“Cool” illustration and design work is two a penny, and I’m the first to admit I’m a sucker for the alluring weirdness of styles like acid graphic thing, the ugly design thing, and web Brutalism. But these are often just fleeting trends with a clear originator, mimicked (albeit often well) by a thousand more. Which is why it’s all the more exciting to find work that’s cool but not trendy—and that’s striking in its originality.
Chau Luong’s work is adept at bridging this gap, and many others: It feels both contemporary and somehow traditional. Her focus is on cross-discipline collaboration and she juxtaposes “Chinglish” and Western stereotypes in many pieces, thanks to her own German-Vietnamese background. Growing up in Germany, she was surrounded by kitschy, gaudy interior design. Today, clashing poppy colors, Western fashion culture, and temples and other Eastern elements seep into almost every one of her projects.
A recent commission, for instance, saw Luong tasked by Danish-Chinese fashion label A. A. Spectrum with the creation of bright woven labels for the brand’s last winter collection. Luong, who’d worked with the brand on a similar project the previous year while still a student, wasn’t given a brief. When she and the creative director got chatting about the label’s story, “we realized there was one sentiment we shared, which became the starting point of our project’s narrative: the feeling of being ‘Lost in Translation’,” Luong explains.
“As an illustrator, the most important thing is to carry off an idea rather than a style.”
The resulting work is based on “a concept that juxtaposes Chinglish and Chinese pidgin with popular stereotypes and well-known images of the West and the East,” she says. “The idea to create something that plays with language and identity seemed fitting to me, since I grew up between cultures as the daughter of immigrants. Plus, A.A. Spectrum, the label itself, is cross-cultural, too. I wanted to draw from this confusion that significantly shaped my thinking in a tongue-in-cheek approach.”
Indeed, her illustration approach—and, as becomes apparent when we meet, her approach to life more broadly—doesn’t take itself too seriously, a rare treat for someone with a foot in the fashion world. On her site, Luong smartly sidesteps those butt-clenching “about me” sections by simply describing herself as someone who can be found “musing on food and soft drinks” when not working. But her interests are many, ranging from cinema (namely, the Japanese horror classic Hausu) to new media art to Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
She does, however, take her work seriously. Last year, Luong found herself taking on a lot of commissions—basically being that “yes” person—with little time for the self-initiated work she finds so valuable for her craft (and sanity). “This year I realized I wanted to take my practice a step further and decided to only focus on taking on commissions that are really interesting,” she says. “It helps take my portfolio in the right direction: I’m still in the early stages of my career and I think it’s really important to have some control over it.”
As any creative knows, taking the time to focus on playful exploration without the pressures of a client brief is crucial, and this comes through in Luong’s gorgeously simple Casual Characters sketches—an exercise she set for herself to explore shapes and color using pencils and felt pens. Through her self-initiated work, she’s also able to explore both new media and her own family heritage. Luong’s self-published Riso series Superstitious Mangaka is based on her mother’s superstitions and “dark, twisted, and deadpan” sense of humor. East and West are united in an aesthetic that combines references from Ukiyo-e (ornate Japanese art from the 17th to 19th Centuries) and Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop Art comics.
“A client relationship in the end is just like any other relationship—it’s about the person.”
Whether in personal projects or client work, Luong underscores the need for illustration to be conceptually rooted, not just pretty. “As an illustrator, the most important thing is to carry off an idea rather than a style,” she says, drawing on what she learned from her favorite teacher during undergrad. “I was always more interested in how I can tell a story than how I can make it look nice.”
This feeds into how she deals with clients, ensuring that her conversations with them don’t just cover the brief, but the person setting it. This was a lesson she learned early on in her first proper commission for A. A. Spectrum as a student. “I didn’t know any differently, so I just tried to get to know them really well, and have a lot of conversations that we jokingly referred to as ‘ping pong’—she’d tell me what came to her mind in a very abstract and loose way, and I’d say what came to mine, and then look at her reactions. In the end, a client relationship is just like any other relationship—it’s about the person.”