Like many architects, Hoang Tao understands furniture design. Tao, who got his architecture degree from California Polytechnic State University and is pursuing a doctorate in Planning and Urban Studies at the University of New Orleans, has studied the art closely.
"In the architecture field, design projects range in scale from the large urban city to the smaller table," Tao says. "Furniture has always been a part of my design life."
Unlike many architects, Tao studied the art outside the classroom as well. He has crafted furniture since middle school. He makes new furniture each time he moves — he's lived in eight cities, five countries and four continents in the past 11 years. With every furniture design project, he gives himself a different challenge. While working with the Peace Corps in Mozambique, he built every piece by hand with no power tools. In New Orleans, he kept costs to a minimum by using only 4 feet-by-8 feet sheets of plywood with minimal, geometric cuts.
After returning to the U.S. from Africa, Tao noticed the do-it-yourself lifestyle was growing popular with young people. He saw an opportunity to promote the benefits of making your own furniture.
"Young people are moving more," he says. "It's expensive to furnish each place and transport the furniture each time you move. [Making] clean, simple forms in furniture has the advantage of not costing much, and you can move freely. It's also a nice hobby and skill set."
Tao's New Orleans apartment is furnished with a capsule collection of minimalist designs: a table, desk, bed, sofa, stools, lamps and an interpretation of a Shoji screen sliding wall panel. On average, each piece cost him $32, but he applies his creativity to projects with scopes beyond thrift.
Tao is interested in the impact architec ture and design have on social issues. He is focusing on sustainable urban development and design in the area of water governance, a hugely important subject in post-Katrina New Orleans.
"I work with a lot of nonprofits such as Open Architecture New Orleans and Friends of the Lafitte Greenway," Tao says. "Too often, architecture focuses on the brick-and-mortar versus the people inside. There's a great deal of missed opportunities in design to empower the community."
Tao's goal is to make design more sustainable by using accessible, affordable materials.
"I'd like to give people the option to have new furniture," he says. "A child with a table to study at and a bed to get a good night's sleep has better self-esteem. Enabling community members to make things like gardens and furniture gives them the power to change their own lives."
He also strives to make his designs flexible. Sofa cushions can be rearranged to make a bed for guests, and his desk and dining table combine to make a dining table for 12.
A traveler who's visited 70 countries, Tao has worked on all manner of architecture, from the yacht-accessible, 900,000-square-feet Yas Hotel in Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, to classroom furniture for a preschool in Mozambique. Tao balances private furniture and interior design projects with work in public design. While he aspires to create excellent architecture, the greater good and the common threads among all cultures move him most.
"Most of the world needs affordable housing, adequate schools and livable communities," he says.
Tao says one challenge is dis- covering a building's inner soul. "You have to design form and space around the human condition," Tao says. "How do you make people feel at home? Giving a space life is very difficult."
Tao's solution draws on simplicity and nods to cultural diversity — for example, his apartment includes a Zen meditation space, an African game consisting of a hand-hewn wooden tray and baobab seeds and a tiny retro-style fridge. He also depends on the connection he shares with people he serves.
"Students today work with organizations outside of the classroom," he says. "We learn to understand the practical side by engaging people from diverse communities and exchanging theoretical ideas and practical strategies."