Social media

Designer Arounna Khounnoraj of Bookhou in Toronto uses social media to breathe new life into traditional craftsmanship

Becca Gilgan/The Globe and Mail

The work of weaver Arounna Khounnoraj is a study in contrasts. His pieces are made using the most analogous tools – a needle and thread – but his company, Bookhou, is a social media starlet, with over 360,000 followers on Instagram. Such enthusiasm shows how the online world has become an important space for exploring old-world craftsmanship and design.

Since launching Bookhou in 2002 with her husband John Booth, an architect who creates beautiful wooden objects, Khounnoraj has cultivated a distinct role as a teacher and cheerleader to a new wave of creatives who would otherwise might never try traditional techniques. His 2017 video showing punch needling, akin to rug hooking, went viral and led to his first book, Needle Punch. “People love being allowed to immerse themselves in something they don’t know about,” says Khounnoraj, who has taught at the Art Gallery of Ontario, OCAD University and Sheridan College. “Some techniques, I don’t want them to get lost.”

This is why Khounnoraj posts so many how-to videos, which are almost silent and feature experimentation and imperfection. “There is no right way or certain path,” she says of her approach. “And I think that makes it more accessible.” His forthcoming book, Embroidery: A Modern Guide to Botanical Embroideryputs a new spin on an ancient practice, illustrating how to embellish everything from handbags to throw pillows with carefully stitched flowers and leaves.

Becca Gilgan/The Globe and Mail

Khounnoraj knows the value of passing on these skills. After his family emigrated from Laos to Canada, his father worked in a designer furniture company and built pieces for their home using discarded items. His mother became a tailor and sewed and repaired their clothes; she now helps with Bookhou. “It had a huge influence on me,” says Khounnoraj, who has also written a book on visible repair. While the repair was once low-key, Khounnoraj now sees it as “a celebration and an artistic expression.”

For Khounnoraj, who studied fine art and started out as a sculptor, living in Toronto influenced his aesthetic. “The urban environment mixed with nature makes a difference,” says Khounnoraj, recalling summer days in Trinity Bellwoods Park with her two children and noticing the pattern of tram lines crisscrossing above their head. “I see beauty in that too.”

These days, Khounnoraj is also spending time in Montreal with a view to relocating when she and Booth become empty nests. The big idea: to return to the beginning of their practices, painting and sculpture. Yet Khounnoraj has no intention of giving up his needle and thread. Bookhou has five licensing deals in place with companies as far away as Japan to use his hand-drawn designs on fabric and other products. “It expands our artistic talent,” she says.

That Khounnoraj is considering stepping away from what has become such an auspicious path speaks to his allegiance to the creative process rather than a fixation on any particular outcome. “The pandemic has taught us that life is too short. You should just do what you want to do,” she says, echoing her open-minded design philosophy: “It will work out eventually.