From Nothing to Something: A Journey Beyond Design

In a small country like Singapore where the local market is small, being a furniture designer is just as difficult as being a fashion designer – it is hard to make it abroad and it is hard to sell just in Singapore. To make it as a furniture designer, not only do you need talent and perseverance, you need to be resourceful and sometimes, you need some sheer brute strength. Homegrown designer, Gabriel Tan, a designer who is constantly evolving and searching – moved beyond product design to embrace interior design and art directing and creating brands for companies outside of Singapore, and carved his own niche as a wunderkind in the world of furniture and beyond.

Kelley Cheng: Can you tell us about Gabriel Tan Studio?

Gabriel Tan: I set it up four years ago, after the members of our collective Out of Stock decided to focus on our individual work. Moving on to my own practice, I have diversified – besides furniture design, we take on interior design projects as well, and now we are doing art direction for companies, which is something a bit newer. Currently, I’m art directing for 4 brands – Verotec, a door handle company from Singapore; Ariake, a Japanese company; my own brand Origin, which features Portuguese craftsmen;
and a children’s furniture brand for Panalogue, another Singapore company. For these projects, I am the overall strategist and I don’t design everything, I help to get good designers on board to work with me. I usually include at least one of my own designs for the brands I direct, as I am still a product designer at the end of the day, but as the art director, I will also have to look at the other designs to ensure that everything goes harmoniously in one collection. We also have to help resolve the technical issues for all the designs. I have to do a lot of writing too, in coming up with the narratives for the designs.

Kelley Cheng: Right now, how big is your team?

Gabriel Tan: We have 5 people – one designer in Portugal, one in Singapore, and 2 business development executives in Singapore, plus myself. Besides design, we also consult on business strategy, hence we need business development and marketing.

Kelley Cheng: Can you share some of the broad business strategies of this new company?

Gabriel Tan: We hope to offer more strategic consultancy besides just providing design services. We can help with business strategies, and help to shape a company, not just in terms of selecting the designers, but also to advise the company on how to distribute, where to sell it, or whether to focus on e-commerce, or connect with retailers, as we are able to recommend suitable retailers or retail channels to them. There’s a lot of synergy in this arrangement, because I design for international retailers such as Conran, Design Within Reach, etc. And for my own brand Origin, we’re selling to good companies around the world, so I have a good global retail network.

Kelley Cheng: How would you describe the philosophy of your practice?

Gabriel Tan: We go beyond design, while design is important, the business aspect is equally critical. I know a lot of designers like to focus only on the design, and they don’t really want to get involved in the business or selling part of things. We want our designs or the brands we work for to feature products that are beautiful and commercially viable at the same time.

Business development is very important for any brand, so we actually spend a lot of time not designing as well. When I am not designing products, I am actually designing processes or strategies for my company or the companies I am working with. I liken it to copywriting, coming up with the brand vision and narratives. I see this also as a form of designing, just that you’re using words, instead of the pencil.

Kelley Cheng: In terms of your own works, are there any principles that you always stick to when you design something?

Gabriel Tan: Yes, if I am designing for a client, I will always respect their brand direction. It’s always 50% us, and 50% about the client and their company, or their target audience. It is not all about us; of course, a designer can always say, okay, this is our style, our studio aesthetic, take it or leave it, but I don’t believe in that way of working. It doesn’t have to be 100% about us, because in that way, we are always constantly challenged and we will be forced to work outside of our comfort zone, and the outcome will always be different.

Let’s say, we are working with a company that prefers more organic forms, then we will try to adapt our language to try something new, and evolve our own design style. For my own designs, I prefer to design in a minimalist style, as it’s often more difficult to do something simple rather than complex. We may start out with an idea that is complex, but we always try to reduce it to its essence. We also believe in combining aesthetics with function, so that it is not just decorative. At the same time, something that is purely functional without beauty is also wrong, I’m not really into the form-follow-function belief as well.

Kelley Cheng: What is the business model when you art direct for other brands? And when you design for your own brand Origins, do you produce them yourself or do you sell these designs to other brands and get royalties?

Gabriel Tan: When we do art direction, we charge an annual retainer for the business side, this will include all the different services such as brand strategy, publicity, social media, etc. Separately, there is a design and curation component, and lastly, if I design something in the collection, there will be royalties for these designs. For Origin, we manage everything ourselves – we will design, work with Portuguese craftsmen to make them, with an agreement that we will buy a certain quantity, and we will stock them in a warehouse and export. I’m slowly growing Origin, I view it as an investment for the future – there is quite a lot of outlay now as I have to pay for the stocks, I have to pay for warehouse rental, and all that. But I believe we will be profitable soon, I’m creating Intellectual Property and building a brand at this moment, and we’re getting into good stores now. My goal is to get them into the top one or two boutiques of each major city, and build from there, currently we are still doing small production runs, because they’re handmade anyway, so we don’t intend for it to be mass-produced in factories.

Kelley Cheng: Would you consider producing any Origin designs in Asia?

Gabriel Tan: We want Origin to be a brand that is tied to where it is made. Now, the brand has a Portuguese narrative, but let’s say, one day I decided to make a collection in Japan, then that collection will be about Japan. For me, an important part of the story is where it’s made. In fact, I focus more on the craftsmen than the designers. The videos are all about the craftsmen, the interviews are with the craftsmen. Sure, the designer’s name will be featured, but I think that the focus should be given more to
the people whose hands shaped the products, rather than the person who drew it; they deserve to share the credit, because I feel there’s a big imbalance in the industry where the craftsman or the factory is always invisible. There’s too much glorification for the designer, which sometimes I feel it’s not right, hence I want to give due credit to the makers as well.

Kelley Cheng: Would you consider Origin a high end brand in terms of pricing?

Gabriel Tan: Yes, it’s definitely higher than most other brands, if you benchmark it against new Nordic brands such as Menu, Hay or Muuto, our prices are maybe 20 to 50% more, but it’s still not super crazy high, considering the quality. If you buy a vase from Origin, it will cost you $250 to $350, so it’s not cheap, but at the same time, each of our products are limited editions of 1 to 25 pieces. We want them to be collectors’ items in the future, which you can resell 10-20 years from now. They are functional
objects, but we want them to have collectors’ value as well.

Kelley Cheng: You’re actually considered quite established in Singapore, where there are not so many furniture designers. Do you feel that it’s difficult to be a furniture designer in Singapore?

Gabriel Tan: Yes, I think it is, if you just want to be a designer, it is quite difficult. For example, in Denmark, there are so many potential clients that you can work with, Sweden, or Italy as well; but in Singapore, how many furniture brands do we have? Just by sheer numbers of potential clients, the designers there will have more opportunities than us. But it is getting better slowly, there is the Design Innovation Program by SFIC to create opportunities for designers, and more furniture manufacturing companies are more aware of the importance of design and willing to work with designers now, but it’s still a growing process. The good side is that there’s less competition in Singapore, as there are not so many full-time furniture designers here; whereas in Europe, everyone is a furniture designer. That’s why we also branch out to undertake art directing, interior design, to diversify our portfolio, so that we don’t just rely on furniture design alone.

But at the same time, whatever jobs I take on, I want to do my best. Some of my product design friends view interior projects they do as bread and butter. But for me, if I take on interior design jobs, then I will embrace it and love it, or I will make myself love it; If not, I wouldn’t do it. It’s the same for art direction, I give equal passion and attention to it as I would do my own design. So that is also my philosophy – if I don’t love it, or cannot excel in it, then I wouldn’t do it.

Kelley Cheng: Do you think we have a Singapore identity in terms of design? Is there something that is Singaporean, that makes us stand out? Do we have a competitive edge over some of our peers in neighbouring countries?

Gabriel Tan: Our advantage is that we don’t have much of a cultural identity attached to our furniture; in a way there is no cultural expectation from a Singaporean designer. Whereas, if it is a Japanese design, or a Chinese design, there is a certain cultural style that you might attach to it. When a foreign brand works with a Singapore designer, there is no expectation on what they should create, simply because people do not know what to expect. Therefore, you can really go with your own aesthetics as a designer.

Kelley Cheng: What are some of the unforgettable challenges and lessons that you have faced in your journey so far?

Gabriel Tan: One of the challenges is to build relationships in the furniture industry. It takes time to build trust and relationships. A lot of furniture brands are family-owned companies, and even their craftsmen have been there for so many years that they are also considered part of our family, even if they’re not blood connected. So, to start a project with a company as such, and get them to accept you – especially if you’re not from their country, or not even from their continent – you really have to show your sincerity, visit them, go to their factory, get to know them, and you cannot push them very hard in the beginning too, or you might just turned them off altogether. You have to build the friendship and the trust first, then maybe in five years’ time, they say, let’s start a project together. So it’s really a very long game, and you need to be very patient.

If I’m genuinely interested in working with a company, then I would invest my time and see where it takes me. If I am impatient, then I would just focus on developing my own brand and forget about designing for other companies, because it is simply too difficult. You have to invest a lot of your time and money on travel to build these relationships, without even knowing if there will be an outcome. At the same time, I always see it as a friendship first, above anything else. So even if in the end I don’t get to design for the company, I see it as a learning experience, because when you visit these factories, you benefit from learning their know-hows. So even if nothing comes out of it, I still gain a friendship.

Sometimes these manufacturers will call me up and ask me, ‘’Do you know this supplier in Asia?’’ Or, ‘’Can you recommend someone to me?’’ We share information and that works well. If I need to produce something for one of my brands, I also can ask them for a factory recommendation. In that way, it’s nice to build a kind of fraternity.

Kelley Cheng: Was there ever a point in your journey that you thought of giving up?

Gabriel Tan: Yes, when I first started Gabriel Tan Studio, my first projects were really random. It was to design an Indian saree shop and a Vietnamese nail spa, both are clients with no budget, they are recommended by family and friends out of goodwill to help me get started. One was my mother-in-law’s friend because she’s in the spa business and one is my father’s friend who’s the Indian saree shop owner. We spent so much time designing everything, and then in the end when we showed them the design and saw the contractor’s quote, they were both scared away by the renovation costs, because the expectation was that they wanted to renovate for 30-40k, instead of 100k. So in the end, they were like, “we will pay you, but we are not going to execute the design”, because they probably felt so bad that we did so much work, so they just wanted to compensate us for the time and quickly say goodbye.

Those were my first two projects and I was really eager to see them built, maybe I was still very idealistic, so when it didn’t happen, my heart really sank. We spent 9 years building Out of Stock, and I had to start all over again, at that point I do feel a bit demoralised, but thankfully things started to pick up after the initial setbacks, and we were stabilised within 12 months.

Kelley Cheng: Why did your collective Out of Stock decide to go separate ways?

Gabriel Tan: We never officially separate or shut down, but it was a unanimous decision to focus on our own practices. And if the opportunity arises, we can still come back together to work on a project in the future, so it is not like we close off all possibilities. We are still good friends.

Kelley Cheng: Can you tell us some of the highlights of your career?

Gabriel Tan: With Ariake, I really learned a lot and also, it was a very satisfying project because they were my first furniture client after I started. I met these 2 Japanese furniture manufacturers – Legnatec and Hirata Chair – in 2016 at the IFFS (International Furniture Fair Singapore), shortly after I started my studio. They had a stand at the IFFS, I was a bit surprised because you don’t usually see Japanese brands showing here. I was curious, so I spoke to them. They shared that they wanted to export to Singapore because it is nearby, and it is an affluent city. But as the prices of their furniture were much higher than all the other stands around them, so while there was interest in their products, there was very little sales at the fair.

After meeting them, I kept in touch with their agent, a Japanese man who lives in Singapore. One day, he came to my office and asked if I can design a collection for them, to show at the IFFS the following year in 2017, because they have booked a stand for three consecutive years. He suggested that I could visit the factory at my own expense. So I bought a ticket and went to Japan and visited their factory in Morodomi, Saga Prefecture. The 2 companies – one makes chairs, and the other one makes cabinets and tables, they always share a stand at furniture shows. The factories are in an agricultural area and there are some nice landscapes. It’s not the most exciting place, but I felt that there was a potential to create an interesting story. So I suggested that instead of just commissioning me to design, we can create a new brand together instead. I convinced them that we can do something much bigger, I can invite more designers, bring in graphic and branding people, photographer, and I can create a new export brand for

They agreed on the condition that I work within the same budget, whether I design a collection by myself, or if I want to spend it on inviting other people to collaborate, it was up to me. So that was how Ariake was born. I agreed to do that for the first year, then we launched it at IFFS, it was moderately successful. It could have ended there, just a pat on the back, and that’s it, something nice for my portfolio. I got a few designers to join me, like Keiji Ashizawa, Staffan Holm, and Anderssen & Voll, etc. So 4 of us did the 1st collection.

Then, I pushed Ariake to do a second collection. So we did another workshop that year, end of 2016 to develop a new collection for 2017. I invited Norm Architects, Shin Azumi, and a few more designers. At that time, we didn’t even have an idea where we would show it. When we were there, the European designers persuaded the owners to bring the collection to the Stockholm Furniture Fair, as it will be good exposure for the new brand. After a few drinks, the owners said, ‘’Okay, let’s do it.’’

But the catch was, the budget was insanely low, they are only willing to fork out 5000 euros and I was thinking, this  as my student budget at Milan Satellite, but it was pretty much ‘’Take it or leave it.’’ So we had to try and look for a free venue essentially. My friend, Staffan, one of the designers for Ariake, he made some calls, and the editor of My Residence magazine, Hannah Nova Beatrice, saw our collection and fell in love with it. So she agreed to help us find a free venue to exhibit.

She found a house that was waiting to be renovated and in the midst of being gutted out, and the owner kindly agreed to let Ariake show there. So I went to Stockholm, and the house was basically like a construction site, full of rubble and dust. Me, Staffan and the other designers were there, we had to shovel all the rocks and keep them in one of the rooms to make space. It was really back-breaking work, we were like labourers, carrying furniture up three flights of stairs, and we had to do all the work
ourselves since we didn’t have the money to hire any help. At that point, at first, I was thinking, “What the hell are we doing?” It reminded me of our Milan Satellite Show back in 2007, when we just started out as students. All the designers, we were just thinking – hope this is all worth it.

Thank god it did pay off, the exhibition was a success despite the fact that we could not publicise it, as  he owner didn’t want us to broadcast his address. So it was a “secret exhibition”, and people loved it. In the end, so many people came, they managed to find the place. And according to Hannah, we actually started a new trend where people started doing this type of “secret exhibitions” from then on.

After that, the second year, we did Stockholm design week again, this time we found a church, it was rented at a very good price, because the church doesn’t know how to charge us. They said, ‘’2000 euros a day” and I told them we are designers and have no money, ‘’Can we do 1000?’’ And they said okay!

The Church space was amazing so you didn’t need to spend much on exhibition design. Again it was well-received and we evolved. This year, we did the show at the National Archives of Sweden. This time, we really wanted to do something bigger than the past two years. So we rented the National Archive, which is a wedding venue these days. Very historic building, 500 square meters, huge space. But Ariake has a bigger budget this time, because now the company is growing and they have some government funding as well. But we needed brands to collaborate as it is a big space, so I invited Le Klint lighting, 2016/Arita ceramics from Japan, and Friends and Founders from Denmark, it was the biggest show we have ever done. It was just before Covid-19, so that was a high point for me, where we really see the fruits of building up a brand over three years. It is something that really grew from nothing to something, so that was really an amazing feeling.

Kelley Cheng: How many countries is it distributing to at the moment?

Gabriel Tan: Around 15.

Kelley Cheng: What’s the most difficult object or furniture that you have designed before?

Gabriel Tan: The vase – called Aer – that I did with Menu recently was quite difficult. They wanted a very sculptural glass vase, inspired by Scandinavian tradition. Of course, the Alvar Aalto vase was one of the key references. They said, ‘’We want something to be as iconic as this, but it has to be different. It has to be a new interpretation of the Aalto vase, but with the Menu DNA and something that looks current.’’

So it’s very difficult – how do you do a vase that is better than Alvar Aalto, and at the same time, have an organic and liquid light quality? For this project, we work a lot with 3D modelling. You can sketch out your design, but in the end, you need a 3D printer to be able to make the mould negative for the glass blowers to blow in. In terms of modelling skills, we had to push our studio to the limit – how do you model something that looks like water? It’s not so easy.

In the end, the product was successful, it’s selling well. At first, I was very nervous how people would perceive it. A guy from Asia, designing a vase that is trying to be Alvar Aalto or Scandivanian, but thankfully, the market embraced it. It sells well and fulfills the brief, so MENU is very happy.

Kelley Cheng: What are some of these new materials that you have worked with?

Gabriel Tan: Coming to Portugal the first time years ago, I visited this cork factory, and I knew instantly that I wanted to work with this material some day. It’s a very green material, the corks here are all taken from used wine cork stoppers. They recycle and turn them into products, like molded products or flat sheets, which you can cut and make panels and other things. I had this idea of using this cork material as acoustic panels. Conventionally, acoustic panels are usually made with molded felt, or upholstered, so they are difficult to clean. Also, you cannot cut these felt panels, and you need to work with the stand

So I met up with Peter Jiseborn , the CEO of Abstracta, a Swedish brand specialising in acoustic materials and proposed to them to use this cork material as acoustic panels. Peter loves the idea as he loves wine as well. So I brought him to visit the factory in Portugal, I showed him the panel I designed and he liked it. I named the product Sahara panels as they are inspired by sand dunes , and you can rotate the direction of each panel. I connected Peter to the Portugal factory and now this factory produces my
designs and Abstracta does the distribution and marketing under their brand.

Kelley Cheng: In relation to what you just shared, what is your take on sustainability in design, which is a big thing for many brands and company? Also, do you think that technology has changed the way you conceptualise your design?

Gabriel Tan: In order to design products that are sustainable, or use new materials that are sustainable, the only way is to visit more factories and be aware of how they do things. These production factories are usually not design companies, you don’t see beautiful products at their factories, but you learn how they process raw materials into finished products. Then, it is up to you to imagine the possibilities that you could do with it. For me, sustainability shouldn’t be an afterthought. Before you start designing, you should already be thinking about it – what material is more sustainable, before you have any form in mind. That is more effective. When I visit a factory that has sustainable practices, I would view them as a starting point, and maybe I can work with them, then maybe I will find the right brand to partner with them to carry the product, because a lot of brands don’t have their own factories anyway, and they buy from different factories. In some ways, I’m also helping the factories because they get a new customer and they get more business, but I’m also helping the brand to come up with a new product that they don’t already have.

Kelley Cheng: With technology like 3D printing and so and so forth, do you think that has changed the way you design?

Gabriel Tan: Yes. For example, the Aer vase would not be possible without 3D printing. It also made the development time very much shorter. Same for the Sahara panels. We had to do a lot of 3D modelling to get that exact shape. Then from there, they make the mold, and do the injection molding. Even with Origin, when we do sand-casting, we use a 3D printer to make the mold positive, it speeds up the product development so much. In the past, you have to find a model maker to carve the shape you want
out of wood, or out of some material to make them mold positive, and you will not even get the exact shape you want, it takes so much more time.

Kelley Cheng: So technology has enabled more freedom and liberty in your design?

Gabriel Tan: Yes. But you lose a bit of human touch too, because in the past, after you sketch something, you go to a 3D modeller, and he will carve it out. Then, you will tell him, this part carve a little less, this part maybe a little more. So it is much more tactile – it will not be perfect but that is also the beauty. With technology, you can make things more perfect. So there is a good side, but at the same time, something is lost too. That’s why for Origin, we create products that are completely handmade as
well. Some of our ceramic products, every single piece is slightly different because the potter is actually throwing on the wheel with his hands, and there is beauty in that.

Kelley Cheng: SFIC has launched the Design Innovation Program, and we understand that you are collaborating with Verotec to design and create a series of door handles. Can you tell us more about it?

Gabriel Tan: I’ve known Mark Yong of Verotec for a number of years, and we’ve been good friends. He was sharing with me about this slow rebound door handle mechanism that he is working on, it is like a dampening mechanical system – when you depress the handle, it will rebound slowly and silently. He told me that nobody else in the market is doing this. I said, ‘’Okay, if you really can develop this system, then we should do something together. I can get good designers and architects to design for you, and I can also of course, contribute my design. We can brand it and challenge the incumbents like Olivari and Kawajun, who are the few design-driven door handle brands. There are probably less than five brands globally who are doing designer handles, so competition wise, it’s very small, compared to furniture. Of course, there were two ways to go, one is, just develop the mechanism and be an OEM and offer it as a technology to other brands. But I felt strongly that we should develop our own designs and eventually, you can still be an OEM to other brands, like how Tesla is making batteries for General Motors. Mark
was very brave, and he said, “Okay, let’s do it.” So I got Snohetta, Marcio Kogan, Neri & Hu, Norm Architects, and other famous designers on board to work on a series of door handles. A lot of time was invested in getting these designers on board, and I also helped to structure the deals with all the designers so that everyone is treated fairly and paid reasonably.

Kelley Cheng: Do you have a dream project?

Gabriel Tan: I would love to work on a small hotel where I can design every aspect of it – the furniture, the lighting, down to the fork and knife, the cups and the plates, where everything is bespoke and customised for the hotel. I can design some of the items and curate and invite other designers as well. It will be like a pure bespoke experience, as opposed to hotels where they just buy furniture that is available on the market. Actually, I am talking to a hotel owner in Portugal. They approached me because they were interested in Origin, and this led to a discussion for me to design everything in the hotel. I don’t know if this will eventually happen, but they’re interested to explore this idea of having everything bespoke and specially designed.

Kelley Cheng: What is your advice for aspiring young furniture designers?

Gabriel Tan: You need to find your own path. Some people might want to focus purely on furniture design, and they don’t want to diversify, that’s also fine. There are many people who have done that successfully. There is no formula that can be duplicated, because in the end, the journey is about understanding yourself. My first 9 years with Out of Stock was a lot about working with partners, it was very fun, and you feel like this camaraderie working with your peers to build something together. But at the same time, during those years, I was trying to understand what I want, what I value more, because sometimes, in a collective, you work on projects that the team decides, and it might not be what you like. But having said that, when you’re young and you are inexperienced, you need to try different things to know what you’re good at. So gaining a broad based experience in the beginning is necessary – be it working for other people, or just taking on different types of challenges, and getting out of your comfort zone.

Like I mentioned before, if somebody decides to do interior design, in addition to furniture design, then he or she should really embrace himself as also an interior designer. If you are doing interior design, it really means that you are already an interior designer, and you are full-on in this profession, and you should put in the same effort as you do for the furniture design. Don’t be known as a furniture designer who happens to do some interiors.

[Interview with Gabriel Tan, of Gabriel Tan Studio/Singapore By Kelley Cheng]

Photos: Gabriel Tan

7 October 2020