.
"Many people I know turned to home decorating instead of interior design (during the crisis). It had a big impact of things," says Masiri Tamsakul, a designer working for retailer Muang Doo, which took the downturn head-on by opening in 1997.
"During the last four years, so many interior designers and architects have lost their jobs," says architect Duangrit Bunnag, who went another route and began importing homeware to satisfy a niche demand for international products.
"They have tried to find alternative ways of using their expertise as designers."
A key driver in the boom has been the twice-yearly Bangkok International Gift Fair, which draws buyers from around the world to browse everything from turquoise celadon vases and coconut wood lamps to water hyacinth chairs and Thai-silk cushions.
"Some trade fairs don’t work because the buyers don’t come, but this fair has been getting bigger and bigger each year," says Duangrit.
More than 700 Thai companies exhibited this year with 15,000 potential buyers booking orders worth 1.7 billion baht (40.5 million dollars), says Department of Export Promotion trade officer Praneen Suangarom.
"Most of the (buying) companies who talked to me said… the quality is good, but the uniqueness is in the design," he says.
A focus on both design and quality is vital now that China has emerged as a tough price competitor, exporters say.
"China is a very strong competitor. What we see from big customers who need big quantities is that they come here, collect samples and go to China," says Carlo Hostettler, managing director of Cocoon, an upscale retailer and exporter of contemporary Thai-style homewares.
With China impossible to beat on a price basis, some are concerned that the government is still pushing Thailand’s virtue of being a cost-effective producer, rather than an innovative one.
"They’re going in the wrong direction," says architect Duangrit. "Nobody can produce anything cheaper than China."
And while designers are cutting-edge and manual workers are top notch, growth in the market is being held back by a lack of quality-conscious manufacturers.
"There are few manufacturers who can work for us — it’s hard to produce a large quantity at the same or consistent quality," says Muang Doo’s Masiri. "We have to QC (quality control) the products so much."
Jim Thompson’s Booth says the famed company has faced the same problem.
"Every time we’ve tried to outsource something, the prototype was nice. But when we ordered 10, 20 or a 100 they came out in different shapes, different sizes, different qualities, different colours."
Chet R-nont, chairman of the Thai Housewares Trade Association, says there are quality manufacturers in Thailand, and he hopes they’ll connect with designers through the 65-member association.
"If you come to the association, then we can direct you to the right (manufacturer). All of our members are screened for quality and reliability," he says.
The association was founded last year to focus on accessing overseas markets for manufacturers, and signals a maturity in the industry, he says.