A former flight attendant, founder Nopporn “Don” Kaewhunim never lost his desire to satisfy customer needs. His company, Don Designs, does this by being attentive to customer demands whether they are for small pieces like tableware or large decorative features like pendant lights.
Problem to be solved
After graduating from the Faculty of Agriculture at Chiang Mai University, Don worked as a flight attendant for two years before deciding to apply for a new airline company. While waiting to be called to work, Don was staying at home with his mother. She had started doing basketry making things with coiled bamboo that would then be turned into lacquerware products and had rented a small shop for 400 baht per month in Ban Tawai, a major center for handicraft production. Though jokingly describing her shop as being a bit like a dog kennel, Don went there every day only to see that they could not sell much because customers didn’t know what to use the bamboo objects for. In his free time, Don tried painting the products with different colors; it was this that eventually caught the eye of a Japanese customer, an event that was to completely change Don’s life.
“I got 20,000 THB for the first pieces I sold,” said Don. “I was so happy that I decided to continue working at home, completely losing interest in airline jobs. Other customers began asking about other designs, so I began experimenting with more designs until a foreign woman asked me to work on a pattern she had. It was a beautiful rectangular wooden tray with a solid rattan weave in the middle. I gave it a try. When I had completed the sample, the customer didn’t like it because the work was not neat enough. I kept working at it to make it better. I changed from using rattan to using reed matting, which is commonly available in neighborhood. To my surprise, the change received huge positive responses and items began to sell so well that we were inspired to create a greater variety of designs and sizes, selling them both as individual pieces and in sets.”
“Our products became very popular and were being sold in top department stores in Bangkok, including Central, Emporium and Gaysorn. Though we were the first to come up with those designs, others began reproducing them. After 5-6 years, we had to stop making them because we could no longer compete. While we had been using fine teak wood, competitors had been undercutting us by using any matting they could get hold of and cheap wood from packing crates. So, we began applying our designs to tableware instead, making place mats and matching dining sets.”
Don Designs thrives on fulfilling customers’ requirements, which Don says is an interesting challenge. “Once a decision has been made, I create a sample for a customer free of charge. For me it is an invaluable experience getting to experiment and a precious opportunity to connect and learn from the customer,” he said.
“From wooden trays, I began getting into woodcarving. At that time, I had a shop at Chatuchak Weekend Market. Sales were good, but I had a problem. insects were constantly damaging the wood we used, especially rain tree wood. We would never know when the insect attacks would begin. They usually appeared when the wood was dry, which takes some time. It was so bad that there were instances when we had to refund foreign customers who had bought our products. They would send us video clips of themselves running away as insects emerged from the wood. So we had to switch to using teak and other materials that worked better, such as fiber board, cement, brass, stainless steel and aluminum; we would use the latter for hotels near the sea, where steel is likely to rust quickly.”
In addition to their main outlet at Ban Tawai, Don would also visit exhibitions in Bangkok every year to showcase his own products. Don said the experience was eye-opening since customers who contacted him would always spark new ideas and challenges. Unlike other brands whose customers might only be “buyers”, Don sees his customers as sources of inspiration and suggestions, leading him to greater creativity in generating new ideas.
“My products are displayed at BIG&BIH every year. However, I attend few export fairs due to restrictions regarding order quantities, fulfillment schedules and FOB (Free on Board) pricing, which requires prices to include everything until the cargo is on board the vessel for shipment. FOB prices must cover costs regarding packing, delivery to port of shipment and documentation and can quite high, especially for large pieces — they can even amount to more than the product cost itself. Payments are made through the letter of credit system, which is form of bank-to-bank trading. That is, the bank on our side will prepare documents for the customer’s bank. Although it is a secure form of payment, there are lots of details and regulations. Production must be completed on time, which sometimes forces us to race against time to meet our desired quality. For example, when weather conditions cause the paints on our products to dry more slowly, we may be unable to deliver for shipment on time, causing considerable loss. I try avoiding these kinds of problems by serving customers that I can communicate with easily who live in countries that are flexible. Our main customers are hotels and restaurants, especially in the south, such as Phuket, Krabi, Phang-Nga and even Bangkok.
Learning and Adapting
Despite starting on his own, Don was committed and accepted challenges even though he lacked the required knowledge. He was eager and willing to learn through trial and error while working, and he did not shy away from learning from experts. Eventually, he could set up a factory where artisans with special skills and expertise can make his products. Company staff are now responsible for the finishing touches like making sure that paints and packaging are all perfectly in place before products are sent to customers.
“I know almost every locale where people make things because I learned where they were when I bought materials for the wooden trays from them. I would offer fair prices, taking all they had, but I would never compromise on quality. The trays sold so well that it became hard for the local artisans who were mostly elderly to keep up with the orders.
The reeds that I used for the mats were imported from Laos. Once the reed is sun-dried, it is soaked in water. After peeling off unwanted matter, the reed is put out to dry once more before being shredded into strips for weaving. Such an elaborate process requires profound expertise, patience and craftmanship. Quality is everything. This could feel burdensome to local people who worked for us and who tend to be quite laid back by nature. We must take this into consideration when setting production timelines to give them enough time to complete so that we can deliver to customers on time.”
Don Designs prioritizes its customers, who for 20 years have been its muse and acted like a design compass helping the company find its way. Keeping the customers as its focal point helps inspire the company to create designs that are tailored to the needs of its customers, 40 percent of which are international.
Pushing Creative Boundaries
For Don, the appeal of his company’s products is the uniqueness of each creation. No two pieces are identical, makes each piece special. Don likes to focus on making large items that are rare in the market, but he is more than happy to create pieces based on customers’ ideas and suggestions whatever their size. This, he says, helps his company stand out from its counterparts.
“For me, craft production isn’t about mass producing something by machine. In foreign countries, factories with over 1,000 workers use technology to accelerate production time. I admit the quality is the same and the cost of machine-made products is much lower compared to our hand-made and elaborate creations. That our workers’ moods can really affect production complicates things. Expert skilled artisans today are at risk of disappearing as many are elderly and cannot continue working and younger generations are not interested in learning from them. Part of our task is to come up with new ideas and solutions to these problems.”
When asked about his goals and commitments for his company, Don said, “I have never really set goals. I do what I do because I want to and am passionate about it. I enjoy doing this, and so my customers enjoy our products too. I am just happy with the way things are. Sometimes I feel sorry for my customers when I can’t fulfill or immediately customize a product line to their needs. I didn’t have a proper education in this field, so I find it even more difficult and challenging, but I am determined to keep going as long as customers love my work. I am ready to take on any challenge and experiment with designs whether they are old-fashioned or contemporary. Throughout my 20-year journey on this road of artisans and crafting, I have met many people with whom I have shared and exchanged precious lessons and experiences. It is a true blessing to be able to live a life always full of surprises and challenges!”