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Hans Tan: The President's Design Award Designer of the Year looks at Singapore's heritage and tradition

Patterned playground

Text: Adibah Isa

Hans Tan’s decorative objects personify Singapore’s heritage, tradition and culture that exist in between art, craft and design

"Being a designer who can't draw, I often do not start the process on a piece of paper," said Hans Tan in a video for the President's Design Award 2018, where he won Designer of the Year earlier this week. "Instead I dive right into the object or the material to do different tryouts."

Hans Tan, President's Design Award Designer of the Year 2018
The 38-year-old designer wears multiple hats. Not only is the father-of-two a designer and founder of Hans Tan Studio, he is also an assistant professor with the National University of Singapore's Division of Industrial Design, School of Design and Environment. Coming from an industrial design training background in NUS, he pursued his masters at the Design Academy Eindhoven (Tan chose Eindhoven for their focus on the concept of design) on a DesignSingapore scholarship — the very entity that has now rewarded Tan with the prestigious Nathan Yong-designed award. He has been recognised by Singapore's design industry twice prior to this: In 2012, he won the Design of the Year award for 'Spotted Nyonya', a porcelain vase In 2015, he won the same award for 'Pour', a resin table. 'Spotted Nyonya' also gained him recognition in Paris when he exhibited it for the first time at the fall 2011 edition of Maison&Objet.

For 'Inverse Batik' (2013), Hans Tan erased colour from patterned fabric with a bleached mist
Tan's works are unapologetically Singaporean, with our heritage as the common chain of thought in what he produces. But upon closer inspection, you'll notice more than just a tribute to our local aesthetic. Commentaries on waste, consumption and historical narratives are abound in his objects, which happily exist in the middle of a pie chart that links art, design and craft together. Playing with archetypes, the designer takes what you know about a traditional object and flips that by investigating themes and questions relating to Singapore's traditions.

"It is important for me to discuss what is authentic in my work," replied Tan when asked about how Singapore plays a role in his designs. "There are Dutch designers who comment on their cultures, beliefs, and poke fun of their 'Dutchness'. I thought it might be interesting to apply that kind of approach to our values, heritage and identity. It's one way to proliferate our sense of identity as well."

Hans Tan

'Singapore Blue'
"Objects don't communicate to us. It is what we read from them," said Tan in an interview. "We constantly read things in our environment through right, smell, touch... I use this phenomenon to embed intentional narratives in my objects." In 'Singapore Blue' (2015), Tan achieved this with the least amount of resources. Looking at how the distinct blue and white colours in porcelain are iconic to numerous cultures throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe, Tan toys with the notion of how ever-changing Singapore's identity as a young nation is. By attaching a blue marker to the vase, each user is encouraged to write or re-write his or her history and identity, making it up entirely on their own.

'Spotted Nyonya'
"One of my biggest satisfaction in that series of work was taking a vessel that nobody wanted to buy, no adding anything to it ­— but in fact removing some material — and selling it for 200 times the price or even to a museum," commented Tan. "It shows the power of design is not just an addition, it can be about doing less."

The 'Spotted Nyonya' collection debuted in 2011 with five items that comprised of a candleholder, big and small containers as well as a platter. But these just aren't your run-of-the-mill Peranakan household items. Of course, there's its obvious contemporary appeal — dotted patterns that seem to add up to form a traditional print. An industrial re-interpretation of porcelain vessels traditionally used by Chinese Peranakans, Tan went to old thrift shops along industrial avenues that still sold used and unwanted porcelain vases. Showing these traditional items that nobody really buys anymore in a contemporary light, he masked out the pieces with a dotten pattern, and then sandblasted them.

Mapping out a dotted pattern on an existing piece of traditional Peranakan ware

In 'Spotted Nyonya', a tedious process resulted in a commentary of making what's old new again

Similarly, in 'Stripped Ming', Tan looks at the idea of decoration and utility as an age-old problem that designers face. By questioning the object and working with definitions as the starting point, the designer redefines an object by looking at its narrative: Where it's from, who used it, which part of history it belongs to and to whom it was reacting to.

Hans Tan's 'Stripped Ming' strips away layers of an old vase

'Pour'
Inspired by how a traditional Malay and Peranakan kueh lapis sagu pastry is made, Tan's side table 'Pour' (2015) goes against how you would typically use resin, and how you'd typically go about casting a table. To do this, he moulded the design without using a mould, controlling the viscosity of the resin. Creating puddles of resin and casting the table upside down, he used three different additives to increase the surface tension of the resin. This way, the resin puddles up on its own. 

Each colour is individually poured so that each colour does not mix with the adjacent one, resulting in one multi-coloured layer

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