Now Narapanich has returned to the States to finish his graduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University and make plans for the next step, which includes teaming with interior designer Chris McCray to manufacture the collection in Thailand and to export select Thai home furnishings for the retail market here.
Narapanich came to this country from Thailand four years ago. He spoke no English but had an intense desire to learn, and he excelled in VCU's interior environment M.F.A. program. He absorbed the language and enlarged his design vocabulary as well, taking woodworking courses, resolving creative challenges and giving presentations of his work to faculty and students.
For his thesis, he designed a modern spa for a waterfront site on the James River, something that impressed his professor Camden Whitehead. "He addressed views and light and the industrial heritage and character of the site, and layered that over the expectations of a spa," Whitehead says. "Building that conflict into a project always adds another layer of challenge, and Bo was sensitive to the issues that were raised. That will have value throughout his career."
The student credits his teachers for their useful critiques. "The most important thing I learned is that when you work, you experience problems, and after that you get to the solutions," Narapanich says. "Sometimes it's an unexpected outcome and not like the drawing. You may have to change the design to solve the problem."
That means adding strength here, or shaving mass there, or adjusting a curve for better function. Furniture in the Narapanich collection, called Debutee, blends massive strokes of wood with airy openings set off by steel accents, a complex formula that requires engineering as well as artistry.
"Sometimes I try to combine what I have seen with what will be in the future," he says, showing drawings that are reminiscent of midcentury modern furniture but with a Thai flavor and contemporary form. Brilliantly colored silk fabrics, a Thai specialty, will be used to upholster a second line that Narapanich is developing.
It's the quality of workmanship that distinguishes this collection from others, McCray says: "In Thailand, they are craftspeople, working with their hands and beautiful materials. These are well-made pieces, not like some of the mass-produced things flooding out of China."
Narapanich says his contractor is teaching him the best ways to build prototypes that will lead to quality products; he spent two years in the factory learning the proper methods before moving here for more education.
Raving over the iconic designs of his hero, London-based Marc Newson (who has created objects as diverse as wristwatches, airplanes and restaurant interiors), Narapanich imagines success on his own terms taking risks and gaining acumen while remaining original. And though he realizes the furniture industry is highly competitive, he looks inward for motivation. "I think my competitor is me," the designer says, "so I have to continue improving."