Redefining Furniture Design with 3D Printing at Milan Design Week

Gabriel Tan, a designer renowned for his emphasis on sustainability and cultural influences, presents his latest collection at Milan Design Week. Integrating traditional craftsmanship with modern aesthetics, Tan’s designs reflect authenticity and innovation. His showcase, hosted by the DesignSingapore Council, features furniture and objects inspired by his experiences in Porto (Portugal) and Singapore.

DesignSingapore Council plays a pivotal role in promoting Singaporean design on the global stage, particularly through events like the annual Salone del Mobile. Through initiatives like Future Impact II, co-curated by Tony Chambers and Maria Cristina Didero staged for the second year, after a successful run in 2023, emerging talents in design are amplified.

Dawn Lim, their Executive Director, emphasizes Singapore’s role as a forward-looking city and its commitment to equipping designers with the right tools to be innovative in their design practices. With a focus on fostering creativity and pushing boundaries, DesignSingapore Council showcases Singapore’s design excellence, encouraging dialogue and inspiring new possibilities for the future of design on an international scale.

Tan’s submission this year, is in relation to a traditional technique, basketry, which is significant due to its roots, however, dwindling due to the decline in such crafts. Which is something that he hopes to shake up with the use of modern technology such as 3D printing, in “Good Gourd: Hybrid Basketry Lamps“. Ahead of the showcase, Popspoken speaks with Tan to delve into his creative process, influences and the significance of his designs in today’s global design landscape.

Popspoken: What specific aspects of Porto’s artisanal culture have inspired or influenced your work? How do you integrate these influences into your designs?

Gabriel Tan: Porto has a strong artisanal culture and a rich tradition in crafts such as woodworking, weaving, pottery and ceramics. You notice these time-honoured techniques everywhere you go in Porto, from the ubiquitous azulejo tiles that you see on buildings, to clay cookware on dinner tables, to handwoven baskets at the markets; being in such an environment has ignited my passion for preserving traditional crafts.

This is evident in “Origin Made” – a craft-driven design brand that I co-founded with my wife Cherie Er, where each piece of furniture or collectible design object showcases the skill of local artisans and tells the story behind their creation.

Charred Vases
Coliseu Pedestals

I designed The Weaver’s Collection after a chance encounter with Maria Adelina, a weaver in her sixties and the last known one in Paços Ferreira, a furniture-producing town in Portugal. Dona Lina (as she prefers to be called) has such an energy and passion for her craft which is deeply inspiring. She spoke about her work in a buoyant way and displayed great eagerness to continue developing her skills even at her age and experience by attending workshops hosted by others. I designed a seating collection to showcase her craft – stools, a bench, and a chair with robust solid wood profiles strong enough to weave around and very stable. The stretcher-less construction of the pieces highlights the woven paper cord surface and gives paramount attention to the weaving. The minimalistic weave pattern we designed also makes it easier than traditional weave patterns to weave and hence lowers the risk of hand injury for Dona Lina.

Popspoken: As a designer with a strong emphasis on sustainability and craftsmanship, how do you address environmental and social considerations within your projects, especially considering the different contexts of Porto and Singapore?

Gabriel Tan: Sustainability and social responsibility are key considerations which guide my design practice regardless of the context.

In both Portugal and Singapore, I prioritize using locally available, and environmentally low-impact materials; sourcing local materials reduces transportation emissions. I also generally work with local and regional, smaller-scale family-run workshops that prioritise fair wages and healthy working conditions, supporting local communities, which helps keep skilled craftsmen in the trade, and encourages a new generation to be interested in craft work.

Gabriel Tan working with local artisans in Portugal (Image credit: Kanebridge)

Popspoken: How do you navigate the global design landscape, balancing influences from different cultural backgrounds while maintaining a distinctive design language?

Gabriel Tan: While I draw inspiration from diverse cultures and design traditions, whether through travels or interacting with people from various backgrounds, I believe in maintaining a strong design identity that reflects my own perspectives and values. I believe in having a nuanced understanding of cultural influences and a commitment to authenticity.

Luva Modular Sofa and Cyclade Tables by Herman Miller in collaboration with Gabriel Tan Studio

I spend a lot of my time sitting down and talking to craftspeople, and visiting factories to understand how things are made. There is a continuous process of exploration and refinement, where I seek to understand different cultural contexts without appropriating them; by engaging in meaningful dialogue to create something new while respecting traditions that have been passed down through generations.

Popspoken: What does 3D printing have to offer that traditional furniture making does not?

Gabriel Tan: While I deeply value traditional craftsmanship, 3D printing offers possibilities for complex, lightweight structures to be produced on-demand, and opens doors to rapid prototyping or making one-off limited editions.

I see 3D printing as a complementary tool, not a replacement. For instance, 3D printing can create a mould or a base lattice structure upon which traditional methods and materials can be added to create new forms and shapes. In our case, it allows for the fabrication of transparent lattice forms which can diffuse light beautifully, which is difficult to produce with other methods unless one invests in extremely costly plastic injection moulds.

Popspoken: You aspired to be a naval officer before falling head over heels into design. What are some of the key learnings you received, whether from your teachers, Christian Boucharenc and Barber Osgerby, as being part of the industry that you did not know before you joined?

Gabriel Tan: My time in the Navy has instilled in me a deep respect for precision and an understanding of functionality. These values translate well into design.

My mentor and teacher Christian Boucharenc at the National University of Singapore taught me the importance of having a rigorous process, and that design is never complete. A designer should continue to think of ways to improve one’s design even after a project is finished, and that is why I still work on improvements to my designs even years after the product is launched.

Barber Osbergy, who taught me when I was at the ECAL, made me realise the importance of self-confidence, and how that comes across from a simple sketch to the way a designer presents one’s work to an audience.

Popspoken: Does a “Designed in Portugal” imprimatur have more resonance with your audience from a commercial perspective?

Gabriel Tan: I feel that what resonates is that my recent works are influenced by my new life experiences in Portugal and Europe, and as a creative, it is never too late to reinvent oneself by changing one’s environment or location in search of new inspiration and stimulation. In my case, it was to be closer to the traditional manufacturing and craft centres of Europe, to be able to work with more variety of materials, manufacturing and craft techniques, all within a short drive from my home. This closeness to craft and industry is what gave me new creative energy and it enabled my works to evolve into a new chapter.

Other stellar Singaporean designers showcased at the Future Impact II include Tiffany Loy, Christian+Jade, David Lee, Faezah Shaharuddin, Genevieve Ang with Interactive Materials Lab and Zavier Wong.

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