Q&A with Gwen Tan, Studio iF: I often feel the urge to convey emotions through my works
You are well known for injecting compelling, quirky features into your projects. How do you manage to do it each time?
I think it is important to travel extensively to constantly nourish the mind and soul. I have an innate ability to internalise the experiences and details from my travels, as well as diverse exposure through many different business ventures, into inspiration for creative expression when the right time or place comes along. I often feel the urge to convey emotions through my works and to endlessly challenge myself to create new experiences.
How does being trained as an architect impact the way you design interiors?
Architectural training is full of rigour – it is one profession that touches on the deeper understanding of almost every subject we learn in school and beyond. In practice, one continues to hone the skills and knowledge necessary to become a competent architect in a highly complex industry, and that learning curve is constantly evolving no matter how many years one has invested in it.
The foundation of being an architect has given me the technical skill sets to detail and understand how to build almost anything I can dream about when working on interiors. It allows me to be in meaningful dialogues with craftsmen and specialists to create beautiful solutions for technically challenging projects.
On the other hand, my passion for furniture and keen eye for detail and materiality bring a different perspective when I work on architectural projects and very often, I cross-pollinate my experience into varied manifestations. I feel that interiors and creating stories through architecture has allowed me to craft the entire experience of a space right down to the touch and feel of a piece of furniture.
Which three designers, from the past or present, do you most admire? Why?
- Charlotte Perriand: She grew up in the era of industrialisation and beautifully blended the sensitivities of machines with soft touches. These are both a blend of art and science, which is something I can personally relate to as I am able to express myself in both as well. Her furniture pieces are some of my personal favourites and understanding how she made it in the industry despite the odds made me more attracted to her journey.
- Patricia Urquiola: One of my favourite designers. She is architecturally trained yet chooses to express herself through other genres of design – interiors, furniture, product and fashion. She’s multi-talented and multi-faceted. Visiting her in her studio and interacting with her as a person on many occasions has always revealed her as one with so much passion for her work, whether it is the space she’s crafting or the product she is working on. Her passion reinforces the conviction that design is the kind of industry that you can pull through if you have the passion for it.
- Kazuyo Sejima: Someone who was an early source of inspiration in my post-graduate life. Her projects have a complex simplicity to them; ideas and narratives are conveyed clearly in delicate yet powerful gestures. In architecture, I believe the best kinds of stories are crystalised in the simplest form and being able to do that is an art in itself. Being the second woman to be awarded the Pritzker Prize, her success in a male dominant industry in a male dominant society serves as an inspiration for many including me till now.
What are your three favourite buildings in Southeast Asia?
- National Theatre, Singapore (built 1963, demolished in 1986): This was an architectural icon of Singapore that ought to have been preserved at all cost. It has a very special place in my heart as it is one of my favourite buildings and places as a child (I would visit my aunt at her dance practice every week and attend her performances there when I was growing up). I can still remember the iconic fountain and the adjacent Van Cleef aquarium fondly. To me, the National Theatre building is as significant to Singapore as the Sydney Opera House is to Australia.
- Jewel Changi Airport, Singapore: A national icon and a simple and bold solution to a very complex set of problems and goals. Poetically resolved, timeless in its appeal and relatable across cultures and age groups. I love the abundance of daylight in there, the spatial quality and the fluid circulation and retail planning. It is definitely one of my favourite weekend malls to visit if I need to go to one.
- Cloister House, Malaysia: By my partners at Formwerkz Architects. A single storey multi-courtyard house that is a fresh take on tropical architecture with numerous inverted pitched roofed courtyards in the main house. It is highly contextualised to the site, the city as well as the needs of the family. Elegant and poetic solution to provide for the added sense of security needed to support the inner desire for the young kids to roam freely within the house compound. Winning the President’s Design Award for this project helps to validate the contribution it made towards landed housing design.
What is one tip you can offer our readers to use design to turn a house into a home?
Your home needs to contain stories of your life and support your lifestyle – the way you entertain or host, the way you spend time with yourself and with your loved ones, the art and travel memorabilia you collect and the things that matter to the family. It should also support interaction and facilitate the building of stronger ties. But more than just putting things in your house, you also need to engage with your surroundings (e.g. gardens, neighbours, adjacent buildings, animals in the neighbourhood etc). A well-designed home allows it to function well, conceals what it needs to hide from plain sight, focuses on the things that matter, aids interactions between the family and communicates the personality of the owners through its manifestation.
Gwen Tan is the Founder of Studio iF.