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Gabriel Tan Studio - Connecting the Dots
Gabriel Tan is a person I have longed to engage in conversation with. There is an enduring boyish charm about him, as if he has made a pact with himself to defy the passage of time.
Gabriel Tan Studio - Connecting the Dots

His insatiable curiosity about the world drives him to explore the uncharted territories of his own imagination. In Porto, I aim to uncover his working style, motivations, and the driving force behind his design journey. 

Walking through the narrow, winding pavements of Rua do Almada in downtown Porto, with an eager anticipation, I count the street numbers until I arrive at a typical Portuguese stone townhouse, its narrow facade bathed in a creamy white hue. I catch a glimpse of Gabriel's designs elegantly showcased in the front window as if this were a miniature contemporary design gallery. But this is more than a display; it is a window into Gabriel Tan's world—a world brimming with objects where every intricate detail tells the story of the hands that brought them to life. 

Captivating view from Gabriel Tan's studio showroom, adorned with curated pieces from his own brand, Origin Made.

The ground-floor showroom features Origin Made, Gabriel's brand, proudly presenting an array of exclusively crafted items, from candle holders to sculptural stone objects, furnitures and lighting, all born from Portugal's artistry. Below, the work area exudes a dimly lit enchantment amidst weathered stone walls. Before my conversation with Gabriel, his wife Cherie provides a gracious introduction to their home. As we ascend, we remove our shoes and enter bright, airy spaces that gradually bathe in increasing light. The 4th and top floor, a new addition to what was once a 2.5-storey townhouse, is a serene sanctuary with bedrooms for their children and themselves. The rooms offer picturesque views of the street and a garden, surrounded by neighbouring buildings. 

The backyard garden at Gabriel Tan's space. A lush escape from the city's rhythm, these private green spaces have been a cherished tradition in Porto's townhouses, offering a peaceful retreat amidst the vibrant urban landscape.

In the living room, immersed in Gabriel's creations, I inquire about his home before delving into his design journey. Gabriel candidly shares his uncertainty about the building's age, estimating it to be around a hundred years old. My initial query focuses on Gabriel's daring relocation from Singapore to Porto during the pandemic's peak in 2020. As I made a similar move to Berlin amidst global apprehension and uncertainty, Gabriel's divergent decision intrigues me. I eagerly seek his insights and unique encounters.

Ancora candle holder by Christian Haas, a local Porto-based designer, alongside a stone sculpture by Norm Architects - the curated display of objects from the Origin Made collection seamlessly complements the ensemble, enhanced by Abstracta Sahara Panel.

Could you elaborate on this journey? How did the idea of moving from Singapore to Porto emerge, and what motivated you to take this unconventional leap during such a challenging period? 

I've always dreamed of working in Europe's design field. There's something special about the deep-seated design cultures you find in places like Italy and Scandinavia. I've had the chance to design for notable Scandinavian companies like Blå Station, Menu, and Abstracta from my home base in Singapore. However, it always felt like I was on the outside looking in. The work was there, but the full, immersive experience I wanted wasn’t. That's why I decided to find a second home away from Singapore, somewhere that had a balanced life and convenient trips to my current and potential business partners. I eventually landed on Porto.

So, you realized that you were missing something? 

In Singapore, I was designing homes, restaurants, and various interior spaces. Although it was an intriguing endeavor, my true passion was found in designing for respected brands, creating products that would find a place in many homes rather than being confined to individualized projects. 

Interior design is a great platform for experimentation and nurturing innovative ideas, but I did not want it to be my sole focus. I sought a balance between furniture design for brands and interior design. To realize this vision, I understood that I needed to travel and closely interact with my existing clients and companies I wish to design for. Attending fairs often did not provide sufficient opportunities to delve deeply into new projects, while frequent travels from Singapore for these meetings were prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. 

And it saps a lot of energy...

Yes. Another significant motivator for my move was the lack of manufacturing and craft industries in Singapore. The absence of easily accessible makers for quick prototyping or crafting objects posed a constraint. While we had conventional sofa upholstery and carpentry services, specialized work like glassblowing, wood bending, sand-casting metals or crafting unique ceramic objects was scarce.

In Portugal, a diverse range of materials and skilled artisans offer more possibilities for design experimentation. There is a vibrant ecosystem that I desired to explore further, making the move an attractive choice. Plus, living in Porto is pretty easy, which made it a good choice for me and my family.

I cannot help but notice the synchronicity between your move to Portugal and the birth of your own brand. Was this a planned move or a fortuitous coincidence that unfolded naturally alongside your journey? Could you delve deeper into how these two significant events intertwined?

Certainly, my decision to establish my brand came while I had made the choice to move to Portugal. I was scouting various locations, contemplating where I could embark on this new venture. I visited Spain and Portugal, gradually gaining a sense of the potential for production in those areas. It was during this exploration that Origin Made began to take real shape—after I had committed to settle in Porto. But the brand never intended to be an exclusive narrative about Portugal, it's more about where the products come from.

One of Gabriel's earliest works: 'Stove Chair'.

But why did you decide to start your own brand when you already had a successful studio in Singapore? And why in the midst of such a significant move?

I aspired to work with fewer clients while building enduring relationships with them. Rather than creating one or two products each for many companies, I preferred designing a range of products for a smaller number of companies that align with my values and vision. Launching my own brand, Origin Made, became the logical next step, which brought diversity to my endeavors as well as income sources. This arrangement alleviated a great deal of pressure and allowed me to be more selective when accepting new projects. Ultimately, It was a decision driven by the pursuit of creative freedom and control.

This approach enables you to dictate your own pace of work...

Indeed, it comes down to a sense of control and sustainability. Designers often accept projects from major brands for financial reasons, seeking secure finances in the coming years. The only way to maintain influence is by continually designing more, licensing to various brands, and inundating the market with products. It's like running on a hamster wheel.

However, having my own brand provides a steady balance, freeing me from such pressures. Major brands may have a predetermined design aesthetic and systems of production. When working on my own brand, I have the freedom to design and create at a pace that feels comfortable, it gives me time to curate designs and include other designers I admire, as well as set the launch or revenue strategy. This helps to focus on quality over quantity, ensuring that each design receives as much attention and craftsmanship as it deserves.

While disruptions such as production issues, factory shutdowns, or global pandemics can affect the industry as a whole, managing my own brand allows for somewhat greater stability as I can directly address these challenges and try to adjust.

Establishing your own brand allows you to create your own world, your own playground with your own rules. 

If something does not work out, you know it is due to your own decisions. You have the freedom to test, make necessary adjustments, and continuously improve. For high-volume products, I tend to prefer designing for my established clients, but for smaller-volume semi-artisanal products that I want to see personally executed, I opt for designing for Origin Made.

"Having control over the entire process, from rough sketches to the final product, is more satisfying. It is an intriguing journey, and I would not have it any other way."

Undoubtedly, working on your own brand differs significantly from collaborating with others. When providing art direction for other brands, how do you align your personal creative vision with their requirements and expectations? 

Aligning my creative vision with a brand entails understanding their goals and ambitions, and sometimes, introducing them to new aspirations. The process goes beyond simply accepting their wants and delivering on them. It involves questioning, observing, and genuinely comprehending their potential. This often necessitates immersing myself in their environment, understanding their story, and finding ways to make that story captivating to the world. 

Naturally, there are challenges. Cultural differences and divergent opinions among team members, fellow designers, and brand owners are common obstacles. However, these tensions are integral to the journey. Ultimately, my role is to ensure that we are all aligned towards a common goal, even if that goal surpasses the initial expectations. I believe this approach is instrumental in enabling brands to reach their full potential.

Captivating close-ups from the lower part of the house, where dim light gradually reveals the intricate richness of textures.

With your unique experiences working in both Singapore and Portugal, I am curious to hear your reflections on the differences and similarities between these two design cultures. Your establishment of your own brand in Portugal while still maintaining an office in Singapore puts you in a unique position to offer insights into how these distinct cultures shape their respective design scenes. Could you share your observations?

In my opinion, Both Portuguese and Singaporean design cultures are in the process of finding their unique voices. Portugal's history of emerging from a dictatorship has influenced its design scene, with architectural styles reflecting that era. Similarly, Singapore's focus on economic growth has marginalized design and culture. 

But these circumstances also present opportunities. The lack of a strong design culture in the past meant that there has not been any predefined expectations of what Singaporean or Portuguese design should be, allowing the space for more creative expression. However, both countries do face certain challenges, such as a scarcity of design objects and icons in everyday public spaces, unlike more developed design centres where design is omnipresent more abundantly in the built environment and is valued by ordinary people.

Emerging design cultures, such as those in Portugal and Singapore, offer designers a fresh canvas for self-expression, although with unique challenges to overcome.

The top floor of the house is entirely reserved for the privacy of the Gabriel family. The interiors feature off-white walls, softly adorned with wood textures that seamlessly integrating with his designs.

Your constant research and exploration of new factories and craftsmen during your travels is fascinating. Could you share how you establish relationships with them and how you discover and immerse yourself in specific crafts? 

To me, design is not just a profession; it is an integral part of my life. Whether I am on vacation or not, I seize the opportunity to visit factories and meet craftsmen. Alain de Botton's book, "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work," deeply influenced me. He talks about the richness that comes from observing people at work, and I resonate with that idea. During my travels, I practise this approach, focusing on design. What is wonderful about our industry is that design serves as a bridge to connect and form friendships. If you tell a fellow creative that you are a designer interested in visiting their studio, very few would turn you down. It is a distinctive characteristic of our field. In other industries, such as banking, you could not simply say, "Hey, I am a banker visiting Zurich for a holiday. Could I visit your bank?”

They would probably think you are crazy!

But in design, doors open readily, allowing me to broaden my horizons. Almost everyone is willing to welcome a designer into their space. I take full advantage of this opportunity, not only to make new friends but also to explore and discover new inspirations. It is fascinating how some of these encounters come full circle. I remember visiting the AMORIM cork factory in Portugal during the first vacation with my then-girlfriend (now wife) 10 years ago. AMORIM and I kept in touch via email, and a few years later, the opportunity to collaborate on a project with Abstracta arose. It was an incredible experience to connect the dots. 

The Sahara Abstracta panels, strategically placed, offer the much-desired acoustic comfort in the dining and kitchen area.

A rather unique choice for a first trip together! 

Yes! During that visit I was introduced to cork, a material that was entirely new to me. Intrigued by its natural and sustainable qualities, I decided to design cork wall panels for an interior project in Singapore, and soon, I found myself falling in love with this versatile and natural material. Despite my enthusiasm, AMORIM was initially hesitant to produce these panels due to the small quantity the interior project required. However, I convinced them to produce my design with a promise that I would search for an opportunity to commercialise the prototypes after the project. Afterwards, I helped connect AMORIM with the Swedish acoustic furniture brand Abstracta. The Product Development Department was impressed by the concept of using cork as a material for acoustic panels, but they nudged me to evolve the design into one more inspired by nature. 

I redesigned the initial form into the Sahara panels, inspired by the soft organic lines of desert dunes. Arranged on a wall, these panels provide many possibilities of configuration, offering an adaptable design solution.

"What started as a small undertaking blossomed into a significant collaboration, and again for me, it is about connecting the dots between different projects. This is what design means to me."

The Sahara cork panels, designed by Gabriel for Abstracta, were manufactured in Amorim, Portugal, where Gabriel shares the complete story behind the project — from its inception to the moment it attained its final form.

It is inspiring to witness how you navigate this intricate process—from conceptual design through product development to manufacturing. How do you maintain your energy throughout this entire process working on multiple projects simultaneously? 

I guess my approach is mainly based on managing a balanced workload to sustain my energy and productivity in project development. Having multiple projects helps me to fill the gaps, as there is often downtime while waiting for clients to respond to certain design pitches or ideas. At times, clients may be busy with other projects and may not prioritize yours at that moment. At other times, they may require something urgently, and you have to respond quickly. It is beneficial to have a diverse portfolio of projects to fill these gaps. 

What skills do you think a designer must develop to adapt to this kind of schedule? Which skills are crucial for a designer to sustain in this process? 

Firstly, a designer must be willing to perform tasks that are not necessarily related to design, such as planning, scheduling, and sometimes even managing the client. For smaller brands, you may have to encourage them to bring your product to market. Larger brands usually have strict schedules and demand your designs by a specific date. However, with many companies, progress is often driven by the designer. We need to realize that many brands view us designers as partners, and it is more of a "we're in this together" scenario. 

As a new or seasoned designer, there is always a lot to learn. Could you share what non-design skills have been particularly useful for you? 

Understanding clients’ work cultures and anticipating their expectations is essential to avoid disappointment. I think that understanding the business side of design is essential, especially for those who aspire to start their own brand or studio. Designers will need to learn how to not only build but also maintain relationships, and pitch their design ideas effectively to communicate the value of their work.  

The beautiful detail of the glass horizontal opening, which Gabriel decided to introduce to his bathroom, adds additional daylight to the interior.

As a designer, do you find yourself particularly obsessed with certain crafts or materials? Have you made any recent discoveries or do you have a current favorite that inspires you? 

Indeed, there are several crafts and materials that I find fascinating. I'm particularly drawn to techniques that demand precision and time, like glass blowing or steam bending wood. These age-old skills are ones I'm keen to engage with, but sadly they're dwindling. Weaving also interests me a great deal, but working with weavers in Portugal is challenging due to their informal work routine and the fact that many are approaching retirement. I have a deep appreciation for these fading crafts.

I am indeed driven to help preserve these crafts through my designs but to maintain the legacy of these artisan crafts, it's crucial that we find young apprentices who are willing to commit to long-term learning from the masters, so they can fully absorb all the necessary techniques. Many admire the craft but shy away when they realize the commitment required to learn it. For example, there is much more to learn beyond weaving itself, such as material preparation and drying. It is wonderful that Portugal still has these craftspeople, but I fear their numbers are declining. 

For my final question, if you could travel back in time and meet a younger version of yourself, what advice would you give, particularly from a design perspective? 

I would remind myself that building a brand and relationships in Europe takes time.

So, would you tell your younger self to be more patient?

Yes, to avoid the feelings of disappointment and not to take things personally. I would also tell myself to learn to say ´no´ more often. I felt that I took on too many projects at the early stage of my career, projects that may not necessarily align with my creative aspirations. I would also advise myself to learn more languages, such as Italian, Portuguese, or Japanese. Apart from design, my passion lies in understanding people and their cultures. So, if I had not discovered design, languages would have been my passion. —

In this interview, we delve into the collaboration between Gabriel Tan Studio and Abstracta, with a focus on their innovative Sahara Panels.

Abstracta, a renowned soundscape brand based in Lammhults, Sweden, has gained global recognition for its design solutions that elevate sound quality in workspaces. Through their partnership with Amorim Factory, Gabriel Tan Studio and Abstracta demonstrate a shared commitment to delivering conscious, enduring solutions suitable for a variety of scenarios. Their collective efforts serve as a testament to their unwavering dedication to innovation, crafting impactful designs on a global scale while steadfastly upholding principles of environmental sustainability.

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Thisispaper Magazine
A book of stories about thinkers and makers.
In this publication we have collected stories from the designers and artists that inspire us with their creativity and skill. Whether working in fashion, design, photography or architecture, they share the commitment to process and have a strong, personal voice.

How do you create an inspiring workplace? How does the space we work in influence our health? Can the workspace boost your creativity and well-being? To answer these questions we reached out to experts in the field.
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