Singapore-born architect Cliff Tan, otherwise known as Dear Modern, shares with us his thoughts on TikTok fame, and how good feng shui and interior design can exist in harmony
With over 1.7 million followers and 30 million likes on TikTok at the time of writing, the architect Cliff Tan is the name and face behind @dearmodern. His claim to fame comes from his easily digestible videos that bridge the realms of feng shui and design.
Tan’s interest in both feng shui and architecture take a leaf from his family trade; his grandfather was a feng shui master, while his parents sold drafting equipment used by architects and engineers.
“I've always been interested in architecture, buildings and feng shui from a young age,” he recalls. “I was always looking at buildings and was intrigued by all the corners and angles, which I thought was very dynamic, and this then translated to the chi and the energy of the building.”
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Having graduated from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, the trained architect has more than 15 years of experience in the field.
Tan, who was born in Singapore and currently based in London, cut his teeth at several architectural firms including British design and architecture firm Heatherwick Studio, where he worked on several Singapore projects like the The Hive at the Nanyang Technological University as well as the Eden condominium.
In 2016, he established his own practice, seeking to offer clients a “way to seek the advice of an architect from anywhere in the world virtually”.
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Tan stumbled upon TikTok last year during a two-week quarantine stint in a Singapore hotel. “I was addicted to TikTok as it was really entertaining, and I wanted to contribute to the platform,” he recalls animatedly, in the same friendly and earnest manner that has earned him his large following. “Architecture was a bit too dry and technical to talk about, so I decided to make a very simple and easy-to-digest video about feng shui. It became viral instantly [Editor’s note: The video that Tan speaks of currently has 7.6 million views] and that’s when I realised that there was a huge interest in this!”
Tan’s videos, which often feature model furniture in a hand-drawn layout, offer logical and at times humorous advice conveyed in a practical and down-to-earth manner. His quick rise to fame took him by surprise. “I thought that there were certain concepts that were a bit too simple to even bother explaining, but there were people who really wanted to know!” he enthuses. “To me, [feng shui] is not about superstition. Feng shui is always about architecture. It’s about building a building in the best way possible.”
The architect has also published a design tome after he was approached with a book deal with Bloomsbury. “Feng shui books are generally quite heavy sometimes, and very few of them are architecturally inclined. The editor loved the idea of how I explained feng shui concepts and thought it would be a good idea for me to pen it in a book about feng shui,” says Tan.
Titled Feng Shui Modern, the book extensively explores feng shui concepts in the same affable way as Tan’s videos.
“The book is for a modern-day audience, but the concepts in the book are not new at all,” says Tan. “In fact, they’re very old-fashioned—more than standard feng shui books, because we're really going right to the very basics: to concepts before the invention of the compass, such as the sun direction. We’re applying this knowledge in a modern-day setting, where we live in apartments or shared spaces and we’re working from home. A lot of people are now spending so much time at home, they want to know how best they can make their homes work for them, and that’s where this book steps in.”
Feng shui is about building a building in the best way possible
The architect’s popularity has led to him setting up a private consultations page—an online format he deems “interesting and unconventional as architects typically do not do one-on-one consultations like doctors”—where he consults a variety of clients through one-on-one sessions via Zoom, on how they can best position their space. Tan is also working with developers, and was most recently looking at several newly built villas in Thailand.
While Tan’s consultations currently have a two-month waiting list, we recently met up with the architect; he shares some handy tips to keep in mind when practising feng shui in our abodes.
1. Analyse your space
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“When it comes to feng shui, you have to first ask yourself what you want to do with your space,” says Tan. “How do you want to use the space—for sleep or for work? Thereafter, you analyse the space.”
Windows and doors are key points, Tan highlights. “I always start with where the doors and windows are positioned, because that’s where you enter and exit the space. They are also where you’d get natural light and ventilation, and all these things affect the energy levels of a space. A room that has no windows or doors is like a cell or cave, there’s no energy at all. A room that is completely open on all sides, with the sun shining and the wind blowing, is a very high energy area, and so, even though it's the same little square with the same area and shape, the feeling is vastly different.”
2. Mirror mirror
According to Tan, windows are important for life and energy. If your space is lacking windows, Tan recommends the use of light as well as mirrors.
“Mirrors are a funny thing,” he notes. “A mirror creates a little portal; it doubles the space when it comes to creating dimension. So, if you want to add energy in a room, you’d put mirrors. They reflect the motion and double the movement and activity within the room.”
However, Tan cautions against placing a mirror opposite your bed. “You don't want to have a mirror pointing to a bed because, logically, that’s where you are sleeping. You want the area to be calm, and you wouldn’t want to be startled by your own reflection in the middle of the night.”
3. The right spot
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A key concept in feng shui is “the command position”, which refers to the best position in a room that allows you to feel protected and in control.
“If you face your bed to the door, it’s bad because it’s the death position, but also because if someone barges in, they will look up at your legs and it’ll be very embarrassing,” Tan shares rationally. “If you can’t reposition your bed, at least raise it. It feels like you’re more in control so that if someone attacks you, at least you’re higher up and not right at the bottom.”
He continues: “A lot of how we behave depends on how we potentially might feel. For example, you will never sleep in the middle of a long corridor. One way of putting it is the chi, but another way of putting it is that because it’s a corridor, there are lots of people walking by, and you’d want to avoid all the commotion.”
4. Know the elements
In feng shui, there are five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. “You always want a balance between the five elements in your home,” notes Tan. “To achieve that, you need the right mix of materials and colours.”
“For example, in a kitchen, there's a lot of fire, so you might not want to have the element of water as it’ll put out the element of fire. This is the feng shui explanation, but another way of looking at it is that you’d want the vibes of the kitchen to feel fiery and warm, and thus you wouldn’t want to have a blue wall, for example. We associate blue with pharmaceutical companies and tranquillity, which might suppress the appetite for some.”
As a general guide, Tan outlines that a kitchen should have more fire elements, while a bathroom should feature water elements, and a bedroom should be earthy for calmness; lastly, a living room and study should feature wood elements for personal growth.
5. Commonly mistaken elements
There’s a misconception that amping up the wood element in a room means adding brown tones within a space, says Tan. “The wood element, which represents life and growth, is green not brown,” the architect clarifies. “Brown and beige tones represent the earth element, which represents stability.”
The water element is also commonly mistaken to be light blue tones, Tan highlights. “Water is deep and still, and its colours are dark blue hues and black.”
6. Create an inviting environment
“People think that feng shui is like a superstitious concept and they’re a bit afraid of it sometimes as they think that if you don't do something in the right manner, something bad will happen to you,” says Tan. “That’s a common misunderstanding. Feng shui is not about if you do something right, something good will happen and if you don't do it, something bad will happen.”
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Rather, feng shui is about creating an environment that supports you. “Good feng shui will offer you an optimised environment that brings out the best out of you,” Tan explains. “I always talk about the three types of luck: heaven luck, which is fate, things that you cannot control; man luck, which is yourself, how determined and hardworking you are and how much effort you want to put into the focus of your life; and finally earth luck, which is your environment and how it plays a part in supporting you.”
According to Tan, by offering the best possible environment where one feels comfortable and not vulnerable, it allows one to focus on their work which would ideally lead to success.
7. Add personal touches
The architect advises that feng shui should be aligned to each individual’s personal experiences and culture. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Tan. “It depends on your culture and what works for you.”
He highlights an example: “In feng shui, they say not to put images of death or skulls or things like that. But I do have some clients who love their goth and these figments of death, and so I told them that if you like it and if it makes you happy, then there's really nothing wrong with that. A skull might be scary to one person, but to another person, it may just remind them of life and that you cannot stop the passage of time.”
This is also why Tan prefers to offer advice that encourages critical thinking rather than straightforward dos and don’ts. “If you teach one how to fish, one will never go hungry,” Tan chuckles. “The whole idea of how I explain [feng shui principles] is to give as much information as possible in a simple and logical way, so that people will understand it and actually apply it. You teach people the logic, and then they can decide for themselves if it suits them!”