In the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, designer Gabriel Tan moved his family from Singapore to Porto, Portugal. Known for his work with brands like Design Within Reach and Audo Copenhagen (formerly Menu), he also runs interior design firm Studio Antimatter and is the creative director for Japanese furniture brand Ariake.
Reinvigorated and Inspired
The decision was not an easy one. Aside from hiring new staff for his Singapore office to continue running smoothly while he was abroad, he had to build a new office in Porto from scratch.
But it was important for him in order to push new boundaries in his work. “My network of producers in Singapore and Malaysia was mainly for solid wood, steel, or cut-foam upholstery,” said Tan, who bemoans the limitations here.
“In Porto, within a two-hour drive, one has the possibility to work with craftsmen and factories of many natural materials. And if a certain technique cannot be done in Portugal, we could find someone in Italy who is able to do it. For a furniture designer, going between these two countries is a dream for sourcing materials, production, and collaborations, where you can sketch something and have the confidence to find someone who can make what you conceptualise.”
His arrival amid pandemic constraints was good timing. “I used that quiet period to create new designs. We could still travel within Portugal and Europe, so I took the opportunity to take in new inspiration and reset my mind. Visiting different craftsmen and industries around Portugal and Italy during that first year improved my fabrication knowledge and helped me feel more connected to the process of making,” shares Tan.
The move to Porto was a good decision. “I experienced a newfound creative freedom,” said Tan, referring to his collaborations with Herman Miller and B&B Italia.
The latter two are milestones in Tan’s oeuvre, as he joins other well-known international architects and designers in the brands’ fold of collaborators. For B&B Italia, he designed the Quiet Lines bedroom collection, where curved, padded surfaces on furniture evoke a sense of rest. For Herman Miller, he designed the Luva modular sofa collection and Cyclade Tables.
The Luva modular sofa, which he now uses in his own home, has a poofy profile that epitomises a sense of welcome. “Comfort was a key consideration when designing it. The visual abstraction of a boxing glove and rolled futon helps connect it with users worldwide; there seems to be a subconscious familiarity with the product, which was what we hoped for,” said Tan.
He is happy that many have commented on how comfortable it is after sitting in it. The team at Herman Miller are equally pleased. “Media response, customer feedback, and initial sales figures of both the sofa and coffee table collection have surpassed Herman Miller’s expectations,” Tan shares.
It is not the first chair that Tan has designed. “Seating, and by extension, sofas, have always fascinated me due to their central role in our daily lives and how they respond to the human body. If you think about it, they are objects that we physically interact with most in our lives when we are awake,” he observes.
A good sofa, he notes, should have “a good balance between aesthetics and comfort.” This balance is difficult to achieve. Tan remarks, “To be honest, a lot of sofas I love the look of are uncomfortable. Often, either the seat or backrest height is too low, or a large down cushion is required to make the sofa more comfortable.”
He cites some examples: “I love the comfort of the Standard sofa by Edra, but visually, I prefer the Camaleonda by B&B Italia or the Marenco sofa by Arflex.” These observations fed into the design of the Luva collection, whose modularity allows for multiple configurations in order to suit various interior contexts and user needs.
The next year will see Tan kept busy with projects that include a seating collection for an iconic German furniture company and the extension of the Quiet Lines collection for B&B Italia. Something he hopes to work on one day is the redesign of the air travel experience. “From the interiors of plane cabins to aeroplane seats and seat belts and inflight tableware and cutlery, I see that so much can be improved.”
On life in Porto, he has found a new rhythm. “Cherie and I work with our team on the ground floor of a townhouse close to the city centre. We have a showroom for Origin Made facing the street, and the design office is at the back, facing a garden. My family and I live on the upper floors, and we usually cook and eat at home on weekdays. We invite our friends and neighbours over for dinner twice a month, and on weekends, we go to the beach or the countryside. We are happy.”