What happens when an insurance giant joins forces with a local design company? Dana Filek-Gibson steps into the Nest, Saigon’s newest, smartest all-purpose space. Photos courtesy of Nest by AIA.
Last year, when Tuan Le began constructing furniture for his latest design project, he called on a shoemaker and a motorbike builder.
“We didn’t set out to find these people, but early on we decided that we needed to close the gap between design and build,” explains Le, co-creative director of local design house The Lab, via email. Along with partners Laure Chevallier and Daryl Villanueva, Le spent a whirlwind three and a half months bringing his most recent project from concept to reality. “A lot of times your designs would look good on the computer but the craft sucks. We tried to change it by finding people with good craft.”
At The Lab’s request, the shoemaker fashioned leather seats for a set of bar stools. Metal workers – the same ones behind high-end custom motorbike outfit Bandit9 – crafted lightweight metal frames to support a pair of large wooden tabletops. For other accents, like a soon-to-be herb garden, The Lab let form follow function, fastening a grid of circular iron hooks to the wall to be used as plant holders.
The end result is Nest by AIA, a bright, high-ceilinged space within the Bitexco Financial Tower. Already a hit in its soft opening, Nest officially launches this month and is, in a word, unique. Part financial service centre, part cafe, part event venue – Le calls it a ‘financial loft’ – the space is tough to describe in a single sentence. Depending upon the day, you might arrive to discover a career-oriented workshop or an ordinary cafe. Young professionals could be grabbing a cup of coffee or catching up on the news, learning a new skill or buying life insurance; such is the nature of Nest.
If the versatility of the concept is unorthodox, rarer still is the partnership behind Nest. It’s not every day that one of Asia’s largest insurance companies enlists the help of a local design house for this sort of project. Though the partnership appears unusual from the outside, Le finds his company’s cooperation with insurance giant AIA, an outfit with offices in 17 markets across the Asia-Pacific region, to be more logical than it might first seem.
“We think it’s a very natural relationship, even though it’s counterintuitive for a cafe and an insurance company to partner up,” says Le. “The atmosphere that they want to create and the people they want to attract is very much the same as ours. We want to create a homey, relaxing but professional atmosphere.”
Both sides recognise this mutual benefit. On a weekday afternoon, CFO of AIA Vietnam Ly Thanh Nhon sits in one of Nest’s meeting pods. According to Nhon, Stephen Clark, the CEO of AIA Vietnam, stumbled across WORK Saigon, a local cafe and co-working space owned by The Lab, and immediately saw the potential for cooperation. Nhon, too, felt it would be a viable partnership.
“I saw a lot of very creative elements in [WORK Saigon] and I thought it would work well with what we wanted to do,” Nhon explains.
Though it took time for the partnership to come to fruition, AIA had been searching for a fresh take on insurance sales for some time. Still working out the kinks themselves, Nhon and his colleagues are pleased with the project so far. As the official launch date nears, AIA aims to introduce more information regarding their own products but the company also believes in a taking a hands-off approach when it comes to sales: they don’t want to sell you insurance, they want you to buy it.
“I guess the key thing is just to present life insurance in a different way,” says Nhon. “I mean, we’re not here to open a coffee place, right? We’re here to create a space where – it’s a destination, people will come. And then hopefully they will be conscious about insurance.”
Nest’s interior catches your attention from the get-go. A long, narrow entrance hall opens onto the massive venue, complete with floor-to-ceiling windows and ample space overhead. On the left, a newsstand stocks both local and international publications just outside a series of greenhouse-inspired glass cabins, which are available for private meeting space and one-on-one chats with AIA staff. In the opposite direction, furniture is thoughtfully arranged, providing plenty of seating while still emphasising the openness of the room. For more casual meetings, a pair of custom-made beanbag chairs are tucked away in the far corner below the herb garden.
At its core, Le and his team endeavoured to build a space which could adapt to different circumstances. Nest’s concrete floors rise up, morphing seamlessly into a long, winding countertop near the entrance and again around a trio of large white beams. Its large wooden bookshelves stand flush against the near wall, blending into the room and creating not only room to cultivate an impressive library but stadium seating for seminars and events.
“Nest’s versatility was planned from the very beginning. That’s why it’s important for the space to be open and the furniture to be loose,” says Le. “The only fixture would be the stadium, which we think is very versatile. You can sit there and read a book by yourself. Or you can seat 50 people there for a workshop.”
This kind of fluidity pays off. On any given day, the reception area, outfitted with wide, quilted gray chairs and polished wooden end tables, might serve as a meeting point for AIA representatives and potential clients. The expansive set of wooden tables are a communal workspace for cafe-goers.
With the design work complete and Nest’s soft opening well underway, both AIA and The Lab are keen to officially open the space. For Le, Nest is not simply a new project but a new idea which he hopes to promote.
“Our vision moving forward is to educate people about the concept,” says Le, “shift the conversation away from the design to the purpose of the space.”
For AIA, Nest’s benefits are two-fold: educating Saigon residents about life insurance and financial services, and also leaving their mark on the country’s nascent life insurance industry.
“I think for us what’s important is just to bring something to Vietnam, have a real impact on this market, contribute to something,” explains Nhon. “I think this is what we feel like we can contribute to the life insurance industry in Vietnam.”
Whether Nest’s clientele are clear on the concept or not, the space is welcoming a steady number of visitors everyday. With Sinatra’s smooth voice whispering out of its speakers and a menu of pour-over coffee and fresh pastries, there’s plenty to admire about the space as just another meeting point but Nest’s level of detail, the smart and savvy business crowd it serves and the overall energy of the space hint at a higher purpose.