An Englishman becomes part of the furniture scene in Vietnam

Fifteen years after arriving in Vietnam to help supervise factory processes for a UK design firm, John Reeves has built up a formidable following for his own elegant home furnishings from his base in Ho Chi Minh City

John Reeves

For years, when people referred to architecture and design in Ho Chi Minh City, they would often think of imports. The city’s defining historic buildings all bear the distinctive hallmarks of its French-colonial past, while modern luxury hotels tend to rely heavily on furnishings shipped in from Europe and the United States. Thanks to a small but influential contingent of locally based creatives, the city’s design scene is changing.

Much of the transformation has to do with pioneers like John Reeves, the award-winning visionary behind the furnishings produced by Reeves Design. Since setting up shop in Vietnam in 2004, Reeves has become a formidable presence on the international design circuit, showcasing his work from New York to London and picking up accolades along the way. Sleek, elegant, yet eminently functional, his designs combine craftsmanship and materials in a way that feels both modern and classic.

“I wanted to create things that had a timeless sensibility and touch, almost giving permission to the owner to have a sense of sentimentality about it,” Reeves says. “I want to create works that fit in with the contemporary modern canon, but also things that your grandmother or your auntie could have given you.”

Although Reeves now considers Vietnam to be home and an essential part of his creative process, he never imagined he would end up there for so long. After graduating with a design degree, he and his fellow classmates decided to follow the European design circuit, stopping at influential places like Milan and Stockholm. “It was a fun time, but ultimately, it led to us all disbanding and trying to find jobs,” Reeves says. “I was living a typical sort of graduate life, where I was working a bar job in the evenings and a day job. Whenever I could steal some time, I would work on my samples and designs.”

I wanted to create things that had a timeless sensibility and touch. I want to create works that fit in with the contemporary modern canon, but also things that your grandmother or your auntie could have given you

Eager for a chance to showcase his talents, Reeves accepted an offer from the UK firm Julian Chichester Design to help streamline matters at their factory in Vietnam. Even as he immersed himself in the details of his day job, he kept working on his own ideas in his spare time. Within a year, the British furniture company Heal’s, which had already taken an interest in his work, asked him to send samples.

The pieces were so popular that they ended up becoming part of the 200-year-old brand’s signature collection. Before long, Reeves found his work in constant demand. He would rise in the pitch-black early morning hours before his day job to sort out the production chain for his own creations.

“I had to go around my motorbike trying to find a factory in Vietnam that could achieve the clean lines that needed to be done. I was determined not to waste this chance,” Reeves says. Before he knew it, he wasn’t just a creator but an entrepreneur. “It became an all-encompassing opportunity and I had to decide if I wanted to be responsible for it,” he relates.

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Fourteen years later, the gamble is still paying off. The portfolio of Reeves Design continues to grow and because these pieces are grounded in a meticulous process rather than passing fashions, his older works remain in demand. Rather than simply relocate his successful practice, Reeves has embraced Vietnam and the working relationship he has developed with the country and its craftsman.

“I didn’t want to be that designer who starts something with a factory and then just leaves it,” Reeves says. “I always wanted to try to nurture a culture around that design, one in which there would be a two-way road of respect and development.”

This particular business model has thrived especially well in Vietnam’s community-oriented society. By taking the time to understand Ho Chi Minh City and to build his business slowly and intentionally within that framework, he has created something with the fortitude to withstand the test of time.

To this day, Reeves maintains that he would have followed a similar ethos no matter where in the world he ended up practicing his work. “I had always wanted to do things through a strong network of local artisans and take advantage of the resources that are close at hand,” he says. Indeed, that strong network of local artisans, coupled with an ambitious vision and an ever-evolving collection that marries form with function, has become a focal point of Ho Chi Minh City’s burgeoning design scene.

Louis Four Poster Bed

The award-winning Louis collection is what initially earned Reeves the attention of design aficionados in 2004. “The design is inspired by literally and metaphorically taking the past and splitting it open to create this new and striking graphic silhouette and profile, in this case turning a large spindle leg and then splitting into quarters to reveal the legs within,” Reeves says. With their distinctive contours, simple yet memorable forms, these statement pieces were an instant hit and are still a part of the signature collection at Heal’s. More than a decade old, the designs still feel fresh and fit effortlessly into the contemporary canon.

Pinlock Shelving

At times, Reeves turns to unexpected sources of inspiration when crafting his designs. In the case of his ingenious Pinlock collection, the idea hinged quite literally on what he calls the “engineering excellence” found in a Pandrol rail clip. These mundane items are found in more than 50 countries around the world and are so ubiquitous that most casual observers overlook them entirely. Yet Reeves saw the potential in this simple brass pin and used it to create a versatile shelving system that functions equally well as a room partition and a cosy library nook.

Upcycled Marble Tables

Combining sustainability with eye-catching design, these dining and side tables seamlessly integrate off-cut pieces of granite and marble into slender yet sturdy legs. The end effect calls to mind striated geological formations or vertically stacked jigsaw pieces. While the stones may be upcycled, they are nevertheless of superb quality. Made from heavily cerused carbon FSC white oak, the tops provide a durable, aesthetically neutral foil for the cut stones. The entire collection serves as a prime example of how environmentally conscious design need not exude a drab, utilitarian feel. These tables are not only ecologically sound, but also visually arresting statement pieces that can elevate their surroundings.

Talon Petite Lounge chairs and Talon Ottomans

“Part of the original Talon collection, the Talon Petite Lounge chairs have been designed as a more compact version of the larger lounge chair and loveseat. It’s an extremely strong and sensuously curved series designed to bring even more comfort when lounging,” Reeves says. With their gracefully tapered legs and gently curved forms, items in the Talon collection embody a minimalist approach. To round out this look, Reeves turned to classic materials such as oak and timber. The cognac brown leather option accentuates the natural hue of the wood, while more eye-popping linens in shades like Klein blue, glycine pink and even a pale lavender bring a burst of colour to their surroundings.

CAST Collection

Built to last for generations, the CAST collection debuted in Milan in 2009 and includes some of Reeves’ most daring designs. A sturdy sand-cast recycled aluminium frame forms the bones of these multipurpose pieces of furniture that function equally well indoors or outdoors. A zinc plate finish gives the works a gorgeous patina that ages gracefully when exposed to harsh weather conditions. FSC-certified integral raw teak wood slats add a softer note to the chairs, benches and dining table tops. “Designed to age sympathetically with the elements, the teak will silver as it settles into its outdoor or indoor habitat,” Reeves says. “Timeless design produced to last a lifetime is certainly still in high demand today.”

Talon Slot Dining Table, Dining Chairs, and Pinlock Shelving

While Reeves’ previous designs tend to stand the test of time, he never stops looking for new ways to streamline and improve the production process. This latest update takes some of his most iconic works to a new level. “The Talon Slot collection was launched in 2019 and is an exercise in reduction, a simplification of the highly successful organic curved Talon range,” Reeves says. “It is designed to utilise a standard timber thickness of leg and components, allowing for efficient CNC cutting and finger jointing. This gives a fantastic form that is cut from a series of components along a flat plane that slot together like a puzzle.”

This article originally appeared in Issue No. 154 of PropertyGuru Property Report Magazine