Empathetic DesignGabriel Tan's Singapore Studio
"In the languorous atmosphere of the evening, I consider the poetic quality of Gabriel’s creations: rooted in his dedication to functional, human-centric design"
Aside from the dancing shadows and susurration of stray coconut trees, I step into a residential street sheathed in stillness. Populated by single-storey houses — a rarity amongst Singapore’s crowded real estate — it is an unexpected place for a design studio. In the light of the late afternoon sun, I nudge open the gate of an austere semi-detached home, and meet with the equally unassuming Gabriel Tan, a local product and furniture designer whose creations feature at The Conran Shop, Design Within Reach and Blå Station.
Tan’s studio evokes a sense of pensive nostalgia: its anachronistic features — terrazzo, jalousie windows, glazed patterned tiles — are reminiscent of Singapore in the 1970s. I feel as if I’ve stumbled into a film set. Whilst removing my shoes, the first thing that catches my eye is a compact three-legged chair, delicately hung on the wall, akin to a revered artefact. The piece was conceived during a design workshop that explored how the American Shaker movement continues to influence present-day design. Tan was inspired by their custom of suspending furniture on peg rails, so as to make way for their communal activities. He intuitively felt this idiosyncratic practice would translate well to the dwindling size of homes in today’s dense megalopolises.
More often than not, it is Tan’s deep urge for collaboration that uncovers pathways to his creative solutions. “I’m especially interested in how design enables me to connect with people from different backgrounds and trades, allowing us to push each other to the next level,” he says passionately. This natural inclination is encapsulated in his role as Creative Director of Ariake, a furniture brand established by two Japanese producers, Hirata Chair and Legnatec. While the founders had originally enlisted Tan to create products for the Singapore market, he encouraged them to include other cosmopolitan cities in their vision. Steeled with the ambition to forge a collection that transcended Southeast Asia, Tan invited designers from across the globe — including Anderssen & Voll, Keiji Ashizawa, and Staffan Holm — to partake in a design workshop held at Morodomi, Japan. “The goal was to find an aesthetic balance that was both sensitive to Ariake’s Japanese roots, and relevant to contemporary cities around the world,” he says. Embodying an organic, bottom-up approach to the creative process, the culturally diverse team of designers lived, worked, and dined together for several weeks, buoyed by the belief that strong, synergistic relationships between them would yield sublime furniture. Their openness to this degree of collaboration, combined with their shared spectrum of ideas, bore fruit at 2018’s Stockholm Design Week, where one of Ariake’s first exhibitions sprang to life.
Tan’s heartfelt interest in people found new focus when he was researching wicker-weaving in Madeira, Portugal. He came to learn that the archipelago’s craft culture was plunging into obscurity, as many makers had forsaken the profession to pursue careers in tourism. In the hope of keeping the flame burning, Tan founded Origin: a brand centred on handmade objects, birthed from a dialogue between Portuguese makers and international designers, such as Hallgeir Homstvedt and Zoë Mowat. “If I can promote artisanship through this endeavour, perhaps Madeira’s next generation will find reason to preserve their rich heritage,” he says, with marked sincerity.
With the sunlight gradually withdrawing from the studio, I press Tan to share the capstone of his illustrious journey so far. He purses his lips in contemplation, and eventually shares that unveiling Ariake’s exhibition, A Quiet Reflection at Stockholm Design Week, stands at the apex. From clearing away the debris in the decrepit apartment that was to host the show, to hauling the furniture up the stairs, the entire Ariake team scrambled to pull everything together, with limited resources. He recounts: “Given that we were unsure whether the show would work out or not, when guests responded positively — with some exploring the space for more than an hour, absorbed in good conversation — I immediately felt that all our effort had been worthwhile.”
As our conversation draws to a close, I retreat into the labyrinthine neighbourhood streets, dimly lit by crouching lampposts. In the languorous atmosphere of the evening, I consider the poetic quality of Gabriel’s creations: rooted in his dedication to functional, human-centric design, and upheld by beauty and empathy.