Hans Tan: Design and Art are Not Mutually Exclusive

Let’s talk about the future.

Words by
b-side staff

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. He gave an insightful presentation with detailed documentations and step-by-step processes, and shared his humble beginnings and design philosophies.

“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 and research and the equally painstaking process of documentation are evident in every 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 life.

However, the process of making is time-consuming and can take months or even years. In today’s fast-paced world where people have attention spans of mere seconds, will this design process still hold?

Hans elaborates on the differentiation between design and art, and discusses if handmade products 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 were selected for an exhibition at Droog by 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 design 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 practice that is focused on self-initiated works that push the boundaries of design.

Copy-tiam Chair, 2012

From your personal practice over the past decade, do you think it is possible to differentiate between design and art?

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

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 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. Tell us more.

Being particularly drawn to porcelain as a material and the vase as an object, patterns have 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 practice evolved over time with the introduction and advancement of technology?

The advent of digital tools and an overall shrinkage of workshops for designers have compromised working and learning through hands-on making and experimentation. The overemphasis 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 technology?

There is an unmistakable difference between an object made by an automated machine and one made by hand. Although industrialisation has given us the economies of mass production and products have become more affordable, it has generated 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 two months in advance, appreciate the process that went into the fabrication of the 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 becomes blunt?

In your opinion, what is 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 have the responsibility to solve problems, but they also 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 also 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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