|Marie Hautecoeur in her showroom in To Ngoc Van street.
A home furnishings showroom in a quiet alley in Hanoi’s To Ngoc Van street attracts attention with its big archway and red brick walls.
Inside the simple, cozy showroom are items evocative of Vietnamese culture. They include versatile cabinets with the logo of Hanoi or motifs typical of the mountain resort town of Sa Pa, an eye-catching artwork inspired by the Dong Son culture of thousands of years ago, small bronze gongs, and more.
This is the showroom of Marie Hautecoeur.
Marie’s designs are mainly inspired by Vietnamese culture. For example, floor lamps resemble a Hanoi street vendor carrying two baskets or a woman wearing the iconic non la (conical hats).
“Vietnamese ladies in the old quarter often walk in the streets carrying a long bamboo pole with a big basket of fruit hanging from each end. I find this really beautiful. The way they carry them inspired us to create this lamp. We replaced the woman with a metal bar. We tried to keep the main idea, but had to make it practical as a product,” said Marie.
|A corner of Marie's showroom in To Ngoc Van street.
Marie first came to Vietnam in 2009 for a 6-month internship program during which she met Le Trung Kien, a Vietnamese craftsman. Her design knowledge and creativity and his craftsmanship created a solid partnership between them. They decided to open a handmade home furnishings brand together in 2012.
In the early days, Marie and Kien frequently visited craft villages and workshops to find qualified craftsmen and quality materials for their products. Marie was impressed by the highly skilled workers in the craft villages.
“Honestly, in Vietnam, all the craftsmen I’ve met are very good at what they do. You don’t have to worry about their skills, because they have awesome skills. If a craftsman can understand me when I speak, and I can understand him when he speaks, or if we can understand each other by drawing, it can make a difference. It is not about personality, but more about the connection,” she said.
What Marie likes most about Vietnamese artisans is that they can start working immediately on her ideas and finish the products in a short time. She said she loves the family-like work environment in Vietnam and has tried to create and maintain it in her company. Through each project, the designer and the workers learn from each other and share ideas.
“We learn from each other. When there is some disagreement because they think they can’t do something but we’re sure in the design team that it’s possible, we push and persuade them until they make it. But if they prove that they really can’t do it because they don’t have the right tools, then we must accept it and change our design to match their techniques. It’s really all about learning and sharing,” said Marie.
|Many items designed by Marie are inspired by Vietnam's iconic conical hat.
Marie has tried to learn Vietnamese to communicate more effectively with the craftsmen, but she believes it’s the connection and understanding they’ve developed over the years that have helped her and her team overcome the language barrier.
“They don’t speak English, definitely not, even after 12 years. So, of course, I have to speak Vietnamese. But the fact that we have worked together for more than 10 years means we don’t really need to explain things 100% now, because we understand each other, we know how we work, which makes things much faster and easier,” she said.
When everything seemed to be on the right track, Marie and the company received a shock. Kien passed away in 2020. Losing her closest companion and her key staff member during the COVID pandemic, Marie struggled to maintain the company and her life in Vietnam. Her strong bond with her Vietnamese craftsmen became a strong emotional support which helped her get through that difficult period.
“This cloud was over my head after losing my best friend and business partner and having to start everything again. It was hard. If you want to establish your own company, everything is difficult. You need to have strength. You need to have motivation. Motivation is the most important. And you need to be surrounded by awesome people, people that you can trust,” said Marie.
Marie and her team have weathered the difficult time and maintained productivity. It has been a year since she moved her showroom to its current location. A new influx of orders and busy plans for upcoming products have brought things back to normal for Marie. Her handmade furnishings have established a reputation in the local expat community and at Vietnamese resorts and spas.