Design Notes: Khoa Vu on his journey in architecture and design


(Sangeetha Alagappan//berkeleyByte)


Wearing a pair of half-frames and a black speckled jumper, portfolio in one hand, iced coffee in the other, Khoa Vu looks every bit the designer. He has a quiet sensibility about him and speaks thoughtfully on his experiences.

Architecture senior Vu grew up in Vietnam, where he started his architectural journey before moving to California about five years ago. He picked up his studies in Orange County and shortly after, transferred to Cal. His love for design and creation has grown and evolved through these experiences, and he is now, he informs me with a humble smile, looking forward to joining the Harvard Graduate School of Design this fall.

Interestingly, Vu is ambidextrous, drawing with his left hand and writing with the right, and this sets up a fascinating conversation about his design work and interest in finding a balance in his love for art, design, physics and mathematics.

The design journey

Vu started out at a very young age, drawing and sketching constantly. He believes his interest in design grew with experimenting in Photoshop and Illustrator and being able to visualize his designs with technology. Now, as an undergraduate, Vu is passionate about contemporary design, the marriage between art and science and finding a harmonious balance between the two worlds. He approaches design fluidly and dabbles in a variety of design work including graphic, identity and web design, claiming that “good design work stems from having a logical approach coupled with good aesthetics.”

An aptitude for architecture

His predilection for architecture comes from tackling the challenge of three-dimensional design, in which design “is not about the object but about the experience,” and the fascinating process of balancing form and function. Vu chose Cal for his undergraduate studies because he was attracted to its training in the style of design thinking and the scope for experimenting with the cross-section of technology, digital fabrication and design.

Defining Cal experiences

Vu currently assists architecture professor Kyle Steinfeld with his work in computational design. As he learns “the way of new design in a new age,” Vu wants to pursue similar research in his Masters. He also tells me he’s a publicity officer for the Berkeley Chapter of the American Institute of Architecture Students and adds with a grin that the socials help give the architecture students a rare outing out of Studio.

He also had the opportunity to travel around Spain—Valencia, Granada, Alicante—in his Study Abroad program, working on a project that was a design intervention of sorts—creating a design that resonated the cultural landscape while constructing a new spatial atmosphere in a new place.

The stories behind the portfolio

He sheepishly smiles as I compliment his work (all of which can be found on his site). He explains that an important part of his design work is being satisfied by the work you do—“the most picky, tricky client of your design is yourself.”

A design project he particularly enjoyed working on was his “Dynamic Walk”—a kinetic platform structure to engage the human body. It was his first immersive design work, going through sketching, concept development, building the structure and being able to experience people’s reactions to his design.


Dynamic Walk (Photo Courtesy: Khoa Vu)

There is an interesting narration in his work; recurrent themes like folding metaphors and the interaction of light and space are explored and transformed in his various works.

His design approach

Vu has a systematic approach to how he designs any project. He starts with a lot of sketches and fills pages of his sketchbook with brainstorming ideas. “Finding inspiration from research is also integral to your design. With this support, come up with a concept and make a physical model. Get feedback often and redefine your design accordingly. Having digital renditions of your work helps in fabricating the final design.”


(Sangeetha Alagappan//berkeleyByte)


And his take on graphic tablet sketching? “Sketching and hand-drawing will always be relevant. They have a strong relationship in transferring your idea from your brain to your hand and onto paper as fast as possible.”

Inspired by harmony

“I’m inspired by Japanese architecture. [I’m] particularly drawn to designers that take advantage of technology to create something of beauty and modernity while still staying true to culture and tradition.”

Geometrical transformation

“I enjoy the transformation of form from a simple geometric shape like a cube to another, more complex than before. I’m interested in the process of transformation.” One of his latest works, “The Portable Tree,” is a foldable, transformative tree structure for theatrical spaces to be used as a sort of aperture to filter light into the scene. The fundamental logic of origami folding informs how the structure opens and closes.

Parting words

Before I thank him for speaking with me, I ask him for any pearls of wisdom he has gleaned from his time at Berkeley. “I would recommend Architecture Studio to anyone who loves design—to explore different forms of design, from conceptual to graphic design.

“I’m still on the way to explore the design world. But I would say, design something that you would like to experience and experiment with. And don’t be afraid to experiment. And define why the design is important to you. That’s important.”

Author’s Note: This article is part of a series called Design Notes, which profiles faculty and students who are leading the design movement at UC Berkeley.

One comment on “Design Notes: Khoa Vu on his journey in architecture and design

  1. Ken Farris on said:

    I know this guy! I go to school with him! We don’t talk a lot but I can vouch: He is one of the BEST designers that I have ever met. Hands. Down.

    Also, needless to say, attractive? I think so 😉

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