A sense of lineage plays out in designer Sean Knibb’s Oxford Collection for English furniture firm Waring and Gillow in Vietnam. By Ruben Luong. Photos by Christian Berg.
Heritage runs deep for 19th-century English furniture brand Waring and Gillow, a former outfitter of luxury liners, yachts and world war parts. Turning to the future, the re-emerging homeware maker has rooted itself in its new creative director, Los Angeles-based landscape and furniture designer Sean Knibb, whose own Jamaican heritage unexpectedly solidified his forthcoming Oxford Collection manufactured in Vietnam.
Comprised of seven pieces — dining table, coffee table, two chairs, bed, sideboard and a set of end tables — the Oxford Collection is a byproduct of generations fusing together: classic with contemporary and time-honoured Waring and Gillow with globalising Vietnam. It could not have been realised without Knibb’s own reunion with his estranged father, a former salesman of exotic cars and perfume who moved to Ho Chi Minh City four years ago when he recognised that Vietnam was burgeoning.
Knibb and his father travelled to Hanoi, Sapa, and elsewhere around Vietnam while reconnecting. Their expedition was an immediate catalyst for Knibb, and when Waring and Gillow approached him to create the Oxford Collection for its showroom in Nha Be District near District 7, he knew he would design it with Vietnamese techniques in mind.
“You have this emerging nation that’s finding its voice in design, but there’s this strong sense of Vietnamese identity looking at the history of native construction methods, pre-colonial architecture, beautiful lacquering and weaving, pottery, and the craftwork of northerners,” Knibb says. “It’s about taking that together and creating a new heritage line. It’s something beyond bespoke, and that’s what the new design and ethos for Waring and Gillow is.”
This happens to be Knibb’s forte. He grew up in the colonial environs of Montego Bay, Jamaica as the grandson of award-winning florist Marion Cohen, who had him cultivating anthuriums in her flower shop. His talent for colour, texture and composition ushered him into furniture design at Otis Parsons School of the Arts, where he landed a stint with furniture designer Carl Gilberg.
Knibb’s penchant for gardening later propelled him into landscape design at Miami-based designer Harry Nelson’s firm, followed by a mentorship from famed garden designer Jay Griffith. At age 23, Knibb launched his design business, Knibb Design, winning the commission of a high-profile English Tudor estate and a reputation that would precede him.
Having designed gardens for celebrities like Cameron Diaz, Halle Berry and Jennifer Lopez, Knibb has an aesthetic characterised by mixing traditional plants, such as roses and hydrangea, with modern assemblages of silver spear, succulents, or ornamental grasses.
It’s this same ideology Knibb implements in his Oxford Collection. An essential part of the design was incorporating traditional Vietnamese lacquer into the legs of the pieces, which are all made from walnut imported from North America. The original prototype of his coffee table featured green lacquered legs that alluded to the heritage and foliage of the countryside.
“You have the green of Europe, which is heavy and dense, but you have the green of Vietnam, which is light, textured, dynamic,” he says.
For the final prototype, however, Knibb selected a subtler Vietnamese lacquer in white and ivory.
“It’s about not taking away from the lines, the shape, and juxtaposition of the old and new lines,” he says. “You can see the old curvilinear lines and shapes, but also see that 2014 is happening on the piece.”
Knibb designed and manufactured the collection over a six month-period while travelling back and forth between his office on Abbot Kinney in Venice, California, and Ho Chi Minh City. He was doing this while simultaneously working on interiors for The Line, a swanky, 400-bedroom boutique hotel located in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, where he used a mix of objet d’art and custom-designed furnishings from his studio.
While his Oxford Collection may be finished, Knibb has no intention of slowing down. He has plans to start designing a private residence in Vietnam later this year.
But it is ultimately the Oxford Collection in Ho Chi Minh City, which enabled Knibb to spend time bonding with his father, that seems to have had the greatest impact on his work and career so far.
“It allowed me to be a better designer and communicator, which is ultimately what I want to do with my work,” he says. “My craft is another way for me to speak.”