Hans Tan: Design and Art are Not Mutually Exclusive

Let's talk about the future.
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2018 has been a big year for designer and educator Hans Tan. He won the President's Design Award Designer of The Year and was invited to give a Keynote Speech at the ReDesignEd Educators Forum in October this year. Sharing his humble beginnings as well as his design philosophies, it was an insightful presentation complete with detailed documentations and step-by-step processes.

"It is to think, not just with your mind, but with your hands as well," said Hans, and he definitely lives by it. The level of experimentation, research and the equally painstaking process of documentation is evident in every single product he shared. Though aesthetically pleasing, the working process is far from shallow - the intentions of the work and the questioning of the status quo in various aspects of life.

However, the process of making is time-consuming and vary from months to even years. In the fast-paced world today with attention spans of mere seconds, will this design process still hold in the future?

Hans elaborates more on the differentiation of design and art, and if handmades still have a place in today's technologically advanced world.


Bundled Vase, 2014

What made you want to start your own design studio?

When I graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven, all three pieces of my graduation work was selected for an exhibition at Droog by then co-founder Gijs Bakker. At the exhibition opening, one of my mentors, the esteemed book designer Joost Grootens told me that there are writers who write books that everyone reads, and writers whose books only writers read – likewise, there are designers who designs for the masses, and designers whose work interest and inspire other designers. The conversation cemented my decision to return to Singapore to start my own practise that is focused on self-initiated works that push the boundaries of design.

Copy-tiam Chair, 2012

From your personal practise over the past decade or so, do you think it is possible to clearly differentiate what is design and what is art?

When I first started practicing more than 10 years ago, it was difficult to position my work. My works are self-initiated and focused on concepts, designers thought I was an artist. On the other hand, as I employed utility as a medium, in other words the objects I designed had a function, artists regarded my works as design.

For me, I believe that the divide between design and art should not be a clear line, especially in the context of Singapore where design is considered as an economic driver, while art is a seen as a cultural catalyst.

Design and Art are not mutually exclusive, in good design there is good art, and in good art there is good design.
Spotted Nyonya Vessel Curved, 2011

A lot of your works explore patterns and prints. Share with us more.

Being particularly drawn to porcelain as a material and the vase as an object, patterns has a significant association to both. Historically, patterns are not decorative but symbolic - they serve as signs that carry meaning, stories, history and identity. A good pattern carries the essence of the represented without elaborate, superfluous gestures. In my works, patterns are employed as a pretext for embedded narratives - by deforming existing pattern, I pose questions and suggest a new awareness for patterns.

Has your own practise evolve over time with the introduction and advancement of technology?

The advent of digital tools and an overall shrinkage of workshops for designers has compromised working and learning through hands-on making and experimentation. The over-emphasis on the creative role of human-centred design and data driven evidence, where good ideas stem from good user research evaluated by data analytics, has also contributed to the decline of prototyping as an important design skill. This has led to an unbalanced preference for thinking with data instead of with one’s hands.

At my studio, we do harness technology as a medium, but the hands-on working process does not change. For example, it is not interesting for us to work with digital prototyping software that can quickly code interactions and interfaces. We prefer to get our hands on circuit boards and sensors, and play around with them, to discover new capabilities or implementations.

Pour, 2015

Do you think there is still a place for handmades in an age of mass production and the ease of technology?

There is an unmistaken difference between an object made fully by an automated machine, and one made by hand. Although industrialisation has given us the economies of mass production, so that products are assessible by being affordable, it has generated the issue of mass mindless consumption. The quality of a handmade is not just limited to the product itself, but the experience surrounding it. If one had to order a kitchen knife from a metalsmith 2 months in advance, appreciate the process that went into the fabrication of your knife, and had a personal relationship with the metalsmith, would the thought of disposing the knife and getting a new one be immediate when it gets blunt?  

In your opinion, what will be the future of design?

Increasingly, every tangible thing or intangible experience we come in contact with is designed.  Designers have a huge responsibility in defining the world we live in, and the way we live. With such an influence, I believe that designers not only has the responsibility to solve problems, but have the capacity to ask good questions.

Design not only helps us “do”, it helps us “understand”.  

Design not only helps us accomplish tasks, it proposes a perspective where people have more empathy towards others and a greater sensibility towards our environment.

Photo Credits: Hans Tan Studio. Portrait Credit: Guo Jie | Studio Periphery

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