In this interview with the DesignSingapore Council, Gabriel Tan, who is passionate about reviving and preserving traditional crafts, explains why he moved to Portugal in August 2020 and how he has coped with the challenges brought about by the global COVID-19 disruption. Gabriel Tan is founder of Gabriel Tan Studio, one of the participating studios in the Council’s Business of Design programme.
In times of uncertainty, one might be tempted to hunker down to brace against the headwinds. Yet, Singapore designer Gabriel Tan did quite the opposite. He relocated to Europe and opened a second studio in Portugal to seize the new growth opportunities and to be closer to existing and potential clients in Europe and the US. Refusing to allow the pandemic to halt or cancel his plans, he is marching on with the belief that his studio will benefit from having a presence in Europe when the global recovery begins.
DesignSingapore Council (Dsg): How has COVID-19 impacted your work?
Gabriel Tan (GT): Trade fairs have been cancelled and it has become impossible to meet with brands or visit production factories. While video calls and emails allow work to go on, not having face-to-face interactions has been an obstacle. The industry is relatively relationship-driven and decisions can be made more expediently when stakeholders can physically meet to analyse visual designs or discuss strategies.
I’ve experienced some delays by clients in terms of making decisions around new designs we were developing for them as initial responses when the pandemic first hit were to keep costs low and stay risk averse amid a wait-and-see strategy.
On the other hand, with more people globally confined at home, the furniture industry has benefitted from various trends including city-to-suburban shifts, home office set ups, reconfiguration of commercial, office and hospitality spaces – more people are buying furniture and objects to suit their new spaces or lifestyles.
Several brands across mass to luxury segments have reported strong growth, backlogged orders, expansion of warehouse spaces etc. I hope this positive trend will continue in 2021 and will encourage brands to develop more designs with product designers around the world.
Dsg: After the initial COVID-19 lockdown, how did you resume work?
GT: My studio has not stopped working. In fact, this period has been the busiest since I had started my design career. This is probably because I have had to work across Asian and European time zones to manage two studios.
Dsg: Your studio was one of eight design studios selected for Dsg’s inaugural run of the Business of Design (BOD) programme. How has the programme benefited you?
GT: The BOD has facilitated our aspirations of becoming a more international design studio.
I benefitted tremendously from having access to a renowned in-market consultant [Tony Chambers, former Editor-in-Chief of Wallpaper* magazine from 2003 to 2018], as I gained significant insights about the industry via his experiences.
Furthermore, through Tony and his team, I was able to be introduced directly to key decision-makers of the brands which Tony felt I was best suited for.
Prior to joining the BOD, I focused predominantly on Scandinavia, US and Japan. The BOD supported my desire to further establish myself in the rest of Europe as the introductions to marquee furniture companies in Italy and Denmark by Tony led to factory visits and meetings with key decision makers to foster potential future collaborations.
Dsg: Could you share how you benefitted from Tony Chamber’s advice and mentoring?
GT: We have met up in-person in Singapore and in Italy; we also communicate often over phone calls, emails and texts. I enjoy his sense of humour, and there is running banter between us after we discovered that we support rival football teams. Tony is a very well-respected veteran in the design industry, therefore his advice and guidance has been invaluable to me. He connected me with various brands that I have admired and he played a big role in helping me familiarise with the Italian design scene in particular.
Dsg: What motivated the big decision to move to Portugal?
GT: I’ve been impressed with the production resources in Portugal and the craft community here for some time now. In fact, I started my own brand to produce artisanal design objects in Portugal, which led to the birth of Origin two years ago.
The desire to have a European base stemmed from the fact that most of the companies that I aspire to work with are here. Given that I was already doing long-haul trips (about four to six times a year), I felt it would be better to have a base here so that I can respond more quickly to clients in Europe, with more spontaneous day trips or overnight trips at short notice.
Dsg: What were your considerations given the current COVID-19 situation in Europe?
GT: My key considerations were the creative stimulation and professional growth that two studios in different continents could offer myself and my company.
I didn’t consider putting a pause on my plans due to the COVID-19 situation; on the contrary, I was motivated to speed up my plans in case the situation deteriorated further, resulting in cancellations. If possible, we should not let this pandemic halt long-term strategic plans, and while it is uncertain how long it could last, I hope to be well-placed during the global recovery phase.
Dsg: What were your fears on making the move?
GT: My main fears were about how my family would adjust to the move. I was also worried about managing the Singapore studio while being in European time zone.
Dsg: What was the experience like to be moving to a new country at a time when everyone else was thinking of going home?
GT: There were times when it was mentally tough, but this was a plan I was considering for a number of years and I felt that it was a calculated risk that I finally had to take.
I came alone before my family joined me – due to the pandemic border restrictions we had to endure an uncertain wait for the family to reunite. Home to me is wherever my family is, so it felt like I had “headed home” when my family finally joined me here.
Dsg: How has moving to Portugal benefitted your work?
GT: It has facilitated more efficient communication with my clients and staff in Europe. For Origin, I’ve been able to visit the artisans or factories more often, troubleshoot supply chain issues and handle everything related to the business in a more expedient manner. I have more visibility and control here.
In the past summer and fall, when travelling within the EU was still possible, I had meetings with potential clients that resulted in unexpected opportunities e.g. chair designs for a church in Germany, and hospitality-related projects in the south of Portugal and Mozambique.
Dsg: What advice do you have for local designers, with regards to internationalisation in these disruptive times?
GT: Seek self-clarity first – have a good understanding of one’s aspirations, resources and constraints before dedicating yourself to a cause or making a big decision. But once you have decided to do something, don’t be afraid to go all-in.
Disruptive times tend to present great opportunities for innovation and era-shifting aesthetics. Continue to spend time building international networks, as well as improving technical skills and aesthetics sense. Use creativity not just for design but to discover opportunities. Lastly, don’t underestimate the value of good mentorship.