By Caille Millner
San Francisco Chronicle.
When Nobel Truong, a 21-year-old business student at UC Berkeley, moved into her basement apartment in Nob Hill in January, she faced a common San Francisco dilemma: How would she furnish this small, oddly shaped space?
The common solution to this problem would have been for Truong to hail a ride to Ikea and make do with those banal pieces.
Instead, she launched a lifestyle brand, Nobel (http://no-bl.com) — a line of furnishings, ceramics, illustrations and acrylic light pieces.
Truong makes everything herself, and — best of all — the results are relatively affordable ($56 for her adorable neon cactus table lamp, for example).
Truong is modest about her abilities and her aims. “When I started doing this, I didn’t realize it was going to be a business,” she told me. “I simply had very particular taste, and I couldn’t find anything that was exactly what I wanted.”
Several months later, it turns out that a lot of other people are interested in exactly what Truong wants, too.
I stumbled across her work on a Texas design blog. Cool Hunting, the design magazine, featured her cactus lamps in its Buy section. Her ceramic pieces sell out as quickly as she can make them. When she goes to craft fairs, people even try to buy the decorations she makes for her booth.
“At the first West Coast craft fair that I went to, I made a palm tree out of laser-cut paper,” she told me, laughing. “Only because I couldn’t afford a real one. But so many people tried to buy it.”
It’s all uncommon, but then Truong is an uncommon young woman. She grew up in Huntington Beach (Orange County), an area that’s “full of amazing architectural pieces that no one pays attention to because it’s full of dry suburbs.”
Growing up, she remembers seeing the Case Study Houses that the heroes of midcentury modern design (Eames, Killingsworth, Saarinen and others) built in the suburbs of Los Angeles. She remembers going to her local community college to take a class as a high school student and noticing that the campus had a Noguchi garden. “In many ways, it was this very beautiful environment that went almost overlooked by everyone,” Truong said.
Not by Truong, who’s an architect’s daughter — and a born entrepreneur.
“From an early age, I knew I needed to be working — not for the money but for the invigoration of it,” Truong said. “I needed to be solving problems in a real-world way.”
At 16, she took on a retail associate’s job at her local American Apparel. But because she knew about Web management, she moved over to Web design and quickly moved up the Los Angeles company’s organizational hierarchy — doing project management and back-end Web development for global campaigns.
At this point in the story, I paused to raise my eyebrow at Truong, a “shouldn’t you have been studying, young lady?” gesture.
Truong grinned. “I try to stay out of situations where people ask how old I am,” she told me. While acknowledging that American Apparel was “a crazy company,” she said that she had very supportive managers there and that the internal obsession with design fueled her passion even more.
“We were all 18 years old and going to look at (designer George) Nelson houses,” she said. “It’s not an environment for everyone, but it was great for me.”
Somehow, Truong managed to graduate from high school and to earn an undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley, where she studied philosophy of mind. Her work experience altered her career path, though. She’d planned on going to law school, but she realized it would be better to follow her instincts for business. It was almost a coincidence that her business started with her own little home.
“One of the keys, I think, was that I make pieces for small environments,” Truong said. “A lot of furniture these days is built for whole homes. In San Francisco, we have to be more conscious of how we use the room footprint; what kind of scale our surroundings are.”
Truong learned woodworking at San Francisco’s TechShop on Howard Street. She doesn’t think there’s anything unusual about being a 5-foot-tall woman lugging her own wood and working the chop saw, but she admits that some of her friends had to get used to the idea. “Anyone can do it,” she said. “That’s one of my mottoes.”
I’m not sure if that’s true for everyone, but it’s definitely true for Truong. I expect great things — and lots of great design — from her in the future.