The First Bát Tràng Museum by national artist vũ thắng
The First Bát Tràng Museum by
national artist vũ thắng

“Mr. Thang’s creations brings us to one surprise after another”

M — N Associates

Nguyen Duy and Mai Lan co-founded Studio M – N Associates in 2013 to celebrate their shared passion in branding field. Duy and Lan’s creative world lies on the margins of impositions, as long as they can deliver inspiring stories of the brands they’ve worked with.

From Guta Café, JUS to the high-end fashion store brand Labels… their projects always leave such strong impression, even wining them a series of big and small brand design awards. Their secret? “All the images that we have included in the branding have their particular meanings. All factors resonate with each other to create an overall picture.” Such ideology accompanied Duy and Lan while entering a new “challenge”, a project implemented with a pottery museum in Bat Trang village, in honors of the ceramic-based art works of the late outstanding ceramic artist Vu Duc Thang.

Before joining in the project, the world of Vietnamese pottery and the creations of ceramic artists were still mysterious to Duy and Lan. But the experience turned out to set an entirely different light on the creative inspiration and new knowledge than expected.

M — Lan and Duy — N
Co-founders of M — N Associates

How would you describe your creative process’ characteristics?

We believe that everyone, especially anyone who is working on creative industry needs to expand their living experiences. When the studio first opened, we used up most of our income just for travelling or buying countless books. Those are access to collecting real-life materials, and that has maintained an ever-lasting process of collecting and updating.

How did you approach a cultural project like the virtual pottery museum, which I assume is quite different from other projects the two of you have worked on?

The fields or projects we have worked on have been relatively diverse, so we always have to study, continuously research to gather information. Before participating in this project, our knowledge and conception of Vietnamese pottery was quite poor. But once it’s kicked off, there was a whole new horizon in front of our eyes, with things that we could never imagine existed in the world.

Another consideration when doing culture-related projects is that we had to be extra careful with our inputs, therefore approaching the topic from many different perspectives was crucial. Besides, the data and materials for this project were not collected beforehand. Initial steps were to search for information everywhere we could: asking everyone to tell us related stories, especially the workers there and also Mr. Thang’s wife, as well as observing each art works’ feature in detail to understand the process of forming such unique museum. And of course, about its late owner – Mr. Thang.

When I had the opportunity to visit Bat Trang years ago, I thought it was fascinating. I mean there are such traditional villages right in Hanoi! What is your first impression visiting Bat Trang in your field trips?

We started this project in 2018 and have been visiting the village so many times ever since. It was not a shock, but we were surprised, that’s for sure. Duy was born and raised in the city, so when he went to Bat Trang village, everything was so new and exciting for him. [said Mai Lan]

I heard you two spent a lot of time at the physical museum in Bat Trang for this project. I can’t imagine what a private ceramic museum would look like, to be honest…

It’s like walking into a ceramic collector’s living room. There are pots all over the house, so many that you don’t even have a place to sit. It’s like walking into the warehouse of a true ceramicist whose work is displayed everywhere, and everywhere you can see it, and you have to keep looking down at the floor for fear of missing something or stepping on something. Normally, we would imagine objects would be beautifully displayed in the museum, with information tagging along. But in this type of museum, it’s just pure beauty of the objects in any corner. Those artworks shine on their own, and then there is this resonance of all that is the most quintessential, detailed and elaborated. In general, just imagine a personal collection that gathers all the works of a lifetime, some are precious in obvious way, some are random things that you really must hold it to examine closely to see their beauties.

Learning about the story of a late ceramic artist is both interesting and challenging in itself, isn’t it?

So often we would wish that we could have met Mr. Thang when he were alive, because when we were working on this project, the stories about him were just unimaginable. Although we had discussed over how the story should be delivered without involving too much personal emotion, due to the lack of information, but then we decided to try to keep his recalled spirit in branding process. In the past, Mr. Thang had designed the old logo already, so we based on that to create the new one. We were a little nervous at first, but the more involved we were, the more interested we got.

How to express such “spirit” on a virtual museum?

Initially, in the name itself: “Hồn Đất Việt” – “The Soul of Vietnam”, for the fact that we wanted to bring that distinct “Vietnamese soul” into the project and into each letter of our exclusively designed font “MN Vu Thang”. Each letter contains images of ceramic vases scattered, just like the museum now. Mr. Thang often signed his name under each of his art works, so each contains both distinguished meanings and the artist’s personality. Therefore, we use of a whole set of fonts as a way of expression instead of a cumbersome identification system, something delicate and does not overshadow the works exhibited in the museum. Together, the whole system becomes a stage for the works to be displayed more coherently, with more visual information, so that the viewer has as much “space” to experience the art pieces and the museum as the whole.

Very interesting! Usually people call him a pottery artisan, but you two call him an artist?

Because he is a true artist, with a contemporary and creative touch. The colors of his ceramic pieces are very different from him using refractory glaze, not Thang Long glaze like the tradition. Therefore, even though the pieces have been made a long time ago, the colors maintain so vivid that if you put them in a modern house setting, they will certainly fit in. I think artisans are masters of a certain field or skill, they do it to the top level. But his works reached to the poetic level.

His artistry and creativity shone in each work. Everything he made seem rather spontaneous, out of the creative process itself. You just need to hold a random object and observe its reliefs and you’d get what we mean. Mr. Thang made two vases to celebrate 3000 years of Thang Long (the old name of the capital city of Vietnam – Hanoi). Ai first we thought that the two vases must have similar reliefs, or at least be symmetrical. But that was not the case, these two vases are completely different, purposefully and artistically placed. Another example: a set of art works has 12 legs, but there are 2 massive legs and 2 tiny legs, in the middle there are dimpled and unequal legs. Mr. Thang painted images of different parts and symbols of Vietnam, and the drawings are also distinguishable. He also gave life to the works while making them, for example with the embossed work of a One-Pillar Pagoda (Chùa Một Cột), and we don’t think anyone else can make such a beautiful relief! In short, each work cannot be arranged in a series for being too uniquely standing out. We really needed to observe very carefully to understand just that. He never failed to surprise us!

From the materials collected during the project implementation, I feel that the artist’s style left a great influence on you both?

According to our research, Mr. Thang practiced bolder and more innovative methods in making pottery compared to other artisans in Bat Trang. His ceramic pieces are not an old substance from previous generations, but something inherited from tradition and resonated with new methods and aesthetics. Mr. Thang was not an original ceramic artisan from Bat Trang, he graduated from the Faculty of Graphics of Hanoi College of Industrial Fine Arts in 1980 before pursuing creativity with ceramics for 40 years. We even made a joke that he was probably the “OG” in graphic design in Vietnam. We got a strong impression that he must had been an artist with a flexible and complex soul, to be able to make the art pieces as soulful as a human being, with atypical feature. For us, he was playful artist who never stopped experiment and play with pottery – his type of canvas. Looking at the studio where the artist worked in the past, there are results of successful experiments and also evidences of “the mess” created in the creative process. The biggest influence is what we truly believe in: If when he was alive, he didn’t want his museum to look old or didactic, that’s something to keep in mind for aiming the newness and interference while working on the project.

Ho Chi Minh City
December 2021
Words: Vân Anh
Photo: Lê Lai & Private Source

M — N Associates is a creative design company specializing in branding, based in Saigon. They have  collaborated with many brands such as Guta, Gaieté, Leman, GHTK, Beck’s Ice, PetChoy, HiRaw, Malto, Labels… M-N Associate has won a series of design awards and is increasingly asserting its position in the creative community as the whole and in branding in Vietnam market in particular.


Graphis Annual 2022, Gold Award in Branding

Dieline Awards, First Place in Beverage Brand Identity Systems

International Design Awards, Silver Award in Rebranding
ADC Awards, Bronze Cube in Typefaces
The One Show, Merit in Branding
Graphis Annual 2021, Silver Award in Typography
Graphis Annual 2021, Silver Award in Branding

International Design Awards, Gold Award in Printing
International Design Awards, Silver Award in Branding
German Design Awards, Excellent Winner in Packaging
German Design Awards, Excellent Winner in Brand Identity
The One Show, Shortlisted in Logo

A’ Design Awards & Competitions, Platinum Award in Branding
A’ Design Awards & Competitions, Gold Award in Packaging
Graphis Branding 7, 1 Gold Award and 2 Silver Awards

If you want to keep track on what’s happening here from time to time.

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