Product designer Jackrayu “Jim” Kongurai knew his sojourn in Sweden would be an eye-opening experience – and the chance of a lifetime. He arrived in March in Almhult, a small town but home to world-renowned furniture chain Ikea.
Jim stayed for five months and dealt with what he calls “the biggest challenge of my life”.
For one thing, he’d never designed furniture before. Since 2004 he’s been with the Doi Tung Development Project run by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation under royal patronage, designing products to be made with ceramics and mulberry paper.
But the Ikea apprenticeship programme offered a chance to get the Swedish firm more involved with Thai artisans and bolster Doi Tung’s design know-how.
Lars Svenson, the project marketing manager at Ikano – which is Ikea’s Thai franchisee– says the Swedish parent is impressed with Doi Tung’s “sustainable” support for the hilltribes and other people in Chiang Rai and wants to be part of the effort.
“Their products like home furnishings and the coffee impress me, personally,” Svenson adds.
Even before Jim signed on, Svenson and Swedish designer Anna Efverlund had visited the Doi Tung facilities. Efverlund helped some of the designers there with their decor lines.
With Ikea opening its first Thailand outlet in September on Bangna-Trat Road on Bangkok’s eastern edge, Svenson says the firm can learn from a Thai designer about merging its design philosophy and creating new products that show local influence.
For his part, Jim got the full Ikea immersion. From arrival to departure he lived the life – work, Swedish food and the chilly Scandinavian weather. He met the kind of people who inspired Ikea’s modest, grassroots beginnings.
“Swedes are humble people, with a simple and pragmatic nature, and that’s reflected in the Ikea products, which are simple yet very functional.”
Jim’s favourite assignment was designing some outdoor furniture. “It was exciting because I’d never designed furniture before! I tried to put my best Thai craftsmanship into the plans.”
He learned by trial and error, working through a dozen projects – a TV shelf, a trash bin, lamps and candleholders. Ultimately, three of his designs got the nod to move into production.
In another two years or so, these items bearing his name will be on sale in Ikea stores around the world, but for now they have to remain a secret.
Meanwhile Jim is back at Doi Tung putting his new knowledge to use. “Working with the Ikea team taught me how to integrate good design, functionality and affordability,” he says.
Ikea has 316 outlets in 38 countries, so Jim also learned that a product’s design has to take shipping into consideration. That’s never been a high priority in Chiang Rai.
“That’s why the best products can be stacked or packed flat. Designers have to pay attention to every aspect, even if the most important thing is always the function.”
Jim’s new challenge is capitalising on his overseas experience and marrying Swedish and Thai concepts. He’s out to discover the best out of both worlds.
THE DOI TUNG DEVELOPMENT PROJECT (MAE FAH LUANG FOUNDATION)
Under the patronage of the late Princess Mother, Princess Srinagarindra, the Mae Fah Luang Foundation was founded to carry out development activities so that the quality of life of Thailand’s ethnic minorities in the Doi Tung area could be raised. These activities took the form of livelihood development, which encompassed the reforestation of watershed areas and the development of various social enterprises to benefit local people.
The Doi Tung Development Project is a holistic and integrated sustainable alternative livelihood development (SALD) initiative. It is the culmination of the Princess Mother’s lifelong dedication to development work.
The Princess Mother recognized that narcotic crop cultivation is a symptom of poverty and a lack of opportunity, which can drive people to break the law — she believed that no one wants to do bad things inherently. Once people’s health is taken care of, Her Royal Highness believed that development should help people to help themselves, by creating viable and sustainable livelihood options. Afterward, education will lay a foundation for long-term development.
“For development to work, basic needs must be tackled first. Without adequate income, people have no choice but to deforest land through illegal logging, and engage in other illegal activities such as opium cultivation and prostitution.” This was part of the address made by the late Princess Mother in 1988 when the handicraft training centre was launched alongside the reforestation project, as an alternative enterprise for people in the locality.
The Princess Mother’s philosophy was to help people help themselves. She said “to improve livelihoods, you must provide vocational training that is up to par and ensure that there are no financial losses incurred.”
She also said “don’t let people buy our products out of pity.” As a result, the Doi Tung Development Project arranged for local people to work in handicraft training centres that allowed for cost savings from economies of scale and quality control. Building the skills and talents of the local people, the Project helped them maximize their potential by hiring Thai and foreign experts to help with designs that appeal to premium markets, and provide them with skill training in dyeing and weaving techniques that complemented local traditional skills.
Recognising that the well-being of nature depends on human stability, the Doi Tung Development Project has business units in Food, Horticulture, Tourism, and Handicrafts. The Project went from being a crop substitution initiative, to provide various livelihood options with the end goal of empowering locals to become business savvy, able to cope with global market forces. As an example, the Project itself has been financially self-sustaining since 2002. The social enterprises are a balance of maximizing social returns on investment verses a financial one. Today, locals are being trained in everything from landscape design to coffee roasting. They are encouraged to set up their own enterprises. In less than 10 years, the ownership of some of the business units in Doi Tung will be transferred to the local community.