GABRIEL TAN

Product Design

Gabriel Tan Studio

http://www.gabriel-tan.com/

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, art directing and creating brands for companies outside of Singapore, carving his own niche as a wunderkind in the world of furniture and beyond.
  • Education

    B.A. INDUSTRIAL DESIGN, NUS

  • Education (Exchange Programme)

    ÉCOLE CANTONALE D’ART DE LAUSANNE

  • Previous Jobs

    CO-FOUNDER OF OUT OF STOCK (2007-2016)

  • Founded Company in

    2016

  • 1st Office

    SERANGOON GARDENS

  • Team Size - 1st Office

    01 WITH ROTATING INTERNS

  • Current Office Singapore

    HYTHE ROAD

  • Current Team Size (Singapore)

    03

  • Current Office Portugal

    Porto, Portugal

  • Current Team Size (Portugal)

    03

  • 2005

    Wins the Bombay Sapphire Designer Glass Competition at Tokyo Design Week. Wins the Electrolux Design Lab Award at Future Design Days in Stockholm.

  • 2006

    Graduates from NUS with a Bachelors of Arts in Industrial Design. Attends an exchange programme at École cantonale d’art de Lausanne in Switzerland.

  • 2007

    Exhibits at Milan Design Week. Co-founds furniture design brand OutofStock Design with Gustavo Maggio, Sebastián Alberdi and Wendy Chua.

  • 2010

    OutofStock wins President’s Design of the Year award for the Black Forest Table.

  • 2016

    Gabriel Tan Studio is founded. Moves into office in Hythe Road. Joins Japanese furniture brand Ariake as Creative Director. Founds interior design brand Studio Antimatter.

  • 2017

    Joins Singapore door handle brand Turn as Creative Director.

  • 2019

    Founds craft object brand Origins in Portugal

  • 2020

    Moves from Singapore to Portugal.

From Nothing to Something: A Journey Beyond Design

By Kelley Cheng, 2 July 2021

Can you tell us about Gabriel Tan Studio?

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.

Right now, how big is your team?

We have five people—one designer in Portugal, one in Singapore, and two business development executives in Singapore, plus myself. Besides design, we also consult on business strategy, hence we need business development and marketing.

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

We aim to offer more strategic consultancy alongside design services. We can play a crucial role in influencing business strategies and shaping companies, not just in terms of design specifics, but also to provide advice on marketing, PR and sales strategies. For example, based on our knowledge of the design scenes in various markets, we can provide advice on focus sales markets, distribution channels like offline versus e-commerce, and even connect companies with our network of distributors and retailers. Since I already design for various international retailers such as The Conran Shop, Design Within Reach, etc. and due to my work on Origin, I already have established good relationships with prominent retailers around the globe, and my clients ultimately can benefit from this.

Some designers prefer to spend their time only on design, and are not interested to get involved in the business side of things. However, we want our designs or the brands we work for to feature products that are both beautiful and commercially viable at the same time.

How would you describe the philosophy of your practice?

Our Studio understands that while design is important, the business aspect is equally critical. Some designers prefer to spend their time only on design, and are not interested to get involved in the business side of things. However, we want our designs or the brands we work for to feature products that are both beautiful and commercially viable at the same time.

Business development is very important for any brand, so we spend a lot of time on that as well. When I am not designing products, I am designing processes or strategies for companies. I liken it to copywriting; coming up with the brand vision and narratives. I actually view this as a form of designing, just that we are communicating with words, instead of visual graphics or images.

When I am not designing products, I am designing processes or strategies for companies. I liken it to copywriting; coming up with the brand vision and narratives. I actually view this as a form of designing, just that we are communicating with words, instead of visual graphics or images.

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

Yes, if I am designing for a client, I will always respect their brand direction. We have to strike a balance between the client’s desired brand direction, as well as the Studio’s advised strategy. I don’t believe in forcing a client to conform entirely to a design studio’s design aesthetic or beliefs. By respecting the client’s direction, the Studio can be constantly challenged to work outside of our comfort zone, and the partnership with the client can lead to different yet beautiful outcomes. For example, if we are working with a company that prefers more organic forms, we will then try to adapt our language to try something new and evolve our own design style.

For my own designs, my preference is a minimalist style, as it is often more difficult to create 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 we do not just produce decorative objects. At the same time, something that is purely functional without beauty is not ideal for us as designers.

For my own designs, my preference is a minimalist style, as it is often more difficult to create something simple rather than complex

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?

In our art direction work, we charge an annual retainer for business development work which typically includes brand strategy, publicity, social media marketing, sales strategies etc. Separately, there is a design and curation component. Lastly, if I do design something for the collection, there will be royalties for these designs.

For my own brand Origin, we manage the entire brand and company. We devise the brand identity and strategy, provide and curate designs, work with Portuguese craftsmen on the production side, manage inventory, sell and distribute our products both domestically within the EU and internationally like Scandinavia, the US, Canada and Japan.

Origin is a project that will take time to grow. As the owner, I had to bear the capital outlay for the business, but I believe we will reap the rewards in time to come. We have created a strong brand identity that has been featured in good global design magazines, and our products are already being stocked in well-respected stores around the world. My goal is to get Origin into the top one or two best design boutiques of each major city and continue to grow from there. As handcrafted objects, our production run is considered small, and as much as possible we want to avoid going down the route of mass-production in factories. Of course, we will have to evolve our production strategy as sales demand increases, but we want to stay true to the brand identity and what we have communicated with customers.

Would you consider producing any Origin designs in Asia?

Origin is a brand that communicates stories about the source, production techniques and makers of design objects. Currently, the brand has a Portuguese narrative, but our goal is to create other collections from other countries and makers as well. Although I am a designer, with Origin I focus more on the craftsmen than the designers. The videos we create focus on featuring the craftsmen, while the interviews we make are also with the craftsmen. The designer’s name will be featured, but we are giving more emphasis to the people whose hands have shaped the products, rather than the person who drew up the design. Producers deserve to be properly credited, and I feel there has been an imbalance in the industry as the craftsman or the factory tends to be invisible as compared to the designer.

We are giving more emphasis to the people whose hands have shaped the products, rather than the person who drew up the design.

Would you consider Origin a high-end brand in terms of pricing?

Yes I would. If you compare Origin against new Nordic brands such as Menu, Hay or Muuto, our prices are higher, but they are still affordable, especially considering the quality of the materials and workmanship behind each product. Our items are not cheap relative to mass-produced items, but at the same time, each of our products so far is numbered limited editions of one to 25 pieces. We want Origin objects to be seen as collectors’ items in the future, which have resale value 10 - 20 years from now. These are functional objects, but we want them to have collectors’ value as well.

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?

Yes, I think it is. Compared to a designer in Denmark, Sweden or Italy where there are so many potential clients (i.e. furniture brands) that you can work with, in Singapore we do not have many homegrown furniture brands that are design-oriented. Just by the sheer number of potential clients, the designers in those markets will have more opportunities than us. But I would say the industry in Singapore has been slowly developing in a positive way—there is the Design Innovation Program by SFIC to create opportunities for designers, and more furniture manufacturing companies are becoming aware of the importance of design and are willing to work with designers now.

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, there are many more furniture designers. To deal with the market limitation, we have diversified beyond furniture design to undertake art directing and interior design projects as well. But I must say that I do not prioritize product design work above art direction and interior design, I find them all synergistic with each other and I feel equally passionate about each of these areas.

I do not prioritize product design work above art direction and interior design, I find them all synergistic with each other and I feel equally passionate about each of these areas.

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 neighboring countries?

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, there is more freedom for you to go with your own aesthetics as a designer.

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

One challenge has been to build relationships in the furniture industry as it takes time to build trust, especially when the other person comes from a different country and culture. Many 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. My experience has been that to start a project with such a company, especially if you are not from their country or even their continent, it helps to show your sincerity by visiting them in person to build the friendship and trust organically. Genuine relationships take time and effort to foster, so patience is key. I suppose this applies to any business as well.


If I am genuinely interested in designing for a particular furniture brand, I would definitely invest my time and see where it takes me, even if this is a difficult and long process which requires a commitment to frequent travelling and bearing the costs as such. Time and money have to be invested without guarantees of an outcome. However for me, I always see it as a friendship first above anything else, and I do enjoy meeting new people and building long-lasting friendships. Therefore even if in the end I do not end up working with the company, I view it as a learning experience anyway, because when you visit these factories, you learn about their history, methods and strategic direction. And at the end of the day, a friendship gained is worth it to me.

Time and money have to be invested without guarantees of an outcome. However for me, I always see it as a friendship first above anything else.

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

Yes, when I first started Gabriel Tan Studio, it was quite difficult as I had to take whichever projects came my way. The first was to design an Indian saree shop and the second was a nail spa. Both clients had very limited budgets and were recommended by family and friends out of goodwill to help me get started. We spent a lot of time on the designs but both clients decided to shelve their projects after they saw the contractor’s quote. In the end, they paid for the design service to compensate for our time but did not proceed to execute the projects due to cost considerations. Those were my first two projects and I was really eager to see them built, so when it did not happen, I felt very disappointed. We had spent nine years building Out of Stock, and it was not easy for me to start all over again, but thankfully I did not give up and the Studio has only continued to grow since then.

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

We actually never officially separated or shut down, but it was a unanimous decision to focus on our individual practices in the near term as each of us was interested to pursue different aspects of design at that juncture. When the opportunity arises, we can reunite to work on a project together in the future. We are all still good friends who keep in close contact with each other.

Can you tell us some of the highlights of your career?

One of the highlights of my career is definitely art directing the Ariake brand. Ariake was a very satisfying project because they were my first furniture client after I started. I first met these two Japanese furniture manufacturers—Legnatec and Hirata Chair—in 2016 at the IFFS (International Furniture Fair Singapore), shortly after I started my studio. The owners had wanted to export to Singapore because it is nearby, and it is an affluent city. But the prices of their furniture were much higher than all the other stands around them, so while there was interest in their products, there were limited sales at the fair.

After some time, I was asked to design a collection for Legnatec and Hirata Chair, to show at the IFFS in 2017. I was invited to visit the factory at my own expense, so I bought a ticket to Japan and visited their factory in Morodomi, Saga Prefecture. The two companies—one makes chairs, and the other one makes cabinets and tables—always share a stand at furniture shows. The factories are in an agricultural area with some nice landscapes. Morodomi is not the most well-known 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 for both existing companies, we could create a new brand together. I convinced them that we could do something much bigger, where instead of only my designs, I could invite other famous designers, graphic and branding teams, a photographer, to create a new brand with an aesthetic that would appeal globally and become respected in the design world. That was how Ariake was born.

Ariake was launched at IFFS in the first year with moderate success, showing designs from a few other designers I had invited like Keiji Ashizawa, Staffan Holm, and Anderssen & Voll, alongside myself.

I then persuaded Ariake to do a second collection. We conducted our second workshop in Japan at the end of 2016 to develop a new collection for 2017. This time I invited Norm Architects, Shin Azumi, and a few other designers to attend the workshop and brainstorm together with the factories to create a larger collection. During the workshop, the European designers persuaded the owners to bring the collection to the Stockholm Furniture Fair, as it would be good exposure for the new brand. After a few drinks, the owners agreed, with the constraint that they did not want to spend too much on exhibiting. Hence it was our task to search for a free venue. Through our contacts, we found a beautiful townhouse apartment that was waiting to be renovated and in the midst of being gutted out, so the owner kindly agreed to let Ariake show there. It was tiring to set up a furniture exhibition in a space that was full of construction rubble with no lights, but thankfully our efforts paid off massively. The exhibition was a success even though we could not publicise it, as the owner did not want us to broadcast his address. Hence we marketed it by word-of-mouth as a “secret exhibition”. So many people were curious and spread the word, such that we had a wonderful turnout.

Ariake started to gain a strong following after the exhibition in Stockholm, and for the third collection, we decided to return to Stockholm again. This time around, we rented a space within a beautiful church. The space itself was very charming and many people came to the exhibition just to see the space, and how the furniture and the space complemented each other. In our latest exhibition, we chose to show at the National Archives of Sweden—a venue much bigger and grander than the previous exhibition. It is encouraging to everyone in the Ariake project to witness the brand growing, having bigger budgets and government support to grow and take bigger decisions. In this biggest show that we have done, I played a part in inviting Le Klint lighting, 2016/Arita ceramics from Japan, and Friends and Founders from Denmark to collaborate in exhibiting. This show happened just before the Covid-19 pandemic, so that was a high point for me, where we really saw 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.

It [Ariake] is something that really grew from nothing to something.

How many countries is it distributing to at the moment?

Around 15.

What's the most difficult object or furniture that you have designed before?

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.’’ It was challenging to design a vase that could be just as good or even better than Alvar Aalto’s vase, and at the same time, have an organic and liquid light quality. For this project, we worked a lot with 3D modelling in order to make the mould negative for the glassblowers 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 has been very successful commercially and my client Menu is very happy.

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

Coming to Portugal the first time years ago, I had visited this cork factory, and I knew instantly that I wanted to work with this material someday. Cork is a very green material, as it can be recycled from used wine cork stoppers and turned into products, like moulded products or flat sheets, which can be cut to make panels and other things. I came up with the idea of using this cork material as acoustic panels. Conventionally, acoustic panels are usually made with moulded felt or upholstered, so they are difficult to clean. Also, it is not easy to cut these felt panels, and you need to work with standard modules. Hence if you need your acoustic wall end-to-end, you will tend to end up with a white border around your wall.

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. I took him to visit the factory in Portugal and showed him the panel I designed. I named the product Sahara as they are inspired by sand dunes, and you can rotate the direction of each panel. I am glad to say that now this factory produces my designs and Abstracta does the distribution and marketing under their brand.

In relation to what you just shared, what is your take on sustainability in design, which is a big thing for many brands and companies?

In order to design products that are sustainable, or use new materials that are sustainable, the only way is to visit more factories and to learn about how they do things. These production factories are usually not design companies. You don't usually see beautiful products at their factories, but you can learn about how they process raw materials into finished products. Then, it is up to you to imagine the possibilities available via their processes, skills and technology. For me, sustainability is not an afterthought. Before I start designing, I consider sustainability aspects such as the material chosen, before I have any form in mind. When I visit a factory that has sustainable practices, I would view them as a starting point to begin my work, then perhaps later on I could find the right brand to partner with this factory to carry the product. I see my role as helping the factories because they get a new customer and can make more sales, and on the other hand, I am also helping the brand to come up with a new product that they might not already have.

For me, sustainability is not an afterthought. Before I start designing, I consider sustainability aspects such as the material chosen, before I have any form in mind.

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

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 mould and do the injection moulding. Even with Origin, when we do sand-casting, we use a 3D printer to make the mould 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 mould positive, and you will not even get the exact shape you want, it takes so much more time.

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

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. You will have to communicate with him (often in person) to adjust the carves. The experience is much more tactile—it will not be perfect but that is also the beauty. With technology, you can make things more perfect in a more efficient manner. So there is a good side, but at the same time, something is lost too. That is why for Origin, we create products that are handmade as well. For 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. Beauty is sometimes lost when everything is perfect and identical.

Beauty is sometimes lost when everything is perfect and identical.

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?

I’ve known Mark Yong of Verotec for a number of years, and we've been good friends. He was sharing with me about a slow rebound door handle mechanism that he was developing, a dampening mechanical system which works such that when you depress the handle, it will rebound slowly and silently. We understood that this mechanism was not widespread yet. I suggested to him to create a door handle brand with beautiful designs and utilizing this slow rebound technology. We could 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 is very small compared to furniture. Of course, Mark could just develop the mechanism as an OEM and offer it as a technology to other brands. But I felt strongly that we should develop our own designs and eventually, the OEM option would still be available, like how Tesla is making batteries for General Motors. Mark was convinced. I managed to invite Snohetta, Marcio Kogan, Neri & Hu, Norm Architects, and other famous designers to come on board to work on a series of door handles. A lot of time was invested in getting these designers to trust a new brand from Singapore and to come on board.

Do you have a dream project?

I would love to work on a design-centric hotel where I can design every aspect of it—the furniture, the lighting, down to the cutlery, cups and plates, where everything is bespoke and customised for the hotel. I could design some of the items and curate and invite other designers as well. It would be like a pure bespoke experience, as opposed to hotels which just purchase furniture available on the market.

What is your advice for aspiring young furniture designers?

Young furniture designers need to find their own path. Some people might want to focus purely on furniture design and not 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 I enjoyed the camaraderie working with my peers to build something together. But at the same time, during those years, I was trying to understand my personal direction and what I value more, because sometimes, in a collective, you work on projects that the team decides, instead of your own choice. But having said that, when you are young and inexperienced, it is helpful to try different things to know what you like and what you are good at. 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.

There is no formula that can be duplicated, because in the end, the journey is about understanding yourself.

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