A Frenchman's love affair with lacquer

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  Frenchman Bruno de Caumont, who has set up a workshop in HCMC to design lacquer home furniture

Despite the profusion of new, modern materials, traditional Vietnamese lacquer works are still a favorite with art lovers and furniture buyers throughout the world.

Among those besotted by this traditional beauty is Bruno de Caumont, 45, a French home-furniture designer who has been reviewed by Elle Decor, The New York Times, and Architectural Digest. He has come to Vietnam and settled down here to work on lacquer furniture.

Caumont has now been in Ho Chi Minh City for around two years, setting up the French Factory to design home furniture in Cu Chi.

There his staff upgrade and polish lacquer furniture other factories make for him.

"I want to keep the company small and handcraft things.

"And then we will have sellers in Korea and Japan. For me, it is a luxury to export my own designs."

He exports home furniture to the US and Europe. There are three shops in the US that sell his products, two in Los Angeles and one in New York.

He told Vietweek that his products are 100 percent handmade. "What I want is to sell furniture, to sell more and make modest profits."

Bruno grew up in France where he studied economics and history. He began to design furniture in 2001, first working in Belgium for six years and in New York for two.

"I used to work for a catering company. Then I had a shop in a flea market in Paris." That was when he taught himself furniture designing.

He said since his mother was a painter he had a natural inclination to draw.

Caumont's European inspiration comes from 19th century home furniture designs, whose classic, pure, elegant lines he likes.

"My collection is more European, more with wood, and we use fabric." With his love for colors, he came to Vietnam to learn about lacquer and was seduced by this Asian art, which offers a tremendous opportunity to add color to wood.

 Anne-Marie Le Jones, a business owner and an admirer of Caumont's works, said: "My first reaction to Bruno's designs was an emotional one, the same way a painting or a sculpture would move you."

"The color combinations, the use of lacquerware combined with classical elements of French furniture give a whole new perspective to contemporary furniture made from ancient techniques.

"His designs are never boring and elevate functional objects to an art form. I believe his mix of both cultures is very exciting and elegant, taking classic rules and adapting them to today's taste."

"Most people would consider this technique as a thing of the past, but Bruno's designs are anything but that. His products are shown around the world and are a homage to his roots, but also a brilliant demonstration of Vietnamese know-how. Through Bruno's work, both French and Vietnamese heritages are looking bright."

Why Vietnam?

"Traditional lacquer is made in China, Japan, and Vietnam. I never thought about going to China. Japan is expensive, difficult, and most Japanese don't speak English.

"My grandfather worked for a year in the French administration in Hue. And he talked about the country, that people were always smiling and polite. I was very impressed by that.

By chance, in 2005 a friend invited him to Vietnam for a birthday celebration and he took the opportunity to look at lacquer products in HCMC. Since then he flew back and forth to the city until 2010 when he decided to settle down in Vietnam to develop his career.

He saw big potential for the application of lacquer in modern home furniture. Caumont studied a lot about lacquer and how it has been appreciated in Europe throughout history.

Comparing Vietnamese lacquer techniques with Chinese and Japanese styles, he said: "Technically the process is the same in the three countries. The lacquer is sanded and polished before every new layer is added. And it needs one week to dry before a new layer is added.

"We can say today that the real difference is in the decor added
to the object. Probably because of the French and American influences, the Vietnamese details are more modern compared to traditional Chinese or Japanese decor."

He said in the 17th and 18th centuries Europeans started sending cabinets to China to create lacquerware products with European design.

"At that time a lacquerware cabinet was as expensive as a car is today. Now the price is not the same. People who like lacquer love what is made by hand.

 "Since 2005 I have been coming to Vietnam to find lacquer. All the processes of creating lacquer works are very traditional in this country, with two laces of silk on the wood. Very nice objects and good products are made here.

"But I learnt that you have to be in the country where they are made."

"˜Ten times' more energy

Caumont was bowled over by Vietnamese lacquer. He said when he touches lacquer it seems like velvet, only harder.

He likes lacquer for two main reasons. Firstly it is natural and delicate, but also modern and strong. It even looks a bit like plastic. So from a very old and natural technique, one can create something very modern.

Secondly, it offers the opportunity to use many colors.

Caumont said lacquer can be made in up to 250 different colors and he himself uses 24 in his products.

"My lacquer is less bright but deep and with plain colors. Layers of lacquer create the depth of color."

Caumont is fascinated by how Vietnamese use science in their lacquer technique.

"When the frame is finished, two layers of silk are arranged weft [crosswise threads on a loom] reversed to maintain and resist alterations in the wood due to temperature and humidity changes."

He talked about living in many different cultures and countries: "I'm a designer, I need to go to learn different cultures. I have to learn how people work and live, what their traditions are, what kind of fabrics and colors they like, and how and what they feel and need in daily life.

"In Europe handmade products are very expensive (at least six times more expensive than in Vietnam). I don't want to make my furniture too high-priced. I don't like the idea of doing in Europe some kind of false lacquer when I can do the real one here."

For him Asia is so different from Europe, so every day he learns something different. "What I love here is that society is organized around family.

"People here have a lot of energy. Since I'm here I have energy to do 10 times more than I do in Europe.

"I can design a lot of things and prototypes every day. Here I do two or three samples every month."

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