PATAPiAN, a Thai brand making its name from basketry

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PaTaPian

Thai people have long been familiar with handicraft, whether in form of basketry, embroidery, weaving, etc. Many grow up surrounded by handicraft created by skilled artisans: the sarong your grandma wears to a local market, the rattan chair that your grandpa loves to sit in while reading, or a rattan hand fan your mom uses when it gets too warm.

No one probably thought these childhood memories would one day be turned into basketry business, with many unique products created by Jum Valongkorn Tienpermpool and Koi Supattra Kreaksakul, under the PATAPiAN brand. Their products are inspired by real objects around them, motivating them to make housewares and home accessories that capture the interest of international customers.

Their journey of creativity began with the simple desire to create pretty things for their own use. “Our brand started from what we like. We already worked in design, and we started to think about creating our own products. We observed what we had at home, and found that we had things made of rattan and reed mat and basketry. We began with something close to us. We both love drawing and writing, so we wanted to have pretty stationery. We made covers for erasers, pencil sharpeners, and pencils, which would become PATAPiAN’s first collection.” Today we talk to Jum about the stories behind PATAPiAN.

PATAPiAN
PATAPiAN

Basketry, to me, represents childhood memories. When someone mentions Pla Tapian (a type of fish), most people will think of woven fishing hangings (also known in Thai as Pla Tapian) rather than the actual fish. We see that as our starting point, as both of us love basketry. It’s our shared memory of when we first learned about basketry. This is why we chose the name for our brand.

Basketry, to me, represents childhood memories. When someone mentions Pla Tapian (a type of fish), most people will think of woven fishing hangings (also known in Thai as Pla Tapian) rather than the actual fish. We see that as our starting point, as both of us love basketry. It’s our shared memory of when we first learned about basketry. This is why we chose the name for our brand.

PATAPiAN
PATAPiAN

At PATAPiAN, their roles were completely new. “I worked at an advertising agency. I was responsible for design, overseeing themes and concepts, looking at the big picture. It was not a big agency, so our projects were various. When we first founded PATAPiAN, I continued working full-time there.

“I have a bachelor’s degree in law. When we started the brand, I was doing a master’s degree in language and communications. I worked with foreigners mainly. After that we started the brand, and we quit our jobs to do this full-time,” Koi added.

It wasn’t easy to find skilled craft workers willing to work with them. “We spent weekends driving out of Bangkok, trying to find artisans who might work with us. Not many around. We kept looking, until we met a very skilled artisan who no longer did craftwork but was working in a longan farm. Eventually we enlisted his son to help. I went to see him every other week, asking to stay the night at their place, catching cicadas with them. I’m from Bangkok and never lived in the provinces. So I spent some time with them, learning about their beliefs and whatnot. When they went catching cicadas at 4 a.m., I went with them too. We fostered a good relationship. Whenever they come to Bangkok, I take them around. We take care of each other and visit each other. We’ve become family, not just employer and employee.

In the early days of the brand, design was not a concern. A pressing issue was they needed to learn how to do business from scratch. “Designing and working with artisans were not really issues. We learned about product making from school and had close friends working with manufacturers. The problem was sales. We didn’t know how to sell our products, how to set prices. But we learned from experience. You gotta start doing it first, and everything around you will teach you how to adapt, how to form a strategy. We did some study, read books, watched TV programs, learned how to enter the market, because these were all new to us. Back in school, I didn’t even pay attention in marketing class (laughs). Drawing was all I did.”

“Now that we’re serious with it, it’s challenging. But also fun. We set a goal to strengthen our brand and grow as much as we can. We don’t want PATAPiAN to be just about objects. We want a showroom, a studio, which are our dreams for the near future. We’re trying to get there.

PaTaPian
PATAPiAN

Participation in trade fairs was a good way for PATAPiAN to become known internationally. “We attended a fair in Japan. It was our first international fair. The feedback was positive, beyond our expectations. The Japanese are into intricate art forms. They find our works – pencil cases, candlesticks – interesting. A man in a suit came up and said to us “kawaii.” We were delighted with the feedback received from our international audience. Our works are more for niche markets too. People who love our works get what they are. No explanation needed as to what they are, what they’re made of. These are our main customers who lead us to more customers, by word-of-mouth.”

“People who are interested in buying our products come from various groups. Many young people love this kind of products. We kind of get each other without having to say much. At our first trade fair, I had zero experience in sales. I said something to the effect of Thai people not getting our works, which was a very wrong thing to say. I mean I’m Thai and I get them. Then this customer – I’m not sure if he was only acting in response to what I’d said – he bought quite a few items from us and said “Of course I get them” (laughs). I met him at other fairs too. Because we tend to stick to what we know, we keep making the same stuff, and our style becomes more pronounced. We don’t just go with the flow or follow any trends. At PATAPiAN, we only tell stories that we’re truly interested in. Our daily life interests may not be in keeping with the world, but we try to present things our own way.”

As said, business isn’t an easy undertaking. Mistakes and failures do happen, but it’s important to keep on. “If you ask me about failure, I’d say it’s more like an experience. We can’t see it as a failure. If we open a booth at a fair but can’t sell a thing, we’ll sit down and talk about why we can’t make a sale. Is it because the visitors are not our target customers?

“We took part in several cool art markets, where they had cool live music, and I thought the theme of the market and our products were a good match. I ended up just having beer at those events (laughs). We found out the markets aren’t for us, so we focus on large trade fairs where we will meet entrepreneurs, meet our target groups. We know our products rely on the skills of Thai handicrafts. In terms of prices, to us the products are not expensive; they are worth the money spent. When we think about the right market to enter, the answer is big trade fairs. At our first one, we received an order, unlike when we went to smaller fairs where we just sat there and couldn’t sell a thing, which was never what we expected given the number of visitors. When we opened a booth at Gaysorn Plaza, many of our products were sold even though there were not many people shopping there; it’s because the shoppers there are our target group, they have purchase power. So it’s a choice between having a beer at an art market or having a chance to actually sell products. With the latter, no product explanation is needed. They see them and get what they are.”

We focus on large trade fairs where we will meet entrepreneurs, meet our target groups. We know our products rely on the skills of Thai handicrafts. In terms of prices, to us the products are not expensive; they are worth the money spent.

“We went to a trade fair in London, but didn’t bring much there. Just the miscellaneous items. As soon as we put our jewelry collection on display, people were all over it. I was stunned. I even asked myself if we should relocate to the UK (laughs)? It felt good. I guess things were slowly working out naturally. Neither of us had any experience in sales, so we cannot really focus much on selling strategies. We enjoy observing customers when they browse through out products – that’s our experience. Initially when a customer came to check out our products, we felt we needed to explain to them what they were. Now we just let them inspect our items. If they see something they like, they will ask. If they don’t, no amount of explanation will get them to buy.”

As their products are handicrafts, it takes a while to complete production. “This is an important part of business. We manage this by working closely with our artisans. We can’t just let anyone do the work only when they feel like it. We test, by asking them to make a specified number of items within a set date. These will then be kept in stock. It’s an investment we’re prepared to make. Luckily everyone we work with is responsible and willing to do it. If a customer sets a tight deadline, say they want their order completed within tomorrow morning, they’ll work for us from morning until they’ve finished. We both pour our hearts out into this. But urgent orders don’t happen very frequently. Only now and then. When we work with someone our age, we can talk openly with each other.

On working with people in the same generation on something inherited from the earlier one: “In my team, no one is over 40. We’ve also given training to younger people. I guess this is what we want. There are older people who are really talented, but they tend to be like, “Let’s do it this way. This is a good way to do it.” But I want our team to explore things together. I never say, ‘Come work for me.” It’s more like, “Let’s try this. Let’s see how this goes.” We want to set an example on how to work with the locals. We have to put ourselves in their shoes, and vice versa. We can’t just pay them to work. Money alone won’t get them to work with you.”

PATAPiAN

Because they’re a couple, living together, the way they work and do business is best characterized as exchanges with one another. “When we have an inspiration to create a new collection, although we live together and encounter the same things, our ways of thinking are different. We need to talk to each other and see what the other thinks of an idea. Sometimes we see things similarly. It’s about sketching our ideas. When it comes to design, we sketch and present it to each other. It’s not like we have an idea and that’s final. We come up with five ideas and present, like handing in your homework. Luckily for me Koi loves designs. Earlier she didn’t know how to draw. But now her drawings are much better than mine (laughs). From this, I learn that natural talents can never catch up with skills acquired by learning and practicing. The first thing she does every day in the morning is to draw. She does that a lot.

“As for concepts and ways of thinking, we combine ours and come up with an explanation that anyone can understand. There’s no complex story behind our creation. We never make anything up. We see it and design accordingly. So it’s quite easy.”

On the future and next steps for PATAPiAN: “I want it to just be grow natural and gradually. I don’t think we’ll go from here to making tables, cabinets, or any other household furniture. Step by step would be great. For example, when we first started, we made pencils, then we made their containers. Seeing them on our table makes us work more happily. Then we made vases and candlesticks. You can see these are gradual developments. We don’t want to think too far ahead; just gradual developments. We’ll make products we feel we’re ready for. We don’t know where this road will lead us, but we’re doing what we think are right,” Jum concludes with a sparkle in his eyes.

Follow PATAPiAN on www.facebook.com/patapian

Website : http://patapian.com/

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