Joshua Breidenbach on 10 years of Rice Studios and how they’re setting their sights on the future
A decade, as a landmark, is always accompanied by a period of reflection. In the case of Rice Studios, however, it was also accompanied by celebration in abundance. After all, the momentum hasn’t stopped – they’re just getting started. Reflecting on Rice’s 10th birthday, Executive Creative Director Joshua Breidenbach reveals the work it took for the Vietnam-based branding and design studio to get there, and how he and Co-founder Chí-An Benjamin De Leo have grown in that time, too.
PT Hi Joshua, congratulations on 10 years with Rice! How does it feel?
JB It feels amazing to be IN to the same energy we had at the beginning. Everything around us still buzzes with opportunity. The past couple of years have been unprecedentedly challenging, but we have been able to tap into that same original optimism. We’ve been able to lean into experience, understand mistakes, and create clearer objectives. We created space to imagine a new future. The decade mark comes with a reconnection to the drive that made Rice. We always wanted to be the best we could. With experience, we see now that being the ‘best’ is actually about being the ‘only,’ and we’re really digging into the power of that. What we wanted it to be in the beginning – a company with strong values, that exemplifies creativity, innovation and collaboration, is what we are getting better at every day. It is this spirit that has guided us through peaks and valleys, and it is what will continue to propel us. I am excited to see what the future holds, and I am proud to be a part of this incredible team.
We celebrated that everything is a work in progress.
PT How did you celebrate?
JB We celebrated the team, and great people around us. We celebrated the opening of our beautiful new studio, and what is to come next! It was all about the future. We celebrated that everything is a work in progress. We relaxed a bit. We didn’t feel we had to crystallise a perfect moment or version of Rice. We hosted a Rice store pop-up (the first one in Vietnam, as all the previous ones were in Japan), and we had our first design talk on sustainability in design. We threw a party and welcomed a hundred people into our studio – a space we hope the community will come to know as a design destination in Ho Chi Minh City. We created the new space during the pandemic, with the help of architect Aprar Elawad, who was part of our team. Determined to create an exceptional environment, we envisioned something more like an art studio, or a health retreat! We lucked out in identifying an amazing 60s modernist villa in the centre of Saigon. The house is in the same alley (hem) as the house of the late Vietnamese singer-songwriter Trịnh Công Sơn, and the whole area has an amazing vibe. We have a 50-year-old starfruit tree at the centre of our courtyard, with visiting birds, insects and lizards. We have a studio-length skylight streaming sunlight onto the work. It is quiet, but we are right in the middle of our city. We celebrate being Rice, and we’re looking at a rich new chapter.
PT Looking back at a decade of Rice, to use the cliché, is there anything you would tell your younger self?
JB It has all been formative. Everything is practice. There have been rough patches, but everything was necessary, it seems. The company started with its fair share of naivety. We were completely focused on telling authentic stories, from Vietnam and around the world, and nothing would stand in the way of that. We focused more on the work than the business for years! That helped us build our brand, but both are essential of course. If you want to truly be the place that everyone wants to join and thrive within, the business has to be thriving. We had to learn how to better take care of people. The thrill of shooting our amazing work into the world is just the icing. We’re stronger now. We have weathered a storm or two, and to sound properly old – we’re a lot more wise. The business is fortified, and with that, we can build a team – confident that we can promise them growth.
PT With this milestone, you have a book coming out – can you reveal a bit more about it?
JB We are working on a book. It is not a book full of case studies, or a retrospective of a decade of struggle and a job well done – it is more of a ‘guide to being Rice.’ The book began as a handbook that anyone joining Rice would get in hand upon arrival, for fast-tracking them into the culture. So the book is our internal handbook – made for everyone.
We work within a criteria that we’ve established over the years that keeps us on track. Beginning with the intention, digging deep, asking good questions – is our ‘way.’ This ‘way’ always evolves as we remain introspective, but the core is unchanged. We learned a lot, and we want to share with the world, because that is what truly inspires us. We want to share with young designers and other entrepreneurs.
The dream is that our work – the way we work, is impactful in practice, but more so in the way it is carried out. Through doing the work, Rice is empowering inquiry, growth, thoughtfulness and making impacts. Philosophy and ethos aside, Rice has been working intensively in Vietnam for nearly 15 years – through an incredible moment for the nation. The next 10 years will prove to be phenomenal. So where we are – doing what we do – touching so many ambitious, visionary businesses and organisations – has shaped us, and extraordinary stories. For this alone, the book will probably be interesting. The stories of this ‘moment’ we have lived and worked through are distinctive and inspiring.
I want results. If I slowed down and reflected more, I might find them.
PT How do you think running Rice has shaped your own development as a person?
JB We like to ask the team at Rice ‘why are you here.’ It is a nice big question. We hope that everyone at Rice is getting a lot out of it. Chí-An and I intended to make Rice the place we wanted to work at. We’re very much in touch with that. We are held accountable to that. I’m checking in with myself constantly. For it to make sense for me to be working at/on Rice – still, I must be fulfilled, solving problems, adding to something bigger and inspiring others. As I am working, I must be growing every day. I must be in a situation where I’m inspiring people around me – and potentially millions of people out there. I am in control of the quality of the work, so there is a high level of accountability, which is very important.
The running of the business has been hard – especially when we’re always stretching to be better, pioneering – at the edge of what possibility with the resources we have, and being so demanding of ourselves and others. It can become very daunting. It was daunting through the past couple years, as we experienced projects fall off, and a general wavering commitment to quality. There is always the option of jumping ship. A nice position somewhere like New York could be a temptation, but we are on a mission, we have gathered people around us, and we all believe in what we are doing. So there is something there about resilience and of course, commitment.
Rice has forced me to face a litany of challenges that I would not have found the same elsewhere. It made me see how to be a better leader, and better problem solver. Being directly exposed to growing businesses and opportunities here in Vietnam is a gift. It can also be distracting, as, in this market, one wants to get involved in so many things. I think another way Rice has shaped me – my focus and persistence have improved. I’m working on patience, but that is hard for me. I want results. If I slowed down and reflected more, I might find them.
PT What have you been working on lately?
JB We’ve jumped back in with Marou to do a deep dive. As a brand that we started working with over 10 years ago, they have experienced a LOT of change. We get to improve upon some messes we contributed to, but we get to see a big new future with them, as a Vietnamese brand for the world. They are going through a big moment of growth and transformation. They requested our creative direction and we are really happy to come with super fresh thinking. Marou is a chocolate maker, sure – but it is so much more, as they expand across Vietnam and abroad with experiential stores and even more story-full products. We keep it pop-but edgy. There is also so much more to tell about the life of the brand at the farms and how they approach sustainability at scale. To be a chocolate company like Marou at the origin, so close to farming, is nearly unheard of. The leadership at Marou is committed to inspiring the world with their way of working and creativity. There is much to do, but the daunting part is ensuring our ideas are reaching far enough!
Speaking of chocolate (somehow the ingredient of our lives) we have created a new brand, identity and wild range of packaging for the Truffle Man. We have just been awarded by D&AD for this work, and we could not be more proud.
For over 20 years, Trevor Sherard (Truffle Man) has delighted the people of San Francisco with his cannabis-infused chocolate truffles – literally creating the city’s longest-running pop-up. The truffle man is a legend in SF. Obsessed with geometry, engineering, magic and storytelling, Trevor had created displays, Utensils, machinery, costumes, and spaces, constituting an entire artful world. With legalisation, a very fortunate license to manufacture in Oakland, (and some backing) the Truffle Man experience was ready to transform from a one-man-band, to a full-fledged consumer brand. Our objective was to ‘package’ this artful, wild story into an accessible, pop brand that could go far wider than Dolores Park. The vision is stores, and experiences. Could Truffle Man become synonymous with San Francisco as a go-to gift? Could it be the new bottle of wine? Apart from the cannabis formulas, (which are not made to blow your mind necessarily) full ranges of products are cannabis-free – just perfectly crafted, wildly inventive chocolate.
This packaging solution for the Truffle Man’s chocolate ‘treasures’ is inspired by the ‘world’ of the Truffle Man. Interplay between different sizes or individual boxes creates endless iterations of structures and patterns. The boxes work by offering new display-building opportunities, they also invite buyers to play, and build, and hopefully to keep the boxes for a second life as personal treasure keepers.
Another product range is packaged in a more conventionally-shaped box (some restrictions apply with necessary child-resistant features). These work in a series and are wrapped in abstract images by photographer Damien Maloney. The Truffle Man brand is a simple unifying platform, made to invite art and artists to bring vastness into this ‘world’ while remaining recognisable. We love that the truffle man brand is about seeking and finding inspiration, and not about getting stoned. Working in this new industry is working with no real limits. What the cannabis industry ‘looks like’ is wide open, we think.
We recently released a rebranding of Beatbites. A platform dedicated to collaborating with artists and creative communities to make original content and share stories that celebrate artistry, diversity, creative processes, and culture. We were inspired by their vision of becoming a premiere destination for artist discovery and original creative content and their mission to champion local artists and music scenes and broadcast them to the world. The identity system reflects Beatbites' diversity and international reach. We bought a bold colour system and dynamic templates to handle a growing spectrum of content themes across digital and physical branded environments. We believe that our comprehensive new identity system can continue to achieve their goals with style and substance. We are proud to have helped them solidify a brand that is global and connected.
Other side of the coin, we completed a really robust and hard-working identity for a global pre-engineered building and steel structures company. This work connected the team to work-horse identity systems of yore, that have always inspired us for their physical scale, and commitment to pure modernism. Pebsteel stands to empower people and businesses through better-engineered spaces. Pebsteel’s objective is to become the benchmark in the steel building industry, through safe, sustainable, and innovative solutions. Their future is inspiring and the no-nonsense identity we produced will never get in the way.
PT What do you enjoy most about working with Japanese clients?
JB Our clients in or from Japan have consistently been ambitious while remaining methodical. They have been analytical, and extremely creative. ‘Thoughtful,’ best describes the people and projects we have been involved with in relation to Japan.
The deeper intention is to tell better stories that exemplify our values.
PT How is the Rice store doing? Can you tell us a bit about your up-cycled furniture?
JB The store has launched a new website with new products, so great timing! While the store is a viable revenue stream, the deeper intention is to tell better stories that exemplify our values. Mãi Collection – the line of designer furniture, objects, and accessories and games made from upcycled plastic materials is the focus of the store today. We have used a total of 700+kg of up-cycled waste plastic material from the PLASTICPeople company through our Mãi Collection. We hope it is a good example for the future. Surely the store serves its purpose, as, once someone gets these materials in their hands, they can feel the power of the material. Store is really about touch.
PT How are the team? What does the structure look like these days?
JB We are growing. We have welcomed new designers, strategists and project managers to the team, and are seeking people to join us that see the opportunity. Our team is primarily from Vietnam and we invite people from other countries to join, especially senior level to help lead. We seek leadership. We brought a talented Senior Designer, Tien Nguyen to join Rice from Berlin. Tien grew up in Germany but often visited Vietnam as he was growing up, so he comes with a fresh perspective, and a lot of familiarity. What we need is more team. Know anyone?
PT What should we keep an eye out for from Rice in the coming months?
JB We are working on a massive international school which is flipping the idea of an international school being an enclave for the privileged outsiders – to an internationally-minded environment that produces future global citizens. International schools are a form of education. They foster an environment that embraces diversity of people and pathways of education. Beyond academic – international schools can be leaders in inclusivity, tolerance, resilience, and adaptability. Since a true global mindset is essential to the future, it feels big to be part of this project, and it represents so much of what we believe in at Rice, so again, the (good) pressure is how to outperform ourselves, given incredible opportunities.
We seek to bring major international design events to Vietnam.
We named and branded a new mall in Hanoi from the Takashimaya group that sees the mall as a natural environment. This will be launched soon. We are kicking off the identity of a new (Vietnam-based) cryptocurrency that seeks to run with the big ones. We are working on a book for an iconic individual in food in Vietnam who seeks to set some records straight about what Vietnamese food and culture are really about. We expect to see her on Netflix in the very near future (if she agrees). It’s really nice to have a book project in the studio, and the content is profound, and very well-written.
Aside from the exciting projects, we are looking forward to hosting more talks at our studio, and we seek to bring major international design events to Vietnam. It all speaks to our mission of broadcasting extraordinary stories.