Picture this: it’s 2001, and it’s almost lights-out at the Naval Academy in Singapore. Gabriel Tan, 19, is nose-deep in several books about industrial design while his mates are on the phone with their significant others.
Fast-forward to 2003, following two more years of late-night studies and a burgeoning devotion to design: Tan enrols for the new industrial design programme at the National University of Singapore.
‘As a young child I was obsessed with drawing and art, but there was peer pressure to switch to basketball, football, boy scouts, and other activities, so I eventually gave up art for sports,’ Tan says.
On enrolling for design school, ‘I felt a sense of renewed purpose.’
Tan ended up receiving multiple international design awards while still at university. And in his final year, he formed a furniture design collective named Outofstock with three friends he had met at a design workshop in Stockholm, showing at the Salone Satellite in Milan for the first time in 2007.
After collaborating with his partners for a decade, Tan started his solo practice, Gabriel Tan Studio, in 2016. In 2020, Tan moved with his family from his native Singapore to Porto, to be closer to furniture industries and skilled craftspeople in Portugal and Italy.
His first products for Herman Miller – the Luva Modular Sofa Group and Cyclade Tables – were designed while living in Porto during the pandemic.
‘It was a period when projects were on hold and we couldn’t leave the house, but when I had the mental space to reflect on what I really wanted to create during my lifetime, and what people were missing in their homes.’
Both projects represent a personal transformation for Tan as well, as they are departures from his pre-pandemic work (think solid wood, visual lightness, minimalism).
‘Luva and Cyclade explore the interaction between humans and furniture; how we use them and configure them to suit our spaces and life, and how furniture designs in themselves relate to one another, and engage in a visual and functional discourse.’ Tan shared a small rented flat near Porto with his family while his current studio and home were being renovated.
‘I reckon my living circumstances at that time were also a catalyst.’