Charif Lona Interview

Owning and running a brand has its challenges. Having to be creative on demand is one of them, as creativity can be an elusive thing at times. In order to fuel our creativity, we look within our network for individuals whose creative practice is different to ours. Exploring their story, thoughts, and experiences that shape their work is how we can find continuous inspiration to create and innovate as a brand. One of these individuals is our friend and interior architect Charif Lona. Charif runs a multidisciplinary design studio based in Bangkok, called Studio Act of Kindness. In our interview we dive into our shared history of time spent in Glasgow, his vision of interior architecture, and his experience of building his own design studio. 

We actually met while studying at Glasgow School of Art and I know that both the school and the city of Glasgow have made a big impact on you as an architect. How did that experience influence you? What in particular draws you to Glasgow and Scotland?

Yes we did, so nostalgic!  There are sentimental memories about life in Glasgow. I had to  support myself financially for my study, accommodation and living cost. I admit that was a tough time in my life as a young person, as I flew across the world to study and accomplish my goal. But a full year of living there alone during the course helped me discover different things about myself, both professionally and personally. I mean it was not only about how the city influenced me aesthetically, but also how it shaped me to stay true to myself through tough times. When I think back, I often remember going running on gloomy days – when the silent melody of the urban loneliness emerged from the heavy blocks of city buildings – and discovering how Glasgow has emerged from the ruins of Victorian industrialisation. The city is very charming and radiant in terms of architecture, art and culture. It made me realise how the architecture is capable of more than just providing value through the beauty of design and the functionalities of stone, brick, metal and concrete. Its spirit, the wind, the sun, the rain, the storm, and the music all play their roles in shaping different city scenes that helped me discover the soul of the city as an architecture student.

How is the juxtaposition of you being Thai and living in Bangkok and the influence of Glasgow architecture reflected in your work?

This is a hard one because I have been influenced a lot by the Western history, art and philosophy. Glasgow got me into this sort of brutal melancholic, yet romantic mood and I found that the quality of design, architecture and art there has moved me into an alternative direction in which the architecture and space should focus on emotion too. I mean, how I want to feel when I sit and look out my window, or how the shadow of foliage is kinetically shaped over my wall and floor while I can smell the timber mixed with the grass after the rain, or even how the concrete and granite space can change the sounds of music. I’m not saying that in Thailand they are careless about these things, but I don’t find that the architecture and interior space in Thailand can be geared towards the dedication and provocation of feelings; of being loved or vulnerable, debauchery, madness or even joy to those who live in and experience the space. 

You call yourself an interior architect. How do you combine interior design and architecture in your practice? And what made you interested in architecture in the first place?

I studied Interior Architecture for my Bachelor Degree, and also hold a Master of Architecture. At the beginning, when I was a young designer, I found those two realms were completely disconnected; I thought of them almost like black and white. It required me learning different skills and a change in perspective to realise that they are very much connected; almost as if they were the same thing, just existing in different states, like rigid and fluid. I think they are two sides of the same coin. As far as I can recall, I always remember my childhood memories of living in the rural countryside. I didn’t have many friends during that time. It was only me, my cats and how I perceived the form of a mountain, fog, tree, river and greenfield. I was very interested to juxtapose natural forms and colours with man-made ones. I drew and painted a lot to unfold what amused me. That is possibly the motivation and inspiration of a true seeker of beauty and structure.

You run your own multidisciplinary design studio in Bangkok called Studio Act of Kindness. What is the design philosophy behind the studio? 

I always see myself as an eager person who wants to reinvent and improve himself. I’m a hard worker who has different interests such as architecture, design, art, fashion, music, politics, poetry, history, and even paranormal things (haha). I aim to create a team of people who value the same things and work well together. Being cohesive, adaptive, passionate and versatile is the key to accomplish the vision of the design studio. We do multidisciplinary design, meaning that while the majority of our work is specialised in architectural, interior and spatial design, it also extends to brand consultancy, industrial design, graphic design or even textile design. I choose partners and collaborators who can provide me with technical skills, craftsmanship, initiatives and creativity to challenge the design in my country, both from a business and artistic standpoint. That’s the notion of design I want to create.

Besides architecture and interior design, what other creative mediums are you interested in and inspired by? 

I think music offers me tools and methods to help me express my feelings, explain my thoughts, or even non-verbal concepts. I’m interested in sound making. It always amazes me when artists produce their music and tell stories through their songs. It is sort of like a non-verbal language, and although its sounds are invisible, they allow you to feel and visualize what they mean to you. The same sound of a song can make you feel differently depending on when you listen to it, who you are surrounded with, and at which stage in your life you find yourself.

Art objects are widely present in your interior design work. What’s your connection to art? And who are your 3 favourite artists? 

Art is a pure interest of mine. As an architect and a designer, I usually generate form, or imitate form and design by using design programs, tools and innovative devices. This way I am able to generate the end result digitally, without having to create it physically. What inspires me about art is how artists can create different fluid forms shaped by their experiences and personal backgrounds. Bit by bit, they mould and shape their sculpture. Every stroke, whether by purpose or mistake, creates the look and feel of their work, that in the end has the power to evoke an emotional response by those who see it. It has the power to raise questions about the creative intentions that resulted in the final piece of art. I admire the innovative yet artistic work of Isamu Noguchi and Xavier Corbero, the theatrical light and shadow quality of Rembrandt. The works and techniques of Anselm Kiefer always inspired me, and have impacted me personally. 

With sustainability being at the forefront of the fashion agenda nowadays, I’m interested to know how sustainability is considered in your industry? Is it important for you as an architect? And do you consider it when designing the spaces?

Of course, sustainability in architecture is essential to extend the longevity of a building. This includes the way that design provides contextual value to its inhabitants, which in turn will help form a relationship with those who own and use the building. Sustainable architecture also entails technological innovation which helps make the construction process have less of a negative impact on the environment.

You work with different creatives who are part of your studio team. Are collaborations a big part of your work? What’s your approach to collaborations? 

I’m lucky to have the chance to work with talented people and be friends with them. I’ve always been a huge fan of collaboration. Working with people from different backgrounds is what I always look for, as it helps me reinvent my creative skills, and acquire more knowledge that I can put toward creating future design projects. Working with others helps me in critically evaluating the strong points that make me commercially successful, as well as my weaknesses, which are often linked to not always stepping out of my comfort zone. For me, being a good designer is not only about seeing the glory or success of my career, but allowing myself to try, to fail, and to be a beginner every time I want to learn a new lesson from those collaborators. This is very important to me.

We’ve collaborated on the first Act of Kindness furniture collection back in 2016. How was the experience for you to collaborate with a fashion designer? 

Thank you very much for the opportunity and good experience on the first debut collection of my studio. We worked on printing and patch-working textile. During the process I learned how minor details can create a big impact within objects, as well as interior design. The texture and other physical properties of each fabric requires skills and intention to understand. It impacts how they interact with the various structures or silhouettes objects and human bodies. The manufacturing and production processes in the fashion industry also inspired me to apply some techniques to my architectural work, such as to inlay surfaces, or to patch two different solid materials together. 

What has been the most challenging thing you have faced in your career so far? And how did you overcome it? 

I think working with kids was the most challenging haha – I love kids though. I worked on a luxurious residence project where the parents allowed their kids of 7 and 10 to decide on the design for themselves. It was difficult for me to control the quality of design, aesthetic, and budgets when kids barely knew what they like –  and they couldn’t really distinguish between ‘like’ and ‘want’ and ‘have to’. But it was really fun to decipher their minds and thought processes by discussing their specific interests. For instance, they wanted design elements that were shiny, glossy, vivid, chunky, disproportional, funky, yet at the same time it had to fit the luxurious look and feel of the entire house. I used psychology and tricks to convince them and create a balanced design that included the kid’s wishes without sacrificing the overall design vision of the residence project.

Can you share with us what are you currently working on? And what are the future plans for Studio Act of Kindness?

I have been improving my design character and strategy of the studio. I think luxury design is not going to be practical at the time when we are going through this rough pandemic. Now I’m focusing on a furniture collection project where I want to offer the possibility of whimsical, artistic, practical design, yet made in a way that’s approachable for everyone by reusing reclaimed materials from architectural construction and manufacturing. 

Apart from that, I have been working on my own fashion brand with my fashion design friends in Bangkok. I started the idea with personal intention to find clothes that don’t depend on seasons or trends, but instead depend on necessity of function and celebration of daily life, routine and duty for everyone. It’s non-gender, timeless and doesn’t classify between casual or formal. The brand is called ‘One’s Essentials’ which reflects the idea of the brand.

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