From faithful craft to contemporary product
A Lanna ghom or khom is a style of folk lantern traditionally used for lighting in households since olden days. Its importance in Lanna culture can be seen from evolution in its forms and designs through time, yet always retaining its practical use. Having been accustomed to Lanna ghoms since his childhood, Weerasit Pusuwan, or Pan as he is known, transformed the traditional lantern into a new design in his graduation research project at the Faculty of Architecture in Industrial Arts at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology, Ladkrabang.
“I wanted to bring the essence of Lanna into something contemporary using
local materials and different techniques,”
Pan said. “The local materials made design and manufacture more convenient. When materials come first, the form and
the inspiration simply follow.”
“I used Pang bamboo, which we use to bake sticky rice in and is a common local species, especially in Lampang Province.
It is different from Sang bamboo in that it gives out a unique aroma when sticky rice is baked. Its fiber is also tougher, the surface shinier, and we don’t even need heat to bend it. As the wood is tougher, it takes less time and is easier to work with.”
Inspiration and local materials from Nature
Pang bamboo is easy to transport in trunk form, allowing the cutting to be done later. Pang bamboo trunks are longer than those of other kinds of bamboo and have fewer joints. Pan learned from his teacher that bamboo joints weaken the structure of ghoms. Taking inspiration from his culture, he experimented with techniques.
“I match the material with what I want to make at the time, my ideas being inspired by nature. The patterns on
ghoms originate from the unique cultural characteristics of Lampang, such as the pattern depicting acacia flowers, a common shrub found around households. Or the patterns might derive from tales about the temples near my home. Each temple usually has its own patterns that are all different, so there are hundreds of these patterns I can choose from. I adopt some of them
and add contemporary twists, dropping and adding features in my own style. When I run out of ideas. I just pick up any material to hand and experiment with it. Through this practice, I sometimes come up with new techniques and new designs using materials I haven’t worked on before. I can do many things with pieces of bamboo that are quite wide, whether weaving,
bending them into shapes and forms or heating them; in this way, I come across new techniques and designs,” Pan said.
With personal crafting skills and knowledge from his teachers, his designs flourished. Though transforming bamboo into the shapes and forms of his imagination is not difficult, he needs to persevere and keep honing his skills. Some pieces might take him longer to finish when he is working with new techniques.
“Each design requires different amounts of time to complete, depending on its complexity and level of difficulty to make.
For example, I recently collaborated with the NOVA Jewelry brand in Chiang Mai, making pieces that had a lot of detail and took over three hours apiece to finish. It required a combination of techniques; I had to weave delicate wire onto pieces of bamboo, which took a lot of time. Trying new things always takes longer. The time required to finish each work really depends on how familiar I am with the technique.”
Natural materials, Natural problem solving
Outstanding designs apart, another intriguing aspect of Pan’s work is its natural wisdom and chemical-free aspect. All kinds of bamboo weaken with humidity and are prone to attack by insects attracted to bamboo’s “sweet taste”. Pan protects his bamboo products by using chemical-free methods to keep his products 100 percent natural.
“I guarantee that all my products are environmentally friendly and are free of chemical substances. Customers love our products because they contain no dangerous chemicals. We can achieve this because natural materials that we can use are abundant in the North of Thailand, and we have old folkways to solve problems, such as soaking bamboo in wood vinegar to protect it from ants, termites and insects. This is neither toxic nor dangerous to customers’ health. We can also use local herbs like neem for this purpose. In winter, neem tastes more bitter than in other seasons, so we can use its fruits and leaves mixed with wood vinegar in which to soak the bamboo. I like these natural substances; for me, using them is part of the craft.”
Change to reach out
“Gong Craft is like an outlet for products from natives of Lampang who have returned home to produce handicrafts. We also get orders through them when customers see our products there and like them.
At present we have orders for jewelry and for home and hotel decorations.”
As I wanted to reach out to more customers, I started to make smaller bamboo products. I make jewelry such as earrings, which sell so well I can hardly keep up with demand, even though only one shop sells my products—Gong Craft, at Gong Ta walking street.
Skills building on local wisdom
Even though Ghom Lanna is a household handicraft, I would love to hand down these skills to anyone from the next generation who is interested.
“I need manpower now. I like to design and want more time to pursue new ideas, but I am often tied down having to finish orders. Only my mother helps me as an assistant. All day I am occupied with the whole production process from selecting the bamboo onward. I’m not sure if there is anyone out there who is interested in this line of work; it has been difficult to find help. I want more assistants; at the same time, I want to involve local people who have their own stories to tell. I do hope young people will come. A recent contact came from a high-school student who wants to learn how to make patterns on bamboo. Really, anybody who is interested can just give me a call.”
Pan is a modern designer who uses mainly online outlets like Instagram, Facebook and Google Search Engine Optimizer to sell his products. He is exploring using Tik Tok.
“I think social media is interesting but right now I don’t have a lot of time to explore it. On weekends, I must man the shop at Gong Craft, as more tourists are coming now that the Covid pandemic is subsiding. I am new in this business and spend my working days on production. I want to get better, and I want to contribute to community learning.”