Chiang Mai, Signs & Designs

Catherine Vanesse

4 March 2018

Alongside its abundant temples, elephant sanctuaries and jungle treks, the city of Chiang Mai has been attempting for several years to position itself as a cultural and creative hub in Thailand. The recent inclusion of the Rose of the North on the UNESCO creative cities list and events such as Chiang Mai Design Week bear testament to this. 

From 6 to 10 december 2017, the centre of Chiang Mai hosted more than 15,000 visitors and 500 professionals, exhibitors and speakers at Chiang Mai Design Week (CMDW). Held on a yearly basis, CMDW brings together designers, craftspeople, artists and entrepreneurs who present their creations and innovations in the area of design to the public. It also represents an opportunity for debate through numerous presentations and gatherings, with the aim of establishing collaborations between the various local and international participants. The third edition of this festival showcasing creativity was highly successful, despite the event still seeking to fully establish itself on the artistic scene both nationally and internationally.

“We are satisfied with this Design Week, although we continue to face many challenges for the next edition” explains Inthaphan Buakeow, director of the Thailand Creative and Design Centre (TCDC) in Chiang Mai. “Chiang Mai Design Week is too small in comparison with other Design Week around the world, such as in Beijing and Hong Kong. Currently, we are instead forging links with smaller towns such as Bandung in Indonesia and George Town in Malaysia, which are more focused on craftsmanship than on design” clarifies Inthaphan.

As a result, the international exhibition provided an opportunity for visitors to discover the creations of 11 Indonesian designers, who produce items used in everyday life from bamboo, under the label Bambooina. Alongside the classic cooking utensils and handbags, the designers also manufacture bamboo bicycles and musical instruments, which are surprisingly lightweight yet solid.

“The aim of Design Week is to promote creativity and to open up new opportunities for the Chiang Mai community. In terms of innovation, Chiang Mai is not yet at the same level as Bangkok, there are comparatively few designers in Chiang Mai although there are many professional craftspeople,” adds Inthaphan. The director of the TCDC in Chiang Mai differentiates between craftspeople and designers. According to him, craftspeople possess significant technical expertise applied to the production of objects, while designers instead seek to find solutions, to resolve problems with the aim of creating something new. He highlights the perception, perhaps rather skewed, of design: “Many people continue to view design as a luxury. The goal of the TCDC is to demonstrate clearly that design can be found everywhere, that it is part of our daily lives”.


At the end of October, UNESCO added Chiang Mai to its creative cities list. The Rose of the North joined a network of 180 cities which place innovation and creativity at the heart of their urban strategy in favour of more sustainable, inclusive development. This is just one more step in a policy launched several years ago by the governor of Chiang Mai, which saw the implementation of various initiatives including Creative Chiang Mai (CCM), aiming to transform it into “a creative city, a special economic area and a hub of innovation”.

Although the recognition from UNESCO draws attention from the international community, Inthaphan believes that the city must go still further: “Craftsmanship is alive here, it is everywhere you look, but we must continue to establish a platform to bring artists together and encourage them. I think that if the city takes the right action, we can reach a higher level. We must also reconsider education, the art schools are too focused on the creation of objects and not enough on design, they concentrate too much on reproduction and not enough on innovation. People must think more about the future, and not remain stuck in the achievements of the past if we want to progress. That is the advantage of CMDW, as by combining traditional, modern and contemporary art, we can encourage crossovers and offer something new. In fact, Design Week should continue throughout the year, not just during the 5 days of the festival”.


Supakorn Sankanaporn aims to develop Lanna culture through modernisation. Creator of the fashion brand Long Goy, the 22 year old from Chiang Mai is familiar with the Lanna culture and history, as well as with the textile industry, as his mother creates traditional clothing.

However, Supakorn finds this legacy rather outdated, too rooted in the past. Through his clothing line, he combines Japanese influences in the cut of his garments and Lanna influences in the patterns. “I want to promote the Lanna in a new light,” explains Supakorn in his workshop. His creations are entirely handmade, using a unique eco-friendly technique involving potassium permanganate to bleach the fabrics and create patterns. Embroidery or coins are then added as buttons.

The Long Goy brand is available at King Power in Bangkok, at festivals and events, online, or in the workshop located in San Pa Tong in Chiang Mai. Supakorn hopes to be able to sell his clothing line in a gallery or boutique in the centre before long, but keen to rise above the local level, he is seeking opportunities for exposure on the international scene.


Meanwhile, elsewhere in the fashion industry, Torboon offers bags, shoes and accessories created using hand-woven cotton and leather. Created in 2015, Torboon is the second eco-friendly brand by designer Boontavee Charoenpoonsiri. After working in a creative agency in Bangkok for several years, Boon left everything behind to study design in Florence and Milan, before returning to Chiang Mai and launching her own range of accessories. In 2016, the brand received ‘Green Label’ certification from the Thai Minister of Natural Resources. Today, you can fall for a handbag or a stunning pair of woven, dyed shoes in one of Boon’s five boutiques in town.


With an equally ecological outlook, Rubber Killer claims to have recycled 30,000 tyres and inner tubes since its launch in 2010, using them to create backpacks, shoes, wallets, and many more items. ‘Your rubbish is my treasure’ is the slogan used by a man who has difficulty defining himself as a designer, but who nonetheless designs each of the products available in his boutique. “I’m more someone who creates lifestyle products, products for everyone to use, by bringing new life to rubbish,” explains Saroengrong Wong-Savun during our visit to his boutique at Nimman Soi 11.

Originally from Bangkok where he worked as an architect, this 37-year-old spent time in the United States before settling in Chiang Mai, where he also has a factory as well as a shop. “The factory is very small, and we need funds, so we make each bag, each pair of shoes to order”, adds the creator. Available online, the brand also exports to 9 different countries, and participated in the Maison & Objet trade fair in Paris in 2016. He is undoubtedly one of the best-known figures in the Chiang Mai design world.


Another young designer to watch out for is Thanakorn Wongchai. A recent graduate of the Fine Arts faculty in Chiang Mai, the 22 year old from Lampang presented his final project at Design Week, a fully collapsible wooden bike. “I got the idea from wooden toys and at-pack furniture. This bicycle is special in that the different parts can be assembled and snapped into place” explains Thanakorn. Under the label Flatten Bike, only one prototype currently exists, but Thanakorn hopes to sell his project and produce more.


Jirawong Wongtrangan spent 5 years studying and practising ceramics and engraving before working in a ceramics factory in Chiang Rai. However, it was in Chiang Mai that he decided to open his workshop In Clay Studio. Exhibited at Design Week for the third year running, the 31-year-old’s creations stand out through their use of local clay and natural colours, producing a wood-like effect in some ceramics. This keen artist also provides classes, both for potters and for those wishing to try out the potter’s wheel for the first time.


Presented at the 2016 Design Week, Sabina Fay Braxton is primarily known in Chiang Mai for her boutique The Tigris Moon where one can discover her interior design works, largely inspired by the patterns used by tribes in northern Thailand. A citizen of the world, Sabina Fay Braxton divides her time between Paris, Venice, Ireland and Chiang Mai. She has accumulated varied in uences from her travels since childhood, resulting in amboyant pieces which use ancient and technical textiles, printed by hand.

The list of designers to watch could also include Greenies & Co whose leather and cotton bags are seductively simple, while the embroideries of Surreal Stitch welcome you into a fantasy world.

Chiang Mai, a creative city? Latitudes’ team confirms. While the city is not yet at the same level as Bangkok, it undoubtedly displays a creative energy, a melting pot of talents and support from organisations such as the TCDC or Creative Chiang Mai (CCM), whose mission is to promote creativity and economic development in the city. While the challenges for Design Week remain huge, the event can be proud of becoming an unmissable appointment on the calendar, and the next edition is likely to be yet more vibrant as the Galleries’ Night will run concurrently. “Combining these two major events will allow even greater expansion of cultural and artistic exchanges” concludes Inthaphan Buakeow, director of the Thailand Creative and Design Centre (TCDC) in Chiang Mai.

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