An unlikely gauge to Vietnam’s status as a global consumer can be found in its taste in furniture. While comedic author Jarod Kintz jokes that wooden furniture with no cushions is especially great when the in-laws come over as it discourages guests from staying too long, that type of unupholstered, heavily carved, highly ornate furniture has long been a status symbol for the country’s middle- and upper-class. But as the Vietnamese acquired more wealth and had more dealings with the West, along came a change in taste, from highly traditional wooden furniture to highly embellished European antique reproductions, to “more clean lines, more flat surfaces, less decorative, more modern and streamlined from what it was 10 years ago,” notes furniture industry veteran Randy Austin.

With more than 50 years experience in the furniture business, Randy, along with wife, Robin, are the owners of Austin Home Interiors (42 Nguyen Dang Giai, D2), an exquisite two-floor showroom featuring their own line of upholstered furniture as well as pieces from some of America’s finest furniture companies, like JohnRichard, Moore Councill and Emporium Home, all made in Vietnam. Since opening in 2007, they’ve seen their customer base move from being predominantly expats to now more Vietnamese clients. “Expat customers are generally looking for a taste of home,” says design manager McNeill Shiner. “Upholstery is really a tremendous deal, being able to customize a piece and get exactly what you want. To do that in the States, you’re looking at least at another thousand dollars.”

The furniture and interior design store often catches expats “at the beginning or end of their journey. They’ve brought a container but houses here are huge. Or for people who are leaving, a month or two before they go, they’ll want to fill up their container with investment quality pieces at incredibly reasonable prices,” says McNeill. On the other hand, “Vietnamese customers are by and large really just beginning the process of learning what they like, what they want and how to use their home to express all of that. Many Vietnamese clients come in with words they’ve heard like ‘contemporary’ or ‘European’ but may not have an idea of what that entails,” she continues. “I encourage people to start by looking at Pinterest. Start with visuals and see what you react to. When you see something you really love, it’s almost a visceral reaction. Forget about the terminology. Figure out what you actually like.”

Don’t Close Any Doors

For the studio’s own line, the design team starts by collecting ideas from books, magazines and the internet, looking for interesting shapes and things that inspire. “Once we have ideas and photos pulled together, we’ll figure out how to do it, how to tweak it. We’ll then have a technical drawing made and then send it to production, one piece at a time, giving us a chance to really test it out,” explains McNeill. While the line is sold locally, all the pieces are made to US specifications and quality standards and qualify for export. While the showroom is very eclectic with classic American furniture juxtaposed with modern, sleek styles, a little bit of Asian inspiration makes an appearance now and then, like in the Jim Thompson silk headboard with a lotus motif or in the oversized Buddha statues. “But we don’t want to get too theme-y,” says McNeill. “Just because you live in Asia doesn’t mean everything you own has to have cranes or cherry blossoms.”

While Vietnam is known for mass producing low end furniture, it’s gaining a reputation as the place to manufacture high quality case goods. “Furniture manufacturing has just about died in the US. Some is still done there and in China but not at the level of Vietnam,” says Randy, who originally came to Vietnam as the president of leading American furniture company Theodore Alexander. “We came here because of the high skill level of the workers, their good work ethic and creativity. Maybe it’s because of the French influence and the artistic creative nature of that era, but Vietnam excels in basic handwork, carving and crafts because they’ve done it for so many years. A lot of fancy stuff is done here now.” Randy now consults for major furniture companies, helping them find the right factories to produce their designs. Over time, Vietnamese craftsmen have mastered difficult techniques like antiquing and églomisé, gilding the backside of glass with gold or metal leaf. “I’ve learned a lot about the work the craftsmen are capable of doing with their hands here. It’s refreshing to any designer to not be restricted by the capabilities of the craftsmen; it allows them to think more broadly because of that. I tell people that in Vietnam, we can do anything. Don’t close any doors. Think about what you want to accomplish and we can do it.