Pham Kieu Phuc on Design, Inspiration & Spirituality
When I lived in Hanoi, a friend suggested I visit Module 7, a furniture store and art gallery on Xuan Dieu Street in the West Lake area. Little did I know, that walking into that store I was embarking on the beginning of a beautiful friendship with Pham Kieu Phuc, a self-taught designer, who taught me so much about life, design and spirituality.
I would often visit Phuc's store after work (I was a communications officer at UNICEF at that time) just to hang out and talk to her about life and design. At that point, my professional life felt creatively stifling, so I looked forward to my conversations with Phuc for inspiration.
I was impressed by Phuc's continuous desire to improve her business and deepen her understanding of design and spirituality. One of her projects at that time involved creating a space in her home for people in Hanoi to gather on the weekends to work on their art. A communal space like that did not exist in Hanoi at that time.
While always ambitious about the growth of her furniture and interior design business, Module 7, spirituality remained a large part of her life and a guiding principle for the business. In the interview below, Phuc shares her thoughts on design, inspiration, and of course, spirituality.
How did you begin your career in design?
My career in design actually happened quite spontaneously. I was working for Air France in Hanoi, and I was in charge of ticketing for the construction company that built the Hanoi Hilton Opera Hotel.
One day, I visited their office, and made a comment about the decoration. A few days later, I got a phone call from a manager at the construction company who asked if I would be able to follow-up on the suggestion that I had made. Although this contract truly fell from sky, at that moment I knew that my design career was just beginning. It took me four more years after that encounter, and a long period of searching before I opened my first furniture store and art gallery in Hanoi.
With no formal design training, where did you find your inspiration?
For me, design is reflected in the encounter between a designer's mind and the images around her. It can be anything, really — an aerial view of a rice field, an object of rural Vietnamese life (like a shrimp trap), pieces of wood or metal with an interesting texture, a red spot on a Red Dao minority's clothing, set in the backdrop of in immense green mountain. But, I believe, the greatest source of inspiration is nature and I believe someone with an open and curious mind can find inspiration at any moment.
How has the design field in Vietnam changed over the years, and what do you think are some of the current challenges in the industry?
Since I started working in the design field, I've noticed there are more products that combine traditional craftsmanship with a contemporary aesthetic. This is the intersection in which I began my work in design. One of my desires has always been to merge the traditional with the contemporary. I've particularly noticed this trend in the fashion industry. In terms of challenges, since the field is relatively new in Vietnam, we don't have a strong identity in terms of product design. We don't really have an idea of what "made in Vietnam" truly means.
Can you give an example of this melding of modern and traditional in your design?
For one project that I worked on many years ago," Hon Viet" (Viet spirit), for an exhibition center, I used a conical hat, one of the most iconic images of Vietnamese women, to make a lighting installation. It is a representation of Vietnam moving toward modernity, but honoring traditional values.
Since I've known you for some time, and we have had many discussions about spirituality and design over the years, I'm curious if our perspective on design changed, based on how you've changed as a person? And if spirituality still plays a role in design.
Design is, and always has been, the outcome of my personal development. So, as I have changed with time, my design approach has also changed. At the beginning of my practice as a designer, I searched for the true value, the essence of things (which is what my brand Module 7 is built upon). In doing so, I wanted to eliminate the unnecessary. Now, I feel I'm more open and relaxed, and I am learning how to embrace life and everything around me; this new perspective certainly impacts the way I design and see things.
In terms of spirituality — always. My spirituality helps me to see the beauty in everything and has developed a sense of harmony in my inner world, which I hope translates to my design work. In 2006, I started meditating while I was in the process of repositioning my company. There were many overlapping ideas in terms of my work and my life, which all revolved around simply beauty and harmony. I reflected a lot, and still do, about Zen Buddhist principles and thoughtful, simple beauty.