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OHQUAO Lifts Young Designers to the Forefront of Vietnam's Creative Presence

“What we wanted was to bring iconic images of Vietnam to a global audience — metal doors, plastic stools, cà phê sữa and at the same time use these as tools for people to become connected,” said Hoa Phạm, co-founder of Saigon-based creative outlet OHQUAOThe content creator, along with her husband, illustrator Simon Phan, has invested the last five years of their time, energy, and money into creating and scaling this desire into a brand.

When I had the chance to visit OHQUAO’s new District 2 location, I sat with the couple near their trademark red-framed street-side windows, warmed by the natural sunlight illuminating the interior of the store. As we chatted, we were surrounded by a group of eager children exploring Vinspace Studio, one of OHQUAO’s partners and Saigon’s first boutique art studio led by an international team of practicing artists. Soon, however, we began slowly walking through the store together.

The entrance of OHQUAO's new location in District 2.

Refreshing old gifts with new, young approaches to design

Hoa Phạm (left) and Simon Phan (right), the "parents" of OHQUAO.

Over the years, OHQUAO has served as a home to over 100 different brands by young local Vietnamese designers and artists. Yet, no matter how many artists Hoa and Simon have worked with, they continue to aim to uphold the same mission they had when they founded OHQUAO in November 2017: to present iconic illustrations in a more contemporary light.

Simon explains that the reason for this is because “usual gift shops, the old-school and traditional ones are beautiful but outdated.” This is sending the wrong message to people visiting from abroad, as Vietnam has evolved. “The traditional craft is still there,” Hoa said, “but the energy of the younger designer generation is not felt or seen in the traditional souvenir gifts people take with them. So we wanted to be at the forefront of giving gifts that better represent modern Vietnamese designers for international guests with updated tastes from current trends.”

Books and magazines.

Their work is fueled by their passion to discover new brands and new artists who don’t always know where to start by giving them a wider-reaching platform and helping nurture them to meet international standards. “Before the store was open there were very limited shops who were willing to take young, fresh artists' artwork and products,” Hoa explained. “We were one of the first to encourage them to sit down 1-on-1 to share their portfolios.”

OHQUAO’s journey began with them hosting their own pop-up markets at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in District 2, LÔCÔ Art Market, inspired by the word "local." It later moved to District 1 and has evolved to host up to 50–70 brands selected out of roughly 200–300 applications, according to Hoa and Simon.

This was how Khim Đặng, the designer and founder behind EASY BAD WORK, found himself working within OHQUAO’s creative "subculture." Khim was originally invited to co-host the LÔCÔ Art Market after receiving an offer which he said he accepted without hesitation: “I have a passion for merchandise. I always aim to apply artwork on physical products with a bias towards fashion.” He has been working as a designer in commercial fields for the past five years, including a stint as an art fabricator for independent artist Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn.

EASY BAD WORK, the brainchild of Khim Đặng.

He also noted that his endless inspiration comes from the identity and subculture of Vietnam: “My work is often personally representing my Vietnamese identity. I’m not trying to shout out that I’m Vietnamese because all my artwork speaks for itself!” His physical products include T-shirts, bandanas, and hats; they showcase lots of skulls and tigers. “I love learning about human-animal interactions. Often we tend to think that humans have the right to treat animals, but my work is a reflection of ‘nature’s response’,” Khim told me.

Creating a "subculture" of creativity

In February 2020, three years after the LÔCÔ Art Market began, Hoa and Simon opened their first concept store in District 3, down hẻm 58 of Phạm Ngọc Thạch Street. There, surrounded by universities such as an RMIT campus and the University of Economics HCMC (UEH), they sought to cater their curatorial vision to the younger, local Vietnamese community by featuring more local brands. It was also there that they hired their first-ever employee, Tuyền. She has stayed with the store ever since, starting as a production assistant and growing alongside OHQUAO to the point that Hoa said she is capable of taking over if they need to step away.

OHQUAO provides a commercial outlet for talented Vietnamese illustrators and designers to make an earning from their original works.

Although the District 3 location had to close two weeks after the pandemic hit Vietnam, they were able to bounce back and continue to expand their presence in Saigon. In June 2022, OHQUAO officially launched its second location on Stree No. 38 in Thảo Điền Ward of District 2, right next to the Common Inn. The new location features similar criteria and assistance for designers, but the curatorial vision is more catered to the international community in the area and features not only local brands but also overseas ones too.

Household lamps by Bằng.

When you walk up the steps into the District 2 location, on the left, inside the red-framed street-side windows, one can sit and have coffee like Hoa, Simon, and I did, next to the powder-coated steel spiral lamps made in Bình Dương by another one of OHQUAO’s new partners, Bằng. Next, you’ll come across the cash register on the left wall and Khim’s designs for EASY BAD WORK hanging on a coat rack in the back left; and after that, filling the entire back wall is a large display of books that help set a mellow vibe in the room.

From a purely online store, Paperbacks Saigon grew to physical shelves at OHQUAO and Cafe Slow.

One of the brands that sell books there is Paperbacks Saigon, founded by Shing Chan. He has been a huge fan of visiting bookstores ever since he was kid growing up in Saigon: “Some of my favorite childhood memories are of my mom taking me to Xuân Thu Bookstore on Đồng Khởi.”

Later on, in high school, Shing said the book that got him back into reading was Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters. After attending university abroad, he moved back to Vietnam, but his reading habits soon took a dip due to the limited selection of English books available. This eventually led to him starting Paperbacks years later, for two reasons: “Feed my reading habits and I figured there were more [people] like me in Saigon.”

Shing said that one of the most memorable moments for Paperbacks was the first book fair he did at OHQUAO. Before that occasion, he wasn’t selling as many books as he had hoped for and he started to have doubts about the selection of books he was selling. “To be at the book fair and to think we sold like 60% [of our stock] really validated the choices we were making and then after that, I sort of trusted my own taste a bit more, and it just started growing from there,” he recalled. 

Nowadays, his selection of English-language books at OHQUAO varies greatly — classic literature, graphic novels, poetry, biographies, books on creativity and design, as well as photography books that are great for coffee tables. According to Shing, Paperback’s curation of books is based on his personal taste which includes books he’s read and books he wants to read in the future. “There’s no formula and the process is mostly based on intuition and building on books, topics, authors which sell well to decide on future purchases.”

Risographic prints by Khô Mực Studio.

Additionally, along with the OHQUAO concepts stores and the LÔCÔ Art Market, Hoa and Simon have further created an ecosystem that includes their very own design studio: Khô Mực, which specializes in the use of riso, a type of ink derived from soybeans. The studio is the brainchild of a team led by Simon and fellow designer Long Đặng who joined OHQUAO at the beginning of last year and is also in charge of the store’s display as well as running events.

Building a young creative force

However, for Simon specifically, his plan is to no longer design as much and instead work as a consultant focused on giving the spotlight to other artists by providing advice and constructive feedback. “I know the steps on how to take the final design and help them get to the finish line,” he said.

Indigo table mats by sōnsōn.

Case in point: some of Simon’s designs from his days in university have made their way to OHQUAO’s shelves and have stood the test of time, remaining there as staple products over the years. Consequently, his advice for young artists and their respective portfolios is that your work and the ideas you pitch should reflect exactly the type of person you are, your personality, and what you’re really interested in — that’s how you can build long-lasting relationships.

In addition, Simon said that what’s most important to remember is to “keep posting online and don’t keep it yourself, that’s the main thing.” Hoa added to this by saying, “They need the commercial eye. Gifts that touch people and show their personality. We can help be the bridge between artists and customers.” Though Hoa notes that while artists need to step forward and push themselves to new limits, teachers at universities must work to challenge their students to explore new and innovative ways of self-expression. “We can’t do this by ourselves,” Hoa said, “we need a whole community.”

Rice-based alcoholic drinks by Nếp and Y Miên, and bookend by Laita.

Looking ahead, Hoa and Simon’s vision for OHQUAO includes a publication with designs that young artists could look at as well as possibly another location. “We always want to be a boutique store,” said Hoa, “but one of our dreams is to have a shop in the future metro station and become one of those iconic places you see when you get off the train to enter the city.”

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