Meet Darren Chew, co-founder of District Eight and the man behind some of Saigon’s coolest design concepts.
As one of the cities in Asia most loved by the design crowd – both in terms of work and play, Saigon has produced more than its fair share of creative entrepreneurs. Standing tall among them is Darren Chew, a Sydney-born designer who has turned his hand in his adopted home to everything from clothing manufacturing to cafés and his own furniture brand District Eight. A firm fixture in the city’s modern-industrial movement, his simple, dignified aesthetic has taken his various brands into the global consciousness of visitors and customers around the world, shining a light on all the cool that Saigon has to offer. We had the chance to talk shop with Darren, builder extraordinaire, as he reminisced on his journey and the Saigon he first discovered nearly 20 years ago.
In District Eight’s factory, blackened steel frames stand in stark contrast to tactile leather, each piece waiting to be transformed into something with a whole new purpose. “I’m definitely more analogue myself, I’m very much into the making of the furniture,” says Darren of his lifelong obsession with how things are made.
“My dad was an engineer, a material scientist, so I think I got that manufacturing brain from him,” he explains. “Back when I was a teenager, I was making furniture here and there with friends. I was always interested in architecture and construction.” His first foray into making things was in the clothing business with Un-Available, the garment manufacturing company he developed with a partner in the mid-2000s not long after he landed in Vietnam. Devoted to making clothing that lasts, the factory has worked with Prada, Perry Ellis, and Saturdays NYC to name a few. Then, in 2009, he turned his hand to design as part of the collective that built L’Usine, an Indochine-industrial café and concept store located in an old walkup opposite the Saigon Opera House that went on to become one of the city’s hippest hangouts, rolling out into further locations and much loved around the world for its equal parts authentic and chic vibe. “L’Usine was meant to look like an old clothing factory left in time,” he explains of its much-imitated look. “Most of the furniture was originally made out of wooden weaving looms. That was the spark of inspiration for District Eight.”
Inspired by both the process and the popularity of L’Usine’s industrial look, District Eight was launched as a furniture brand that afforded people the luxury of bringing those elements into their own homes. At the factory, artisans imbue common objects with the subtlety and warmth of craftsmanship, be those repurposed bits of machinery rescued from foundries around the city or redundant elements of old buildings. Their Foosball Table, made of reclaimed wood, cast iron and concrete is a case in point. “It’s from a motorbike road trip across America,” says Darren of the idea. “We came across a foosball table at every bar, every night.” Coming home, he built his version for a newly converted foosball enthusiast whose wife refused to put a plastic table in the house. With its meticulously engineered modern cool, District Eight’s take on the piece has become a hit at coworking spaces and hotels alike.
For Darren, it’s important to make furniture that’s not ornamental, but a piece that is crafted for life. “Cafes and hotels are getting homier. Offices are looking more like your lounge; small boutique hotels more like your bedroom. Now, people are building hotels that are Instagrammable, with spaces designed to be shot and shared. The same thing is starting to filter into residential spaces,” he explains. With the lines between our spaces blurring, furniture serves the need for flow, solitude, camaraderie and dreamtime.
A local through and through, Darren has been in Saigon since 2000. “I wasn’t happy with where I was in Sydney at that time. I wanted to see the world and landed in Ho Chi Minh City. I was going to Europe, but I wanted to go there on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and it was just too cold to go at that time of the year. I thought I’d wait here until it was warm. Then six weeks became six months, then I thought I could do something here,” he recounts his journey. “There was no intention of being in Vietnam, but I was lucky. I feel that I landed here at the right time.”
“You always have to be green and want something else. I think I’d just wither and die if I didn’t want anything else,” says Darren of his ability to develop continuously. Looking back at nearly two decades of living in Saigon, he remembers: “In 2000 there was still broadband modem. Saigon was so innocent, no one really cared who you were or what you did. You used to just go to a bar and the people at the next table would ask you to drink with them. Now, everyone’s a little bit too cool to talk to each other. Back then it was really endearing to me, coming from a city like Sydney, where everyone was ranked on how cool they were.”
When asked whether a bar — sans the ubiquitous, Vietnamese-style plastic stools and equipped instead now with District Eight staples — was already too cool, Darren pauses and answers: “I’m sure that everyone coming here is still looking for adventure. But the expectations are changing. The one thing that I like about furniture is that it’s more permanent. You can create something that a hundred years later is still good, still perfect and will actually look better. It will always be an important part of District Eight: furniture that will age nicely like architecture.”