Brian Mertens, author of Bangkok Design, moved to Bangkok in 1997, the same year in which Thailand suffered financial meltdown. Prior to this Mertens had lived in Japan, which had been in economic recession for the best part of the nineties. Mertens observed that unlike Japan, where the depressed economy resulted in general malaise, in Thailand it had the opposite effect, unleashing a tide of creativity in many areas; no more so than in design.
Whilst performing admirably as coffee table book, Bangkok Design is much more than that. As a Bangkok based writer on Asian art and culture since 1997, Mertens has been ideally placed to observe and analyse how a young contemporary design industry has risen from the ashes of the financial crisis and has done so with such swiftness. Bangkok Design, as much as it is attractive to flip through, is, at its most crucial, a fascinating chronicle of this period and as such could well prove to be a pivotal document, which helps to consolidate Thailand, and Bangkok specifically, as the centre of a contemporary design scene in S.E. Asia.
The main part of the book is essentially split into 5 sections - Furniture, Accessories, Pop&Kitsch, Textiles and Custom Designs. Each of the sections focuses on specific designers or design companies with 4 - 6 pages dedicated to each. Furniture features most prominently with a total of 14 entries the remaining 18 split between the other four. Interestingly of these 32, three are foreigners, which perhaps gives some indication of an outward looking and internationally interested culture.
The final two sections of the book - Local Legacies and Local Initiatives look at how elements of Thai culture influence and fit into the design landscape. Included in Local Legacies for example are pages devoted to colour, flowing lines, floor seating, natural and reclaimed materials, woven construction etc. Local Initiatives on the other hand turns the spotlight on successful local industries such as the development of water hyacinth as a weaving product, Jim Thompson silk, the Thailand Creative and Design Centre and woven textiles in Chiang Mai: There is even a section here on how visual fine artists fit into the design picture. A preface, which leads with the quirky account of how an old Buddhist monk established an academy of design in his `backyard' (the grounds of the temple where he was abbot), followed by a comprehensive but succinct introduction neatly, binds and completes the volume.
It's perhaps important to note that the book does not try to do too much and therefore focuses solely on textiles and furniture as noted in the subtitle. Other design related disciplines such as architecture, graphic design etc., which no doubt have as large a part as any in the Thai design revolution, are therefore not included. Hopefully there will be follow up volumes, which will cover these areas.
If Bangkok Design has any weaknesses at all it could be the initially jarring pastel layout. Once inside the book we learn that vivid hues are an integral part of Thai culture with roots stretching back to Indian influences. On learning this, the bright colour combinations, which recur throughout the book, start to make sense. Nevertheless, to the uninitiated i.e. the casual browser, there remains the risk of mis-interpretation with the product appearing `cheapened' as a result. This would be unfortunate given the informative and detailed nature of the work.
In short Bangkok Design is a thorough and intimate account of an up and coming contemporary Asian design industry, which given the right conditions could have a significant impact on design not only in the region but also globally. With an emphasis on resourcefulness, creativity and sustainability, Bangkok Design should not only appeal to a specific design audience but to anybody with an interest in these issues and Thai culture generally.
(This review first appeared in the Singapore Art Gallery Guide in December 2007 and later in its sister publication the Bangkok Art and Design Guide. Nick Charnley is a British freelance artist and writer based in Singapore. He is also joint creative director of Little Red Dots - www.little-red-dots.com, a Singapore based design agency he co-founded in November 2004 with American artist Nathaniel Walters. )