Since trading in the northern shores of England for Vietnam in 2004, John Reeves has utilised links with local factories and his own classically inspired vision to become one of Asia’s most celebrated designers
The widescreen horizons and huge empty mud flats of Morecambe Bay could not be further removed from the tropical cacophony of Ho Chi Minh City. It was, however, the elemental scenery and profusion of wildlife around the estuary in Lancashire, England that provided initial inspiration for one of the region’s most singular furniture design firms.
“Long walks in the countryside were always one of my favourite things when I was growing up,” says John Reeves, the founder and principle of Vietnam-based practice Reeves Design. “I think that’s where I started to really appreciate the fundamental aesthetics of beauty in nature.”
Reeves has travelled a long way since those formative treks in the fells and river valleys that characterise his place of birth – both in a literal and figurative sense.
Although still a relatively youthful 36-years of age, the designer has amassed an enviable CV. His studio supplies lines to titans of the contemporary furniture retail world such as ABC New York, Heal’s, Osborne & Little and Henry Hall Designs. Reeves’ designs are also prominent in hotels and large-scale residential projects around Asia, with clients including Pullman, Liberty and Sofitel among others.
Yet while international success and acclaim has come for Reeves at a relatively tender age, the designer’s route to prominence has been as circuitous as one of his beloved long-distance hiking routes.
After graduating with a degree in 3D design from Northumbria University in Newcastle, he exhibited his furniture designs at trade fairs around Europe. Even at this early stage in his career, Reeves had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve with his works. Eschewing trendy minimalism for something with a little “more soul” he set about creating pieces that combined functionality with individualistic elements that drew upon the tenets of classic design.
“My thinking was: why couldn’t a contemporary modern range of furniture maintain functional requirements but still have an interesting creative form that tells a contemporary story in a sincere way?” he explains.
Adopting a mix-and-match creative process that saw him buy up pieces from flea markets and junk shops and hack their elements together, Reeves’ philosophy evolved. It was at this stage that he created his Louis collection, which used a traditional spindle leg as its nexus.
“It was about metaphorically and literally splitting open the past to create something new,” says Reeves.
Still a cornerstone of Reeves Design collections to this day, those early designs earned Reeves media praise, awards, and attention from suitors. But with no back up from a manufacturer, he found he was unable to supply interested buyers.
“It was rather like the chicken and egg conundrum,” he recalls. “Which one comes first? It became clear to me that I would have to gain experience in production. I sensed that being a designer without any connection with manufacturing was not going to work.”
Although he was conscious of the fact that many companies in the west were turning east to take advantage of lower overheads and cheaper production costs, Reeves’ shift to Vietnam was the result of serendipity rather than careful planning.
A eureka moment occurred at an annual product launch by London-based Julian Chichester Design. Prior to attending, Reeves noted that the company had strong links with manufacturers. After chatting with Julian Chichester himself, he was offered a position as the “eyes and ears” of the firm at its factory in Vietnam. Even more amenable was Chichester’s willingness to allow him to create his own samples as an adjunct to his new position. “He encouraged it,” says Reeves. “He told me I would be bored stiff if I didn’t.”
Shortly after arriving in Ho Chi Minh City came another defining career breakthrough when Heal’s asked Reeves to design items using his signature “split-leg” in their Discovery line. Further recognition came when his work was entered for three prestigious design awards, two of which he won.
Reeves’ Louis Black Lacquer Console Table was chosen this month as part of Heal’s 100, a curated exhibition showing the 100 best items sold at Heal’s in the last 100 years.
With his increasingly high profile prompting a flurry of client requests including one for a more extensive collection from Heal’s, Reeves was faced with a dilemma. He could hand over the factory contacts he had established in Vietnam for Heal’s to deal with them – thus forfeiting royalties. Or he could set up his own business, become an agent for himself and buy direct from the factories.
He chose the latter option, and his direct involvement with manufacturers on the ground in Vietnam was formed.
“I became a creative mole within the machine, if you will,” he says. “It has been an amazing journey with a lot of challenges and some incredibly rewarding moments, too.
“I have been at my tethers end with factories sometimes when mistakes have been made or deadlines looming tight, but we always manage to get the job done. The Vietnamese have incredible energy and enthusiasm and together we have been able to create some wonderful ranges that have brought a lot of joy not just to the users, but to the makers and, for sure, the designer.”
Having established himself as that rarest of breeds – an expatriate designer in Vietnam who is operating at the pinnacle of his profession – Reeves is keen to expand his scope even further. As well as maintaining his existing business in the UK and the US, he has found new clients in destinations as diverse as China and New Zealand. In January this year he opened the first-ever Reeves Design showroom in Seoul, South Korea.
Despite this diversification and the inherent challenges of running a business while maintaining strong creative focus, Reeves remains in thrall to his craft.
“What I love about furniture is that it has the discipline of design and function whilst also having a social and cultural relevance for the uninitiated,” he says. “In other words, it is chosen by everyday people to go into their own homes.”
If that sounds like a refreshingly unpretentious approach to the often-showy world of top-level contemporary design, it is perhaps no surprise. You can take the boy out of Lancashire and transplant him halfway around the globe, but you can’t take Lancashire out of the boy.
Watch John in action here: