Another generation is not only keeping alive age-old talents, but improving on them
WHEN PHONGPHAN Chaiyanil was a boy, his grandmother sold the pottery she’d taken a lot of trouble to make for Bt50. He was watching the 200-year-old tradition of his Mon ancestors being peddled for minimal return.
Today he’s selling earthenware objects as high art for up to Bt5,000 apiece.
Grandma earned a living by selling small terracotta caskets on Koh Kret in Nonthaburi, a place long famous for its Mon-style pottery. Phongphan has his own brand, Panchanil, producing exquisite, contemporary home decor that blends Mon techniques, Chinese figures and Thai motifs.
Phongphan Chaiyanil has adapted the 200-year pottery tradition of his Mon forebears to exquisite, contemporary earthenware for decorating the home.
The Support Arts and Crafts International Centre of Thailand (SACICT) last year recognised Phongphan as a “Craftsmanship Descendant”, able to create new pieces by hand based on those his forebears made. The combination of fresh, modern ideas and forms with precious heritage also earned his work a showcase at the recent Craft Fair at Bitec in Bangkok.
Phongphan’s people were among the first migrants to arrive on Koh Kret from Hanthawaddy in Myanmar, 200 years ago. They were potters and set up a factory to make large water jars and flowerpots. When business declined, the family switched to small souvenirs.
“At age 12, I was my grandmother’s right-hand man, and it gave me a passion for art,” says Phongphan, now 46. “I studied at the College of Fine Arts and now I’ve inherited the craft tradition of my Mon ancestors and run the business for my grandmother, who’s in her 90s.”
He had a revelation while working at his grandma’s right hand, noticing that 40 per cent of the pots broke after firing, a tremendous waste.
He found a way to avoid breakage by letting the moulded clay dry for an hour and then placing it in an airtight box for two days so it remains moist. The pieces are fired in a kiln at 900 degrees Celsius and the result, he says, is “nearly zero waste”.
“We were moulding the body and lid separately, but the art of traditional fruit carving gave me the idea for a way to form a piece without separating the components.”
The lid is later carefully separated, using a serrated carving technique.
Thin bamboo sticks with the tips delicately carved with herringbone, pinecone and bodhi tree patterns are used to engrave elaborate details in the clay.
“I often apply Thai and Chinese motifs using gold and black acrylic paint so the pieces resemble traditional nielloware. On some pieces I also add gemstones and other jewellery components to the lids. Each piece is unique – no two are the same,” says Phongphan.
One of his gorgeous caskets, engraved with a golden swan, was presented as a gift to the king of Bahrain when he visited Thailand in 2015. Panchanil products are sold at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok’s Oriental Boutique.
The caskets remain popular and Panchanil also has beautiful lamps and vases, and Phongphan’s wife incorporates tiny terracotta pieces he makes in a collection of earrings.
Their home-studio on Koh Kret, Baan Din Mon, is open for the public for sales and workshops. They plan to turn it into a cultural resort with fellow residents pitching in for arty activities.
Tanatchaporn Udomjaroensinchai, who also participated in the Craft Fair, inherited her talent for weaving bamboo from her father, Plaeng Wongsasena, an expert the SACICT recognised as a Master Craftsman in 2016.
Tanatchaporn Udomjaroensinchai weaves thin bamboo strips, a talent learned from her father, into marvellous bags.
In place of household items such as baskets, she weaves bamboo into luxury shoulder bags, clutches and handbags. They’re available at Unii, a shop in the Chatuchak Weekend Market, and aboard Thai Airways flights, among the Otop Prestige items offered to in-flight shoppers.
Tanatchaporn creates her products with the 30-member Thai Loei Weave Work Handicraft Group. Her home in northeastern Loei province is surrounded by bamboo groves and she selects shoots according to diameter and stickiness.
The culm (stem) is cut into thin strips and soaked in water overnight, left to dry naturally, and then “cured” in the smoke of a corncob fire to enhance the odour, give the surface an attractive sheen and get rid of any fungus or wood borers.
“Smoke from burning corncobs makes it shiny enough that we don’t need to apply any coating agent,” says Tanatchaporn. “You can get different natural shades by keeping in the smoke for different lengths of time.”
The bamboo products, ranging from coin purses and wallets to shoulder bags with removable straps, cost anywhere from Bt250 to Bt2,500. Woodworking techniques and weaving also combine in rustic-looking rice containers and tissue boxes that would do any home proud.
Another certified Master Craftsman, Urai Sajjaphaibul, makes naturally dyed apparel for the 22-year-old brand Hattra that entails complicated weaving.
Urai founded the Baan Na-Ngam Thai Cotton & Silk Group in Baan Phue, Udon Thani, in 1999 to preserve venerable weaving techniques such as khid, ngang chalu and khom hang krarok, and at the same time pursues green design.
Urai Sajjaphaibul combines weaving techniques to turn cotton and silk into modern textiles.
“Repair, reuse and recycle are our three principles,” she says. “We maximise the use of fabric with the least defects and use only natural dyes, such as lac, turmeric, indigo and the bark of ebony, mango and eucalyptus trees. The bark is then reused, as fuel. And clients can send the clothes back to be repaired or re-dyed when they fade.”
Cotton and silk are woven using the group’s main technique, called Benchawithi cotton silk, in which the different threads are mingled into one textile using five different processes.
“We use a two-shaft loom and two-colour twisted silk and cotton threads to create dimension, together with a technique called ngang chalu to make it translucent and perforated. Khid, or continuous supplementary weft, is also applied.”
You can buy her jackets, full suits, dresses, skirts, pants and scarves at Fai Gam Mai, a shop at Central Udon Thani, and the brand’s counters at Siam Paragon, the Emporium and the Mall Bang Kapi in Bangkok.
Now Urai is passing on her wisdom to her children, who are in turn demonstrating a gift for fresh, contemporary design. Her daughter’s brand Tie Thai specialises in tie-dyed, bohemian-style clothes, while her son has Blue Tale, where the focus is on casual and chic cotton clothing for men.
WHERE TO FIND THEM
Panchanil pottery and Baan Din Mon can be reached at (081) 302 2964 and the “baandinmon” page on Facebook.
For the Thai Loei Weave Work Handicraft Group, call (092) 481 3529 or visit www.UniiShop.com.
Learn more about Hattra and the Baan Na-Ngam Thai Cotton & Silk Group at www.Hattra.com or call (084) 795 0920.