It may not be unusual for the son of a Cambodian furniture maker to take up his parents’ craft. But in the case of Em Riem, it is a matter not of rehashing traditional ideas, but of revolutionizing them.
The 28-year-old French-trained artist and designer uses traditional Cambodian materials such as rattan, but in an unheard of way, creating clean, modern designs ranging from the functional to the frivolous—the likes of which cannot be found at any Phnom Penh furniture market.
Em Riem said his works—which can now be seen in his first design exhibition in Cambodia at the French Cultural Center in Phnom Penh—may be among the country’s first modern furniture designs. He hopes the pieces, which are slated to appear in exhibitions from Washington to Paris, can launch Cambodia into the world of international design—whether Cambodians are ready or not.
“Every day,” he said, “my father makes traditional furniture; he doesn’t know modern furniture, so it is a surprise for him. It is a surprise, too, for the people of Cambodia—the first time creating modern furniture. So we can show people, internationally and in Europe Cambodian designs. Here, traditionally, they always make the same furniture, they just copy it. But in Europe or internationally, we cannot copy but must create every day new furniture.”
When Em Riem first began designing the pieces three months ago, he had planned to construct them from molded plastic. But he quickly realized that the material was not available in Cambodia. What was available was an abundance of rattan, bamboo and palm.
Em Riem decided to turn this setback into an opportunity to bridge the gap between his highly contemporary designs and the common Cambodian experience.
“I use Khmer materials, vegetable materials,” he said. “I chose these materials because here, we have this material tradition. I wanted to join traditional materials with a modern form.”
Among the eight pieces shown, a highlight is a vast bench that could easily seat a large family. The undulating tube of woven rattan was inspired by the shape of a human intestine, Em Riem said. It is a blend of time-honored craft and modern ideas: Em Riem designed the seat on a three-dimensional computer program, then let experienced furniture makers do the labor-intensive weaving. The piece took four people a week to assemble, and the result is both visually impressive and highly functional, a meeting of furniture and art.
“I like to have something that is sculptural but that also does a service: We can sit, we can sleep, we can choose the direction,” Em Riem explained.
This principal is embodied as well in another work, a small zig-zag of rattan that, depending on its orientation, can have many incarnations: As a bookshelf, a table or a chair.
Other pieces draw on the modernist idea of using modular units, with small elements that fit together to form shelves or come apart for seating. The pieces are sleek and feature no extraneous or decorative elements.
“I’m going for furniture that is simple, that is simply made, simple looking and simple to use,” Em Riem said.
He takes that idea to the extreme in a pair of obstinately clunky, slightly comical pieces.
In one, a bundle of bamboo poles becomes a couch when a few brightly-patterned cushions are attached. In the other, the enormous, trunk of a felled palm is an unusual bench when turned on its side.
“I wanted to show the Khmer culture,” Em Riem explained. “Cambodia has a lot of these palms; in Khmer paintings, you can see palm trees and small houses, so when you see a palm in a photograph or a painting, you think of the Cambodian landscape. For me, the palm means Khmer.”
For Em Riem, that may be the most important thing. He said that, once he graduates from the French arts school of Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Saint-Etienne, in 2006, he plans to return to Cambodia and continue his design work here.
He acknowledges that modern design is scarce in Cambodia, but he just may be the one to change all that.