Designer and design educator Hans Tan works a lot with porcelain, but he’s no expert on the material. “I can’t turn on the wheel or cast a piece of ceramic well,” he confesses. “My work contends with issues concerning capital goods, such as ideas relating to heritage and mass consumption. But I’m particularly interested in porcelain by virtue of it being a material that we interact with daily.” From another perspective, Tan is a designer who works with porcelain from the outside in.
Take Striped Ming, for example – a series of porcelain vases featuring a dynamic play of lines. Headstock that Tan found in a store, the vases were treated with a resist blasting technique in which their surfaces are first masked with a motif – in this case, stripes – using stickers, then sandblasted with aluminium oxide. While patterns underneath covered areas are preserved, the original glazed segments that were exposed to the treatment are erased, revealing pure, white porcelain beneath. The result: these forgotten objects are given a new lease on life, or, as Tan puts it: “the ugly is beautiful, the cheap expensive and trash made into treasure”.
Whereas these objects straddle the categories of art and functional design, many of Tan’s other projects such as Singapore Blue and Vase Porcelain are firmly conceptual. The former, a plain white vase with a pocket containing a blue marker, is inspired by the distinctive colour created by applying cobalt oxide to white porcelain (think Qing Hua Ci and Delft Blue) and is an ode to Singapore.
According to Tan, the “resolute” white porcelain represents the city-state’s impermanence and fluid sense of self, while the user engagement “demonstrates the participatory idea of our identity”, exemplified for example in the Your Singapore marketing campaign.
Vase Porcelain, on the other hand, is a study in irony. A transparent vessel containing broken pieces of porcelain from water closets, it was inspired by a trip to Japan, during which Tan visited both the ceramicists of Arita and a TOTO manufacturing plant. “These two industries, one precise industrial manufacturing and the other impeccable craftsmanship, are fundamentally responding to the same material – porcelain,” he says. “The seeming contrast and subtle similarities were beautiful.”
Through Vase Porcelain, Tan hopes to capture how dramatically our perceptions of the same material can shift. “We see porcelain so differently when we look at an immaculately crafted vessel and would pay a lot of money for, compared to the toilet bowl we use on a daily basis,” he says.
The image is enigmatic, the message poignant. Tan’s porcelain works are engaging social commentaries that represent issues being keenly explored by the current generation. Communicating his message in a concise, if somewhat unconventional manner, Tan’s designs are as elegantly executed as they are filled with wit, irony and irreverence.