International students and Thai designers who have collaborated with Thomas Heatherwick to VMA Design Studio, a small design office that is truly proud of its design.

From an architect student in the Faculty of Architecture, a graduate from AA, London, to a Lead Architect at a renowned studio like Heatherwick, it’s been decades since Champ – Vichayuth Meenaphant practices different roles in the design industry. Today, together with Nokyoong – Peerawin Sawattanawanit, a partner and interior designer, he is here as a founder of VMA Design Studio, a small design studio that makes designs and is truly proud of the design with the intention of ‘ wanting to work for a project owner who has passion, grows, learns and earns together.’

01 The Beginning and the Endless Decisions

What type of students were you two while you were in school?
Nokyoong: We are unique to others. We dressed up to university differently as we dare to use color, materials, and items that are not the same, but when combined, they go in harmony. And we have a lot of confidence in ourselves and thought “Hey, it’s okay” (laughs).

Champ: As for me, when I was studying, it was the first 4-5 years when the Faculty of Architecture started teaching computers. Internet, programs, and any information is not as good as today. At that time, I had a group of friends who played games together. So, we got used to computer programs. We kept coming up with new ways to try it out. Eventually, that group of friends has become a gang of contestants.

One of these friends was often buying international magazines and sharing them with us. Back then, I thought those designs were very far-fetched. “Well…it was gorgeous,” I thought and that was it. However, there was one contest event in which we always participated and somehow, we won and had to travel to Italy for the presentation. I was probably between the ages of 23 and 24. I went there and met several of the Great Architects I adored in school. Seeing and hearing their speeches and presentations transformed my perspective. Those designs turned out to be not irrelevant to me anymore. When I returned to Thailand, I opted to pursue my studies in Design Research at The Architectural Association School of Architecture, or AA, in the United Kingdom.

During my time there, it was enjoyable, it was like meeting a bunch of people who were all into the same subject, and were into contests from different countries, so it was easy to connect with them. After graduating, I had the opportunity to work at Heatherwick Studio, where I worked directly with Thomas Heatherwick.

Why did you decide to return to Thailand to establish your own office?
Champ: After working at Heatherwick Studio for a while until I became a Lead Designer, I become accustomed to living there. So, I considered whether I should settle down there or come back to Thailand. It was because I would be granted British citizenship within two years. At that time, I do not have any design connections in Thailand. until Nokyoong’s friend contacted us about designing a house in Chantaburi, I decided to give it a try. Back then, I was working from the UK while Nokyoong was in Thailand presenting the design to the customer.

Nokyoong: It was a difficult decision to make. To be honest, Thai people did not place much value on design work back then. However, if we stay there, we will be unable to create the design in our name. So Champ decided to return to Thailand and open our own company, beginning with the Baan Chantaburi project.

Champ: The thing is normally when designing, I’ve got Thomas Heatherwick as a Head Director who helps mentor, write, and guide through the project. When I’m on my own, it is completely different. It’s like I know how to swim but don’t know what position can get me to the finish line the smoothest and fastest. But when I get my hands on many projects, explored, and experimented with those projects, or meet with customers who get along with us and our idea, I realized there was still a long way to go.

Garden House / Guest Lodge

02 Passion, Details, and Fun of Exploring

Do you have any idea of what kind of designs VMA will work on?
Nokyoong: As I mentioned at the beginning, I am a one-of-a-kind person. Those characteristics influence the present. One is that I do not reuse my work. I always reminded Champ and my team that while we work, we should imagine that the clients are coming to us to explore. They offered us money because they desire fresh ideas. That created a learning curve for us. It is an investment in non-monetary concepts that we have explored with customer work.

Champ: We strive to uncover ideas for each project in as many contexts as feasible. We’re attempting to implement a concept from another country. In terms of design, foreign countries spend a lot of time in the development phase, most likely due to the Dry Process construction, which requires everything to be done from the factory rather than a wet system to adjust on-site, as in Thailand. As a result, we must consider carefully and thoroughly design until it is ready to be constructed.

Nokyoong: This is something I agree with. I used to enjoy visiting the site since I enjoy seeing how the design evolves gradually till it is completed. Until Champ returned and warned me that if we work on a lot of projects, we won’t be able to visit the site as frequently. What we could do is completely and unquestionably plan our work. If we travel on-site, it will be to ensure that the contractor is following the design. But at least he won’t have any construction-related queries.

At that time, I felt like I was wasting my time. I thought we shouldn’t waste our time going into too much detail on certain urgent projects. But Champ insists that everything must be done thoroughly. Turns out that when I keep an open mind, and gradually change my work system, it is so much better. I have more time to craft a good design in the office. When our design is perfect, the price is also predictable and controllable. It is not only easy for us but also for those working with us. For example, construction workers and contractors informed us that they could schedule completion timelines and budgets since our work consists of details.

Tide Pattaya / Restaurant & Bar

What kind of design is VMA’s work?
Nokyoong: Our office is not very famous. But fortunately, we have got good customers. Some customers had limited budgets, but their passion was very strong. We can sense their drive and that they were interested in design. These are things that challenging for us. We have seen the customers earn more and grow with what we designed for them. So, we learned that this is how we envision our office growing together with our customers.

Champ: Upon graduation from the UK, I only care about technologies there. All designs were Computer Base, Vector Base. So, they were able to replicate the shapes of structures exactly as shown in the rendering software, which amazed me. Back then, I didn’t think that these technologies were appropriate for design works in Thailand because our technologies are not that sophisticated. Until I had an opportunity to teach in Brazil, where technologies are similar to those in Thailand, and saw how beautiful their designs and spatial design were. Or in Vietnam, I observed several basic designs produced from a computer generator and adapted to their context, which I believe is probably similar to Thailand as well. The key difference is that our technicians’ labor costs are lower than in other nations. The labor costs there are exorbitant. That is why appreciating the value of craftsmanship is different. So, I consider how I may apply these ideals to architecture. This is the basic concept I strive to apply to all of my projects.

M Residence / Private Residence

Like what? Could you please elaborate?
Champ: For example, for the Hard Rock Café project’s façade, we used the Computer Base concept. However, when we come across craftsmanship, we must transmit it in different commands. We devised a simple guideline because the truth is that the artisan could also make it attractive and give the job a more homemade feel. Or the house at Lad Phrao, we created the aluminum composite façade with designs. The anticipated cost was 500,000 baht. However, the contractor stated that he could do it for 100,000 baht (laughs). This, I believe, is our advantage.

LAD-15 House / Private Residence

In the Bite & Bond project, we used available materials such as wood and bent it with a handcrafted process for which we previously calculated an R-value, which is also craftsmanship. It’s not as flawless as building technology, but it’s an Asian-style craft that has a distinct type of attractiveness for us. It’s not that our houses can’t be built neatly; many of the structures we see are also immaculate and gorgeous.

Bite & Bond Project / Café + Hostel

Is there culture shock, and what similarities and differences do you see between Thai and international design?
Champ: I’d say it’s an in-depth development like Critical Thinking. Even if this is not the case, a Thai child will still be trapped inside the framework that the adults have established. For example, when students do the design, at least they have to seek feedback from the teacher to see if they were doing it right. This is where the courage of the designer is not equal. Overseas, designers are more confident in experimenting. I didn’t intend to imply that all of their designs are stunning. Out of 100 works, there may be only 30 pieces that are extraordinary whereas the remaining 70 pieces are a failure. They can, however, make these 30 pieces of work because they have the bravery to do so.

In our country, I believe that one of the problems is that the materials available on the market are not very diverse. What I’m capable of doing is modifying and repurposing those available materials differently, yet I still rarely see astonishing adjustments that are unconventional or very advanced from the original. As a result, the structures appear to be identical to one another. When asking the contractors, they are accustomed to working with the same methods, like plastering, and floor tiling. Hence, the complete works aren’t all that different from what we’ve seen previously.

What would you change if you could alter anything in the Thai design industry?
Champ: Materials, in my opinion. I’d want to see more material development, such as polished stone and washed sand. Recently, I went to the BOYY shop in Gaysorn Village. The walls were built with terrazzo. It’s stunning. I attempted to figure out who did it. And it was designed by a Singaporean. This is something I’d want to see in Thailand. If it’s going to be a wet construction process, I should definitely go all out in this area to make it stand out.

How nice is it to have an office consisting of both interior designers and architects?

Champ: Architects will look at the big picture and key overview concepts before passing them on to interior designers to screen specifics to determine whether they can really build. It is beneficial to fine-tune before beginning a design. In terms of layout planning, interior designers collaborate with the architects. It’s simpler to get an agreement on the budget.

03 The joy of being a designer

What’s the joy of doing this career these days?
Champ: It’s about customer relationships. We have clients for whom we designed their first home. We’re still in contact. When they have a wedding or celebration, they invite us as well. From consumers to close friends, I believe this demonstrates that they are impressed with our work.

Sichon Cabana Pool Villa / Resort & Pool Villa

Nokyoong: Everything will fall into place if we do good work. We choose customers based on our conversations with them and our mutual interest in working together. It motivates me to come to work every day, and that’s the goal of our office: ‘‘We want to be a small office that does design and is really proud of the design.’ My passion is, in the future, assuming I no longer exist, my works remain wonderful and will never perish. If I’m honest with my work, I believe it will yield results in that respect.

Like one customer, he wanted to build a budget resort for 800-900 baht per night. But he has a strong passion to develop the land there and asked us to see how the design could be. Back then, I really wanted to do this project because he was a customer who encouraged me as well. He has a passion and clear vision and appreciates what he has so much that I wanted to be a bridge for him to further develop his project. He is now expanding the second phase to create a pool villa that will sell for 7,500-8,500 baht per night. He is an example of a customer who has grown alongside us.

ขอขอบคุณ VMA Design Studio
Design Team : Pattitar Na Chart, Suppasit Sirinukulwattana, Kattawan Pongsomsak, Peemai Sawattanawanit, Vichayuth Meenaphant, Peerawin Sawattanawanit

Rangsima Arunthanavut

Rangsima Arunthanavut