Cover Interdisciplinary designer Gabriel Tan

Homegrown designer Gabriel Tan moved to Portugal last year to run his furnishings brand Origin and his design studio Antimatter—below, he tells us why

How is a chair made, who crafts it and where do its materials come from? This search for provenance inspired Singapore industrial designer Gabriel Tan to start his own furniture brand, Origin, in 2020 in Porto, Portugal.

“We often do not know the origins of our products at the point of purchase,” he shares. “With Origin, (we wanted to) tell an honest story about where and by whom our products are made, educate the consumer about the process of making, and rebuild the relationship between objects and people.”

See also: 10 Beautiful Homes in Singapore with Stunning Interior Design

Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Tan was shuttling frequently between the US, Singapore and Europe to work with international manufacturers including Blå Station, Design Within Reach and The Conran Shop. Plans to relocate to Europe were already in the works for a few years at the time, pandemic notwithstanding. “I wanted to strengthen my relationships with existing clients while expanding my portfolio in Europe,” he says.

Of the countries he visited, Portugal stood out for its rich craft traditions. Although Tan first travelled to the country in 2014 to sightsee, he ended up visiting local artisanal workshops during the trip and was blown away by what he saw. “I was amazed by the amount of industry and craft that resides next to beautiful landscapes (in Portugal),” he says.

I was amazed by the amount of industry and craft that resides next to beautiful landscapes (in Portugal).
product and interior designer Gabriel Tan

From the start, Tan wanted to make locally sourced materials and techniques a priority for Origin; his team currently uses materials such as linden wood, sand-cast brass, blown glass and Portuguese stone. The Charred Vases series is among the highlights; these vessels are crafted with the traditional barro preto technique, a labour-intensive process technique in which black clay is fired in a soil pit fed with firewood. 

“This process is classified by Unesco as a cultural heritage in urgent need of safeguarding as there are few craftsmen in Portugal who continue to practise barro preto,” he shares. “The earth piled on top of the vessels creates an oxygen vacuum that causes the pieces to have a charred appearance in non-uniform hues. You never know the exact colour you will get with this technique because it all depends on how much soil is used, and how close the pieces are to the fire; this process creates an imperfect beauty.”

He hopes to collaborate with artisans outside Portugal soon to produce new collections for Origins. “While the brand is now telling a story about Portugal because all our products are made here, we are not discounting the possibility of creating new collections made in other parts of the world and telling the stories of other cultures.”

Through his design studio Antimatter, Tan has taken on more interior design commissions in recent years. He is now working on his first hospitality project in Mozambique as well as a house in Singapore with Tokyo-based architect Keiji Ashizawa; he is also designing new furniture collections for several brands including Japanese label Ariake.

“Our interior design projects push us to think about how products and spaces work together to create a harmonious, holistic living environment,” he says. “We think about both furniture and space in tandem—we could be designing a space around a chosen piece of furniture, or the other way round.” 

We think about both furniture and space in tandem—we could be designing a space around a chosen piece of furniture, or the other way round.
Gabriel Tan

He has high hopes for the Singapore design community and his newly minted brand; he plans to open the first Origin showroom in Portugal this October. “I hope that Origin can be an internationally recognised brand for design objects made with a human touch,” he says. “For aspiring young designers, I would urge them to discover their own path, but never underestimate the grit that is needed to achieve big things.”

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