Photo by Kirsten Lewis
Making children's furniture is a seemingly unlikely career for a single guy with a degree in architecture from Savannah College of Art and Design. But since launching TOT Republic in November 2012, Vincent Vu has carved out a niche with his brand of whimsical desks, beds, bookshelves and nightstands — all made in RVA. We caught up with Vu recently to see how his first year went and where his passion for organic lines, splashes of cartoon color and environmental stewardship is leading him.
R•Home: First off, how does a single guy in his 20s and a career in architecture get into making kid's furniture?
Vincent Vu: I got laid off from my architecture job in March 2009 and moved back in with [my] parents. At the time, my two younger sisters were in elementary school. Every night, I would see my sisters doing their homework at the kitchen table. They were so little and the chairs were so big — they had to sit on a stack of phone books. One day, I said I was going to make them a desk. I designed it, made
the prototype and then a full-scale model.
R•Home: But you're an architect!
Vu: During my years at SCAD, to earn extra money, I worked in the woodworking shop where architecture and interior design students made small-scale models for their projects. That's where I learned woodworking techniques and how to scale.
R•Home: Are there any special techniques for making kid-friendly furniture?
Vu: For any kind of furniture, the question is: How can you design something that has all the function without ruining the aesthetic? The function should be part of the piece. For instance, the desk I make is very compact and has these little slots at the top so pens and pencils don't roll off the desk. It's fun and functional. When I started to design the desk for my sisters, I thought about sustainability and the environment because that is what we learned in school, but also about the finishes and what would be safe for them. The paint and finishes are water-based, and we use solvent-free glue.
R•Home: How does your furniture come together? Do you have your own shop?
Vu: I design everything, and my friend has a shop with a CNC [computer numerical control] machine to cut out the pieces. I house the pieces in my mom's garage and can assemble them there. It's just gluing, sanding and painting. I design the products so the machine does all the work. We ship everything in a flat box and provide an intuitive way of assembling. Each piece fits into a slot, and there's only one type of screw.
R•Home: One screw! Take that IKEA. Seriously, tell us more about the eco-friendly aspect.
Vu: For the materials, we use a high-grade Baltic birch plywood, which Europeans use in their furniture making. These products are harvested in managed forests, so they are a renewable resource and are also much stronger than particleboard. Also, we keep everything and do not discard pieces. Really, there's nothing left.
R•Home: What happens to the extra pieces?
Vu: They're part of our Second Life line. If you look at our bookshelf, the back of it has all these cutouts. The easy solution is to get rid of the cutout pieces, move on and make another bookshelf. ... We use all this waste material to make puzzles. You can do a standard puzzle or a custom puzzle where we laser an image of your family on the wood.
R•Home: What inspires you?
Vu: Midcentury modern, Herman Miller, and I look at a lot of architecture. Our current pieces are modern and organic, but I'm in the process of launching a midcentury-inspired collection later this year.