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Utopia, Revisited

Back in Singapore from the Stockholm Furniture and Lighting Fair 2017, designer Gabriel Tan shares insights about ‘Furnishing Utopia’ – a project (exhibited there) that translates the ingenuity of Shaker objects into modern forms for contemporary life.

Utopia, Revisited

A selection of the new Furnishing Utopia products presented in Stockholm, including the Standing Mallet by Gabriel Tan (left). Photo by Petter Johanssen

Were the Shakers the first minimalists? The Furnishing Utopia project of 2016, which was presented in an expanded format at the Stockholm Furniture and Light Fair 2017, evolved from a sense of curiosity about how Shaker ideas can still prove influential for contemporary designers.

Singaporean designer Gabriel Tan was deeply involved in the project from the outset. Following a workshop at Shaker sites last year, he and 11 other designers created products that translated the ingenuity and aesthetic of Shaker objects into forms aligned with contemporary life.

Developed since the first exhibition at the Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts, newly created products by Tan were among those added to the mix for the Stockholm presentation this year. The work of 14 design studios from 11 cities in 7 countries was shown in Stockholm. Participating designers included Studio Gorm, Gabriel Tan, Ladies & Gentlemen Studio, Chris Specce, Hallgeir Homstvedt, Darin Montgomery, Jonah Takagi, Studio Tolvanen, Zoe Mowat, Tom Bonamici, Bertjan Pot, Norm Architects, Anderssen & Voll, and Vera & Kyte.

Tan tells us more about the project.

How did you become involved in this project?

When I was teaching at the University of Oregon in 2012, I was having a conversation about the Shakers with John and Wonhee Arndt of Studio Gorm, who were also teachers there. John’s tenure research topic was about the Shakers and he had travelled to the Hancock Shaker Village and Mount Lebanon Shaker Archive before as part of his research. During one of our conversations we decided that it would be a great idea to bring designers from the US and some international ones together to do a summer workshop at the Hancock Shaker Village and design reinterpretations of Shaker objects.

How did your experience of the Hancock Shaker Village and the Mt Lebanon Shaker Museum shape your approach to the products you designed?

I think the valuable thing was not just about the objects but also listening to the stories and history of the Shakers from the curator of the Shaker Village. There were so many things I didn’t know about them before. The Shakers were committed to making functional things but also beautiful things. They pushed the thinness of their furniture to the limit, and this was possible partly because they used their furniture carefully and responsibly, because they shared everything and in a way they also owned everything.

Working on commercial design projects, we tend to design things to be ‘bullet proof’, but the truth is that if people treat objects and furniture like it was their own, we would have so much leeway to design products with less material and more beauty and sustainability.

What lessons do you think contemporary Singapore-based designers can take from traditional Shaker objects?

“Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.” This is a phrase from the Shakers that really stuck with me. There is often a misconception that beautiful things are often less useful, but the shakers were trying to make things that are both useful and beautiful. Even their brooms are so well considered in build quality and design.

Among the other products in the show, which ones struck a chord with you and why?

I love the work of my friends from Studio Gorm (John and Wonhee Arndt) and their bread knife and butter board is one of my favourites from this year’s show because its simply beautiful and useful. It makes you feel like having breakfast just looking at it.

How was the reception at the Stockholm Furniture and Light Fair? Are there plans to commercialise any of the products?

The response from the public, press and companies was very good, and many of the designers are already in talks with well-known companies to commercialise their products.

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