Singapore–born product and furniture designer Gabriel Tan has built a career that thrives on travel and collaboration across borders. He’s the founder of three companies including his eponymous studio and Portuguese accessories brand 'Origin', and he’s also the creative director for Japanese furniture brand Ariake Collection. Gabriel's work has been recognized with the Industrial Designers Society of America's IDEA Award, Japan's Good Design Award, Singapore's President's Design Award, and he’s exhibited at design fairs worldwide. His creations traverse disciplines and crafts and are built by teams spread across many countries. In 2020, he moved to Porto to be closer to traditional craftspeople, manufacturers, and his European clients. We chat to Gabriel about the preservation of endangered traditional artisanship, exploring lesser–known destinations and partnering with peers from around the globe.
On how creativity has taken you around the globe
Design really gave me the opportunity to see other parts of the world. In my third year at the National University of Singapore, I decided to focus my efforts on external competitions. In 2005, I was fortunate to win the Bombay Sapphire Designer Glass Competition at Tokyo Design Week and the Electrolux Design Lab Award at Future Design Days in Stockholm. I then had sponsored trips to present my works and attend both international design events. Neither fair exists anymore but they were really eye-opening for me.
On creating work that takes you across borders
In 2006, I did an exchange program in Switzerland at the ECAL (École cantonale d’art de Lausanne), leading to exposure to Milan Design Week and having teachers like Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, Florence Doléac and Christophe Marchand. I could hear about their first–hand experiences working with some of the best furniture companies and how they got there. Before graduating I founded a collective called Outofstock Design with one of my classmates and two Argentinian designers whom I had met at the Electrolux Design Lab finals in Stockholm. We were showing our furniture prototypes at Milan Design Week for three consecutive years before we got our first break with French furniture company Ligne Roset.
Working together with my partners at Outofstock for almost 10 years before starting my individual practice gave me the experience to work across borders and across time zones effectively. One partner was in Barcelona, another was in Buenos Aires, and we were working together on projects for clients locally and around the world from 2007 to 2016. It was challenging at times, but never a problem. Since 2016 I have been running my own practices Gabriel Tan Studio for furniture design and creative direction and Studio Antimatter for interior design. I then launched craft objects brand Origin in 2019.
On your relationship with Porto before moving
I started visiting Porto often, three years ago. I was looking for a city to set up a European base, so that I was closer to current and potential furniture clients from Europe and the US. And also to start my own accessories brand. I found Porto to be the ideal place because you have quality manufacturers and craftsmen within an hour’s drive from the city.
I’d considered many places: Barcelona, Valencia, London, even Zürich. If I went to London or Zürich, it wouldn’t be to have a craft base but for a more international city to set up a design consultancy. For cities like Valencia or Porto, I was thinking more about being close to manufacturing.
The nature of my work was that I was traveling to Europe more and more. Before I moved to Porto, I was coming to Europe making long–haul trips around four times a year. It made more sense to have a European base where I could spend at least six months a year in Porto and the rest of the time in Singapore.
I found Porto to be the ideal place because you have all these quality manufacturers and craftsmen within an hour’s drive from the city.
On using this experience in a business context
The experience also helped me to formulate strategies for the brands I am creative director for like Ariake and Turn Handles, where I coordinate with designers and clients across different time zones, fostering the ability for everyone to work on a common project. It was a similar way of working to what I experienced with Outofstock Design, but applied on a larger scale with more stakeholders involved.
On finding a community in Porto
It was all pretty organic. I looked at the designers that were based in Porto and contacted the ones whose works I admired. First, it was just drinks and dinner, and then after that, I told them about my idea of maybe starting a brand here, and they shared my excitement and vision for a home accessories brand promoting Portuguese craftsmanship and offered their help.
Porto–based designers like Christian Haas, Rui Alves, Hugo Passos, went with me to most of the initial craftsmen’s visits. I am grateful especially to Rui who was generous with his time and took me to many craftsmen that he knew. This trio were also the first designers that I invited to design for Origin.
I also met Luis De Oliveira, the co-founder of renowned furniture manufacturer De La Espada and I had the opportunity to visit their factory that is one hour by car from Porto. It’s not open to the public, but if you’re an architect or interior designer, a factory tour here would be a great experience if they agree to the special request, just to witness their impeccable craftsmanship.
Some parts of Porto give me a feeling that time has stood still. Its architectural heritage is very much intact and preserved compared to many other cities.
On why travel is essential for designing new furniture
Our field is very analogue. Furniture design is about people, economics and also craft and production. A lot of furniture companies, even the most well–known ones, are family businesses run by multi–generations. Many of them have their own factories that have existed for 50—100 years. If you want to collaborate with these heritage–rich companies, it’s necessary to visit them to understand their history, their production and to meet the people who built the companies.
This helps in visualising what products they could make, or what products could be suitable for them. When you’re at their headquarters, you can test all the furniture that they have, both finished and unfinished, and you can look at all their facilities for R&D, as well as for mass production. Then you really understand and can better preempt what they need. There’s a higher chance for successful design if you have actually seen the factory and the headquarters. For me, it’s not so much about networking, but really about making a better product as well.
On finding creative inspiration in Porto
There is a culture of appreciating used objects and furniture where people collect vintage furniture, be it Portuguese, or Scandinavian, or from different parts of the world. A lot of people are buying under–valued antiques and used furniture, restoring them, and reselling them. For me, visiting these places as well as warehouses of used furniture — some from the great Scandinavian masters, some from unknown Portuguese designers — is a source of knowledge and inspiration.
While you can get a lot of inspiration from the past, you can also get a lot from very analogue living. People still hang out at the local bars right after work, both young and old. I have friends whose usual group of friends are people who are in their late 20s to mid–50s. It’s cosmopolitan, but at the same time, it also has a nice village kinship. For me, inspiration doesn’t just take place in the form of physical things, but also by observing interactions and social behaviour. That is also an inspiration for designing furniture or interiors.
If you want to collaborate with these heritage–rich companies, it’s necessary to visit them to understand their history, their production and to meet the people who built the companies.
On your favourite spots in Porto
Some parts of Porto give me a feeling that time has stood still. Its architectural heritage is very much intact and preserved compared to many other cities. I have noticed many book stores that have existed for a long time, and there is a strong literary culture here.
Café Candelabro was once an old bookstore that moved and then the space was converted into a bar. There is a projector screening old black–and–white movies behind the bar counter. It really has a special atmosphere.
There is a restaurant at the top of Hotel Miradouro called Portucale. Almost everything in the restaurant and the hotel is preserved from the 1960s. Some of the waiters have been working there for more than 30 years. It has, supposedly, the best soufflé in the world…. my five–year–old son agrees.
On exploring just beyond the city
I really like the Peneda–Gerês National Park, less than two hours’ drive from Porto. There you have river beaches, more rural architecture, as well as waterfalls and hiking trails. It’s still pretty under the radar. It’s really amazing nature and at the same time, you have delicious northern Portuguese cuisine in authentic restaurants.
If you go north along the coast from Porto, you have the seaside town of Leça da Palmeira, where there are two of the earliest projects by the Pritzker Prize winning architect Álvaro Siza. The Boa Nova Tea House, built in the early 1960s was one of his first commissions. It is a spectacular restaurant set among the natural rock formations by the ocean. In the summer, the retractable glass façade windows withdraw into the ground so diners can feel the ocean spray. Also, you can experience all of the furniture in the restaurant that was designed by Siza. The nearby Piscina das Marés is a public tidal pool complex completed in the early 1970s and is still in operation today. For me, the Tea House and the pool are both great time capsules of architecture that transcends era.
As a furniture designer, innovation may not always signify technological innovation. Our impact tends to be more around cultural innovation.
On Porto as an international base
The main thing for me was to embrace this whole new way of working where you can be working with someone far away, but at the same time, you can be meeting them next week as well. Being in Porto really bridges this gap because before in Singapore, I had to fly 16 hours to visit a factory in Europe. Whereas here, in two or three hours you can be in Italy or Scandinavia. Psychologically as well, the distance with the clients feels much closer.
My work can progress faster when I am based in Europe. Of course, the pandemic has slowed some things down, but I feel well–placed here because if a client says, ‘The prototype is ready, are you able to come down to check it next week?’, I can commute there in a couple of hours. This connectivity is very important to me.
On your current interest
At the moment, I’m working more on upholstered furniture because in the last 12 years of my career, I was focused primarily on hard materials, like wood or steel. Working with soft material is very challenging because you have to shape it to cater to the human body and at the same time, you’re dealing with different foam densities and textile or leather options.
In the last year, I’ve been visiting more upholstery factories to learn and see the techniques that they are using that are maybe not so common in Singapore.
On the most innovative part of your work
As a furniture designer, innovation may not always signify technological innovation. Of course, sometimes you can find a breakthrough in manufacturing, but it’s more about finding applications for existing technology and crafts. Our impact tends to be more around cultural innovation.
For me, working with this kind of cultural preservation and promotion is something that I feel very strongly about. I find meaning in preserving craft and manufacturing, to help sunset industries grow, to enable people to experience the culture of another place through the products in their home.
Our design intervention is changing the culture of a company in Japan, enabling them to think big and reach markets beyond their shores.
On breaking cultural barriers
When we started working with the Japanese company, Ariake, which was originally two separate companies — Hirata Chair and Legnatec — they had never had foreign designers working with them in their factories nor had they held exhibitions outside of Asia. Now we have designers from Denmark, Canada, Portugal and several other countries working with them on projects during biannual design workshops.
In the beginning, some stakeholders from both factories were shy, reserved, and almost sceptical. Some craftsmen also questioned our designs as it was a different aesthetic and approach to what they were used to. But now, attitudes have completely changed — the craftsmen look forward to our design workshops. They want to create new, interesting products because they see that this model is working and that people from around the world appreciate and use their furniture.
The whole work culture of the factories has also evolved. Not just the owner’s mindset, but also the craftsmen who are making the furniture. They’re thinking internationally; they’re also very active on Ariake’s social media accounts. Our design intervention is changing the culture of a company in Japan, enabling them to think big and reach markets beyond their shores.
On your new Porto neighborhood
I’m constructing my home and showroom in a historical townhouse on Rua do Almada. Rua do Almada traditionally has always been associated with furniture and hardware stores. I’m at the end of a street that leads right into the middle of the city. It was the perfect place to have a showroom as well as being quiet enough to live in. And Aduela taberna is always good for a drink. That’s where most of my friends meet after work.
On a window or an aisle seat
Aisle. I would rather sacrifice some sleep for freedom of movement.
On Porto in one word
food and drink
need to know
food and drink
food and drink
food and drink