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INTERVIEW / Circular Living with Arlette Quỳnh-Anh Trần

Editorials – September 2020

Arlette Quỳnh-Anh Trần assumes many roles—increasingly on the quest to obtain indefinability in her output. She moves fluidly as an artist, academic-researcher, curator, collective member, and catalyst. In her new home based in Saigon, Mài Apartment, we talked about circles, borderless styles and dust phobias. The apartment’s conceptual design was led by Arlette, and is a culmination of three years of effort, intersecting schools of thought and many individuals—Mài, meaning to hone or to polish.

Karen Thảo La: We've read you speak to the materiality choices in your home, specifically regarding the terrazzo and its history. We’re curious to learn more about the process of actualizing this space and its inspiration.

Arlette Quỳnh-Anh Trần: At first, when I came to this apartment, I already knew that I wanted the cut-outs with the circle shape. The circle shape inspiration comes from the legendary American architect Louis Kahn’s usage of geometry. I came across one of his buildings when I was exhibiting with Art Labor in Bangladesh. We toured around the city with the iconic focal point of the visit [being] the National Parliament House [Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban]. It was like entering a spaceship—with the room and area structurization through geometry. It was so stunning! Immediately, I knew that I wanted the cut-outs in my home.

There were two focuses of the apartment that I wanted to highlight about the design. The materiality, like you said, is terrazzo, the representation of modernism in Saigon. Then, the influence of the modernist movement during the Vietnam War, coming much from America. So, those are my design references: both geometry and terrazzo in modernism.

KL: You designed and led the vision for the space, but also collaborated with Anh Cuong of Nhabe Scholae, among others—what was his role? Was it more technical advising?

AT: More like, what does it mean to be modernism.

KL: So more conceptual?

AT: Yes! When I couldn't do a cut-out or place the kitchen where I wanted, I [still] really wanted the circle and the kitchen to be attached. I asked Anh Cuong, where should I put the kitchen? He [then] introduced me to the idea of hierarchy of place instead of wall division. But he was also very radical—he suggested the kitchen area - the heart of my home - [to be] much higher than the existing floor, resembling a stage. I followed his advice, yet adjusted it a bit at the end.

KL: Can you tell me about this table?

AT: I envisioned the table to also be curved like other features in the apartment, but I found that [my design] wasn't as beautiful as I desired. So, I asked Anh Cuong what to do. He helped me re-design it differently, yet still have the specific elements—only two table legs and one of the legs to contain the tree. The shape of the table is actually the shape of the building by the legendary Brazillian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Anh Cuong named the table ‘Canoas' after it.

KT: Kind of like an homage?

AT: Yes, Oscar Niemeyer is from Brazil, whose designs reflect the tropicality in modernism, which is different from the European and Northern American modernism. When you look from the aerial view of the building, you will see the ‘Canoas’ table form.

KL: It's a really nice idea to put a tree in the communal table, constantly growing - very poetic.

AT: To make use of the space and height here, the tree is the best option. I always wanted a tree in the house.

KL: Why this kind of tree?

AT: It's been a very long conversation with so many people to seek advice of what kind of a tree can grow inside a house with good health. Everyone told me that you cannot grow any tree in-house with that height. It was impossible.

A friend flew to Singapore, and saw trees growing high indoors at the Changi Airport and texted me: “Look at the way those trees require specialized strong light bulbs mimicking sunlight from above!” I even asked [Trương Công] Tùng of Art Labor because he's from the Central Highlands and knows a lot about trees. I think of him as an expert of plants. He confirmed the impossibility too. Soon after, I went to a café and sat in front of a perfect, healthy tall tree. I immediately asked the barista for its information and then called their tree seller to buy this cây kim tiền - the money tree (pachira aquatica) - the charm that brings luck.

KL: Your practice is expansive—as curator, you work with a lot of artists to actualize their vision. Whereas, this personal project is entirely yours, working with friends and architects to actualize your design vision. Are there similarities or differences in the roles? What has been your experience?

AT: More and more, I try to not define the job title. Currently, at this period of time I prefer to work for small-scaled institutions and independently. In bigger institutions, a job title would categorize clearly which roles you must stick to. I'm curious and interested in testing and trying different things; it can be a curator when I work on an exhibition and work with artists. As a curator, I think of myself as an app on a smartphone. For example, in the latest solo show of Ngô Đình Bảo Châu, whenever she needed something, she could utilize me as a resource; it could be regarding her research intellectually, it could be regarding production issues, or it could be her talking partner.

AT: I think there are changes in myself, depending on which occasion and which human being I'm interacting with. With Art Labor, we see ourselves as a collective, and we don't define ourselves as an artist collective or curator collective or whatever collective. We love working with each other and mutually we want to work with other people. It depends on who is our collaborator, that would change our roles. With Post Vidai, I'm more like the consultant and manager: advising the board which artists we should support by acquiring their work and how to promote Vietnamese Contemporary Art through their collection.

I used to paint a lot when I was little, but then somehow, I stopped for other activities instead. But since I've started grad school at CalArts, the school offered us to study whatever we want. I took classes at the school of film, music, animation and art - learning different skill sets and methodologies.

A person that is undefinable is what I aim [for] myself.

KL: Shifting from conceptual design direction—as a space of living, for a small family with children, how did functionality factor in and inform your design and layout decisions?

AT: Functionality plays a really crucial role! Before purchasing this apartment, we used to have a house nearby and worked with a great architecture studio to design it. It was really stunning in both the appearance and its structure. A house like that needed architects to intervene because its aesthetics is all about the space layout and structure. While in our [new] apartment, for us, it’s more about furnishing it.

In my humble opinion, I believe the aesthetics and the philosophy of the architects' project thoroughly goes into the discipline of the structure. Yet, even though I loved the design of that house, I often think about how my family had to adapt our living style into their design.

KL: So it wasn't fluid?

AT: Yeah. It's more like, when I see an artwork, I really appreciate its form and concept. But architecture is the art that must have functionality. If it is a workspace or museum, you can, in a way, conform yourself into the space, to adapt yourself into that environment. In a living space, I think, it must be very, very personalized. Either that or it must be designed by a very, very close friend-architect who truly understands you and the way you live.

Maybe you're lazy in some parts of your daily activities. For example, I love cooking, yet I don't like cleaning. One of the reasons why I like modernism a lot is that it doesn't have minute ornamental details. For me, I have a phobia of dust.

KL: Me too!

AT: Yeah, and with a lot of details, it would be quickly covered with dust. My husband and I were considering whether we should invite architects to complete the [Mài] apartment. But the apartment had an existing rigid structure that didn't leave much freedom for the architect to play with. Finally, I decided to concept our home from start to finish, collaborating with several people, on my style of home aesthetics; and to have it adapt to the way my family lives. So if you look at the house, the reason why we have a lot of curved corners, first of all, is I don't want dust to be stuck there!

KL: Very smart design!

AT: Simple as that. And lights: I also didn't want light bulbs or tubes on the surface, I wanted it flat.

KL: Invisible. Also for cleaning?

AT: Yes! Aesthetically for that effect, but also very practical. I don't want dust!

AT: The size of the kitchen is quite big, because I want to spend much time there. For the living room, we don't watch T.V. So despite a sofa, we needed a table that could cater a lot of functions: for us to eat and work, and for the kids to study and play. It's an open space connecting the living room and kitchen, and next to the kids’ playroom.

KL: And is this where you work?

AT: If I want to concentrate on my work, I can sit here and the kids are down there [playing], I can still supervise them.

KL: Kind of like a panopticon.

AT + KL: [Laughs]

KL: Moving through your space and seeing the way you dress your home and yourself—you have a very signature Arlette style that marries aesthetics and functionality. How do you consider what to wear and what is most important to you when making those choices?

AT: It depends on what day and what the occasion it is. Some days, I like the millennial revisit of the 90s streetwear. Especially when I go back to school at CalArts, we have students that have just become undergrads, some were merely seventeen years old. I look at them with great admiration for their youthfulness. Some days, I like to look more glam.

I spent a few years in Germany and absorbed minimalistic aesthetics. Their minimalism is strict and disciplined. Meanwhile, I love some of my Parisian friends’ playfulness. It's about what kind of image I want to project that day. In general, there's a touch of femininity, though not too girly and not too posh—it's just at the verge of becoming it.

My style is always at the border of the ‘maybe’ - ‘will become something.’ It is not actually that something, no more than a proximity.



KAAREM + Arlette Quỳnh-Anh Trần’s personal items.


Karen Thảo La


Chương Phạm


Mài Apartment, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Featured Styles

  1. Bon Bon One-Button Side Tunic - Beige
  2. Flute Wide Leg Pant - Beige
  1. Siamese Sleeveless Folded Back Top - Black Blue
  1. Ovule Layered Back Knot Tie Dress - Textured Black
  1. ADULT Unisex Mushroom Bucket Hat - Seaweed Green
  2. An Short Sleeve Pocket Top - Forest Green