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Traditional Crafts Live On Through Chiang Mai's Emerging Artists

Chris Schalkx

Embedded in Thailand's mountainous north, the temple-studded enclave of Chiang Mai has long stood at a creative crossroads. Drawing on the abundance of natural materials (clay, teak, silver) brought in by hill tribes from around the region, its centuries-old artist workshops and village-like clusters of craftspeople—among whom are masters of woodworking, wicker-work, textile weaving, and ornately patterned lacquerware—have produced some of the country's most exquisite objects. Over time, though, these traditional goods have become increasingly commoditized, pushing the heirloom techniques behind them to the brink of extinction.

But in the past few years, a rising wave of Thai creatives has started to put a fresh spin on the region's age-old ways. Drawn in by a wealth of artisanal know-how, an abundance of space, and, compared to Bangkok, a more affordable cost of living, their ateliers in Chiang Mai are engendering a new appreciation for northern Thai craft.

Vivid hand-painted wall art at Kalm Village, a multipurpose complex
Vivid hand-painted wall art at Kalm Village, a multipurpose complex
Chris Schalkx

“Chiang Mai now offers a perfect blend of old and new voices,” says architect Achariyar Rojanapirom, who opened her multiuse craft complex, Kalm Village, in Chiang Mai's Old City in the spring of 2021. “Even though they're progressively decreasing, many communities still practice their traditional crafts, giving us opportunities to learn and collaborate.” She hopes Kalm Village can help share these artisans' stories. The three boutiques that constitute the compound, which Rojanapirom designed as a cluster of contemporary Thai houses, stock handwoven bamboo baskets and batik-printed shirts created with Hmong tribespeople from nearby Phayao province. Its exhibition space has everything from historical northern Thai textiles to modern crafts made from recycled plastic, while the Museum of Makers opened last April as a textile gallery and showroom for artists and designers from different creative fields.

Since debuting, Kalm Village has hosted workshops, talks, and pop-up markets and become a hub for Chiang Mai's artisans, including the carpenters of Moonler, a woodworking studio using indigenous chamchuri wood; the ceramicist Jirawong Wongtrangan of InClay Studio, who makes ash-glazed crockery for top Bangkok tables like Sühring and Restaurant Gaa; and the designers of clothing brand Wood and Mountain, who launched their vinyl bar and concept store in Jing Jai Market last August.

One recent arrival is Thai American designer Robert Sukrachand, who in 2021 relocated his homeware design studio to Chiang Mai after 15 years in New York City. When his studio near the Old City's Tha Phae Gate opens to the public early next year, it'll feature a workshop, showroom, and residency for global designers to cocreate projects with Thai artisans. “We're lucky that there are still elders here who carry these heritage craft skills in their hands,” he says. “But we're on the cusp of losing that knowledge, so we must work hard to preserve and evolve this rich ecosystem.”

This article appeared in the December 2023 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler