Names: Im and David Schafer
D.O.B.: December 8, 1980 // March 6, 1976
Hometown: Bangkok, TH; Kansas City, U.S.A. // San Diego, U.S.A.
Current City: Nonthaburi
We met Im and David at their temporary studio/home on April 15, 2011 in Nonthaburi near the Chao Phraya River. They took us on a tour of the construction site for their future home, permanent office and workshop, Studiomake, and to dinner at one of their favorite local restaurants on the river.
IM: Yeah, because we moved here to basically build a house and start a studio.
SY: How long ago was that?
Im: August of 2009, so almost two years.
SY: And when did you start building your house?
Im: We didn’t start building until this Christmas.
SY: Did you make your house plans outside of the country, or did you work on them when you moved here?
DAVID: We went to grad school in 2007, and the summer between first year and second year we spent here. We were planning on moving here after grad school, so we thought it would be good to spend the summer, case the joint, and see if it was gonna work out. We started designing the house then.SY: Did you have to change or modify your plans after practicing and working here?
D: Yes, definitely, but we spent so much time on the drawings that we had a solid approach from the start.
Im: But a lot of things are happening on the construction site. We have to be extremely flexible and also know when to stand our ground. When people say, “no, that’s how we do it,” you have to speak up. So there is a lot of stuff happening at the construction site. As much time as we spend imagining the house, building is another thing.
Im: We met him through a friend.
D: So he actually designs pretty hardcore stuff.
Im: His company does the BTS.
D: We initially started showing him what we were doing with our house just to get some advise, and he was like, “I’ll do the engineering for you.” Which is awesome, but once construction started everybody in the neighborhood thinks we are building a six story condo because we have a real foundation.
D: Cranbrook Academy of Art [outside of Detroit, Michigan].
SY: Did you both go to undergrad for architecture?
D: Yeah, that is where we met in undergrad in Tuscon, Arizona.
A matchbook from their first date. The story is still unclear as to who tricked who into going on this date.
SY: Yeah, you just need to go apprentice and work.
D: Yes, it’s really about getting your license.
SY: That takes a long time.
D: I worked for about seven years in San Diego. I graduated a couple of years before Im. I’m from San Diego, so I moved back to practice there for a couple of different firms and when she graduated she moved out there and worked for a couple of years. We decided we were ready to start our own thing together, and we wanted to move out here. Going to grad school would help with teaching [in Thailand].
SY: The pedigree.
D: Yeah, that would be a good fallback, Plan B type of thing. It just seemed to make sense, and we were interested in product design, which obviously this is a good place for getting stuff made.
SY: What kind of work did you do when you were working in the States?
D: The first firm I worked at out of school was this really small office, one principle and for a while just me and her. She loves to reinvent the wheel. Her projects are super overwrought but in a modern way. Not Rococo or Italian Renaissance, but every little detail was super modern. She never buys a door knob, always designs one and has it machined and laser cut.
SY: Was this for personal homes?
D: Some public spaces. There would be restaurants and spaces like that. It was a lot of fun.
SY: Yeah, you got to learn about all those different processes.
D: Which is stuff I’m definitely into. I’m a very hands on manufacturing detail oriented guy.
SY: So were you always into manufacturing stuff or was architecture the first thing you were interested in?
D: Architecture was definitely the first thing I was interested in, and I think the making stuff came from architecture school. You get there, and you start making models. There is a big workshop and furniture classes and stuff like that. I just started to enjoy more and more the details and the construction process.SY: I noticed your model here. I like the models, but a lot of people are doing 3D renderings now.
D: You know that’s just not my area of expertise, the renderings and the 3D models and stuff. But we have one full time employee and two interns now, and their thing is the renderings, materials and lighting stuff.
SY: Thailand is really great for the young market of really skilled computer savvy designers.
D: Yes, it’s pretty impressive, but it’s really just not how we work.
SY: It doesn’t excite you.
D: It doesn’t move me. The one thing I want to get into more and more is the Building Information Modeling (BIM) software. Programs where you build a model while you draw, but it’s from a construction standpoint rather than rendering a pretty picture. So as you draw things, you build a model.
Im: It’s like constructing a building piece by piece.
D: Basically like AutoCad but with an Excel spreadsheet built in. As you build you can be like, “How much steel do I have,” and it will tell you you have 65 thousand tons of steel.
SY: Sounds like a weird video game for architects. Like SimCity. I need a 12 story building, and you have 20 tons of steel. What can you come up with.
D: Exactly. So that’s pretty cool, and I want to get into that. Right now I do use SketchUp.
SY: The program you can use online for free?
D: Google just bought it, so if you ever need to do quick modeling, it’s really easy to use. You just draw a little square and pull it up or push it around. It’s pretty fun. I use it a lot in the design process, but it is disconnected from the construction documents, meaning you end up having to do work twice. You can kind of share information and bring geometry from one to the other, but it’s double work.
SY: Architecture is about efficiency.
D: In some ways.
SY: I don’t remember anything being efficient when I worked with the architects. Lots of late nights procrastinating.
SY: What kind of tools did you pack it in all these crates?
D: CNC router and a plasma cutter.
SY: You have your own plasma cutter?!
D: That was one of the things I did at Cranbrook. I built part of this thing.
SY: When are you gonna bust that thing out?
Im: I know they have been in here for a year and a half.
SY: You need the industrial shed, but you would need a yām (ยาม/”security guard”) to guard all of this equipment.
Im: We also have a mill, a band saw and ceramics kiln.
SY: You have a full machine shop!
Im: Yeah, more for prototyping for sure.D: We are still figuring that out. We would prototype stuff and send it out, but as we are experiencing the industrial end it’s a learning process. We have a company we have done laser cutting with. They find they can take the files and laser cut stuff, but there is a level of finishing we can’t get them to understand.
SY: How does the quality control work with something like that locally?
D: The quality is okay but what happens is we had them laser cut some little handles for a project, and when we went to pick up the handles the edges were really sharp, like razor sharp. We are like, “Look, we put in our drawings to file it to ease the edges.” But the guy picks it up and is like, “It’s not sharp.” Of course this is a man who has worked in a metal shop for many years, so it’s like he is wearing leather gloves but it’s his skin. He still thinks it’s not sharp. Stuff like that still might end up having to come back in house to do some finishing work.
SY: It’s about finding the right balance and the right people.
D: It’s a slippery slope. We don’t want to be a manufacturing operation.
SY: Yeah, it’s one of the unique things working here. We have noticed even when doing simple projects like tote bags or shirts people will make decisions for you. In our minds it’s like, “You really couldn’t call me before you switched this detail?”
D: Yeah and people do it with the best of intentions.
SY: They assume it’s something you would want, but not really.
D: I love to make decisions. Just call me! I’d love to come visit you and talk about this!
SY: But that’s why it’s so cheap!SY: I would assume you are having to think more about what you can source locally because the import and shipping of stuff can really add to costs. Have you had to change what you manufacture or work with?
D: Absolutely. Even a lot of stuff with our house. You have a detail in mind with how you want something to come together, but what would be standard, easy or even default in the US, if you didn’t draw it, that is how the contractor would do it. But wait, that product doesn’t exist in Thailand! It’s so cheap in America, you can get it by the truck load from Home Depot. So at times it is, “Do we want to import that from somewhere?” It’s crazy.
Im: That’s stupid.
D: I know. It’s stupid.
SY: But it is a valid question, since we know most of that stuff isn’t made in America. We are so much closer to the source. How can you find the factory that makes these products and sneak a few off the side?
D: Seriously. Sometimes what we think is a standard detail is gonna freak people out.
SY: It’s overkill here, but at the same time you can do things that will freak people out in America here, and people are happy to spend weeks working on that one detail for you.
Im: It’s just about being smart. It’s the same thing with our contractor. I’d like to find a contractor we could work with continuously, someone who knows our tricks and we have that kind of relationship with that’s important too. We had good luck with a really nice ceramics factory when we first got here. The owner was Thai but graduated from the States. She got it. She understood that we wanted to screw around with this casting technique, and she was able to convey that to the people that worked for her. They were open minded enough to go along with it. It’s really hard to find. It’s almost like you have to find someone that has our same education, our same training and came back to Thailand to do something, and they kinda get it.
D: That’s the hardest thing: finding resources. We’re in Bangkok. I mean, what kind of material product technique can you find? You should be able to find it all, but it’s not like you can Google it.
SY: There is no web presence here. Coming from the US, we are spoiled because every factory, even individuals, has a website posting what they do, so you can find everything. It’s just different here.
Im: There is a lot of walking and traveling. It’s all word of mouth.SY:That brings us to a frequent question about working in Bangkok and Thailand. How important is having a network or social group? Did you have any architectural contacts before you got here that helped?
D: Yeah, her parents.
Im: My parents both teach at the College of Art & Design at Rangsit University, so they know architects and designers, but we have had to go out and find our own. Even with manufacturers we’ve had to ask people, “Where do you get your stuff done? Oh, this is nice. Where did you get this done?” And that has worked.
D: 50% of the time they are not willing to tell you though.
SY: Yeah, do people share this info?
Im: Well, I think you end up with your laser cutter on this side of town and your printer on this end of town. You just have to travel.
SY: Time in transit is a big factor for working here too.
D: I feel like only about 15% of the companies we use were referred to us. Seems like most of it we have found ourselves with a little bit of trial and error.SY: Do you still find it exciting to get to go out and check out different facilities, or is frustrating because it eats into your time?
D: It really depends on what else we have going on. In the beginning we really enjoyed it. We’d go visit a ceramics factory at the drop of a hat.
Im: We visited an injection molding factory, and you can just walk in to see PET bottles being made, and you’re like, “Wow, so that’s how it’s done!”
D: That’s how they make Igloo ice chests. It was definitely a lot of fun in the beginning, but what has really been helpful to us are the different trade show fairs. Next week is B.I.G. & B.I.H, so just going there we do every aisle and grab anything interesting we see.Im: You get really interesting stuff like someone doing silicone keychains, and you ask, “Do you do silicone molds? Do you make these?” And they respond, “Oh, yes. We can cast anything.” So there you go! If you ever need molding, you have a contact.
D: That’s probably where we have found most of our resources. Even going to the machine shows at BITEC. You see all this expensive equipment. It’s reassuring because you assume if they are selling this precision equipment, someone is buying it and doing things with precision.
SY: Excuse me sir, can I get a list of who you are selling this too?
D: Yeah, seriously.
SY: I don’t want to buy one…. but.
SY: Is it all in Thai?
Im: It’s Thai, but you run your class how you want.
D: I run my class in English.
Im: Much to the surprise of the students! They come in and go wait, wait, wait, wait I enrolled in…
D: It’s 3D product design for an MFA in Design. About half of them have an interior, graphic or product design degree. The other half are closeted designers whose parents forced them to get an accounting degree, and now they have convinced their parents to let them get that design degree.
Im: Who turn out to be the best students.
Im: It’s a two year program, so 14 in one class and 18 in the other. It’s kinda small.
D: Which is nice.
Im: It’s nice because I was teaching undergrad for a while and that was 60 students, which is hard when teaching design because it’s a hands on, labor and time intensive thing.
SY: Definitely. Is there a shop element to the course?
D: We make them make stuff, but it’s not actually a workshop.
Im: The first class we taught when we moved back here was a furniture design class. We had chosen that class when we got here, and there were 70 students. There is a shop, but we decided no way because with 70 kids you are going to loose a finger a day.
D: Two fingers a class.Im: It’s impossible. So how do you teach furniture design if they are not making it hands on? In Thailand you always sub stuff out and that actually is an important component of being a designer too. It’s learning how to work with other people with skills and not doing everything yourself.
D: It’s probably the most important thing.
Im: Making someone else execute your vision. It’s about communicating your design intent and overseeing manufacturing. You know: quality control.
D: It’s become a miniature version of what we do everyday. Communicating your expectations to someone that is cutting something for you, and if you have one wood worker that you’re working with, try to find out what they are good at, then alter your design to fit that or go find somebody else. You can’t just keep banging your head against the wall.
SY: Sounds like a series of Project Runway challenges.
D: Slightly more mature.
Im: Definitely more that the 19 year old. 19!
D: You were born in 1990 what?
Im: We were co-teaching a class together, and I was doing some of the translation. Half of the students understand English, but aren’t brave enough to speak it. They get it. They watch enough movies. They don’t read.
D: Thai people don’t read.
SY: That’s a reoccurring theme we encounter.
Im: We always ask our students what’s their favorite book, and they don’t have an answer. It’s a little upsetting.SY: I still wonder if the architecture and design students still collect books and look at them as inspiration, or is it different?
D: Google image search.
SY: Its all Google isn’t it.
Im: I feel more and more that all design education needs to be in English because all the information is in English. Even when they go to Thailand Creative & Design Center (TCDC), I know they are just leafing through photographs.
D: It’s just image based.
Im: They will never understand what the designer is thinking or what the concept is or story.
D: Or even what the designer’s name is! It’s shocking sometimes. You’ll say a designer’s name, and everyone will be like, “Who?”
Im: Show them a picture, and they get it.
D: I would understand if the way they consume information was changing. If it was a shift, but it’s more like a disappearing. Okay, fine. We bought books, but what is the substitute? Facebook or Hi5? Is that their new resource? If they are not buying books, how are they influencing themselves?
SY: They’re not.
D: That’s the weird thing.
SY: I feel bad for the younger generation. You can see them disappearing into all this information, and a lot of it is pointless.
Im: What happened? What went wrong?
SY: Even though people are on Facebook and the internet, the internet is a different thing here. It’s always easy to look at things and think people think of it the same way, but it’s a wake up call when something as basic as the internet is a different tool here.Im: In Thai the word to use the internet is lèn (เล่น), meaning play. So you play Facebook. You play internet. You play games. You lèn everything.
D: You lèn fitness.
Im: Yeah you play fitness.
D: For Americans it’s work out.
Im: The people at our gym are always walking around drinking Coke and on Facebook.
D: There is a lounge at the gym.
Im: So much of it is just language. It just embeds a weird meaning to say that you are playing internet. I don’t know if a Thai person thinks about it, but when I hear it I just cringe because it’s a tool. You’re not playing it. You’re using it for something. You’re not just wasting your time on it, but that kind of represents their attitude towards it.
SY: When you work here, play and fun are very important. I always wonder about that because from a Western perspective, it’s a solitary, torturous thing in many ways. The idea that you have to sacrifice socialization to sit and hone a craft. I wonder how that comes across here because you always need to be in a group or in a social environment. How do you hone a craft if you are always around other people?SY: What kind of music do you listen to when being productive?
Im: Radiohead, TV on the Radio.
D: Some classic rock. Bob Seger.
Im: Late at night.
D: Yeah, late at night or in the shop. Also Gordon Lightfoot.
SY: That’s only when you are drinking and using power tools.
Im: The river. We’d get a boat and just circle around the klongs (canals). It’s our fantasy to have a boat.
D: Definitely the river. I really like Koh Kred the island. It’s really close and all of a sudden you’re in a whole new world.
SY: Koh Kred is really interesting. It’s sort of a Thai tourist place.
Im: Yeah, it’s where the Thais go.
Im: McMaster-Carr! It’s like everything in the world, and they deliver in 24 hours.D: 98% of the stuff in there is in stock. [referring to their copy of the catalog]
Im: Scissors, rubber, safety gear.
SY: Do you feel more American now that you are away?
D: I don’t know how to answer that. Not necessarily. I am more disgusted with the country on a certain level. The politics that are annoying, but I guess I’m also learning, “Where aren’t politics a problem?”
SY: Nordic countries?
D: But you pay what, 60% income tax? The grass is always greener.
Im: I think we just miss knowing how things happen. How things work. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s because we are in Thailand or if it’s because we are trying to start our own practice. It’s doubly difficult.
D: We are doing something new in a new place. We would be having some of the same struggles in America.
Im: I miss the strait forwardness of people.
Im: Getting down to business. Here it takes a little more digging, and I have to remind myself to be patient. There is another way to get to that information. Oh yeah, and I miss indy films and going to the small theaters.
Im and David have been featured in Architectural Record, I.D. Magazine, dwell, as well as Thai publications art4D and Wallpaper* Thailand. They won the 2006 Apartment Therapy Smallest Coolest Apartment Contest and have exhibited at designboom Mart and Art Chicago. Their series “Crime and Ornament” is a collaboration with traditional Thai Benjarong painters.
We got a little wrapped up in the conversation (and wine, then beer), so we do not have as many exterior shots as we would like. Construction on their new home/studio should be near completion by the end of the year. A follow-up interview will be in order once they move! In the meantime check-out Studiomake on Facebook and via the Studiomake website.