Interview: Designer Alvin Tan
When Phunk Studio co-founder Alvin Tan conceptualises, creates, collaborates or develops an idea, graphic design reigns supreme.
Take a look at the word “L’Officiel” above. What does the design evoke? What do the patterns and geometric shapes remind you of? Some may say “stained glass”, and, therefore, think of churches, Christianity, and religion. Some may say “Aztec totem poles”, and, thus, form associations with ancient history and culture. Yet others might be reminded of the numerous facets of iridescent precious stones, and, hence, luxury and royalty. Whatever the image conjured, it stems from imagination – something that creative director, designer and artist Alvin Tan sought to depict when our friends at L’Officiel Singapore commissioned him to design their masthead to celebrate the ninth anniversary.
“L’Officiel Singapore is an avant-garde magazine, and that speaks volumes about your sense of imagination,” says Tan, when asked how his design reflects the spirit of this magazine. “Without imagination, nothing sparks off. It’s the true basis of good ideas.” That he is currently influenced and inspired by kaleidoscopic art and intricate mandalas comprising elaborate networks of geometric patterns comes as no surprise. Just half a year ago, the 41-year-old – who co-founded local art and design collective Phunk Studio in 1994 – graduated from Lasalle College of the Arts with a master’s degree in fine arts, the subject of his thesis being none other than… kaleidoscopic art and mandalas. As our conversation continues, Tan opens up about his design philosophy, Phunk Studio’s longevity and space exploration.
Thank you for creating such a thought-provoking interpretation of our masthead to celebrate our ninth anniversary! We were also very taken by your most recent solo work entitled Fragments of the Heart that was commissioned for the sixth edition of Art Stage Singapore. What was the inspiration for that piece?
“The work is based on my own ups and downs and my experiences in the two years I was at Lasalle. It explores the fragilities and dualities that surround us in daily life. We face positivity and negativity every day, but if you look at them as a whole, these things are actually harmonious – you can’t separate them. So, it’s about embracement and how duality becomes a singular process, how fragments come together as one piece.
What is your personal design philosophy?
“I don’t really have one. One of my favorite artists and heroes, Chuck Close (a 75-year-old American artist known for his pixel paintings) once said, ‘Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.’ I take that as my inspiration, not to be too caught up with one thing, but to just get on with creating, whatever the inspiration, whether it’s travel or sitting here enjoying a cup of tea while having a conversation with you.”
What do you do when you encounter designer’s block?
“I’ll stop looking at the screen and take a walk – as simple as that! Looking into trees or staring at the sky helps. The best solution to designer’s block is to watch the sun set as you collect your thoughts.”
Do you remember the first thing you ever designed?
“Hmm, let me think. (short pause) Oh yeah, I remember! It was a logo for my basketball team. I used to play basketball when I was in New Town Secondary School, and I was totally inspired by the Nike ad campaigns and the ‘Jumpman’ logo that was used to promote the brand’s Air Jordan shoes. It was a really bad spoof of that logo!”
In the 22 years since its inception, Phunk Studio – which you co-founded with Jackson Tan, Melvin Chee and William Chan – has worked with a multitude of brands, including Converse, Diesel, Hermès, Daimler Chrysler and Uniqlo, and even created merchandise for The Rolling Stones’ tour. In 2007, Phunk Studio was named Designer of the Year at the President’s Design Award ceremony. What do you attribute your success and staying power to?
We’re like a family. We can pre-empt each other’s thoughts and idiosyncrasies very well before we get into conflict, and we have a very similar sense of visualisation. We think of ourselves as players in a band, more than workers in a company. Each of us has an instrument to play, but when we come together as a band, as Phunk, that’s when we work best.
What’s next, both for yourself and for Phunk Studio?
I plan to continue building my body of work and explore my own career as a solo artist. I’d like to do a solo exhibition soon, hopefully early next year. I’m a very restless person! I like to dabble with different things and I get interested in things very quickly. As for Phunk, we’re also going to continue building our body of work based on the universe we’ve created.
What you would be if you weren’t a graphic designer?
An astronaut! (laughs) I’ve always wanted to go to space.
Text by Justin Cheong
This story first appeared in L’Officiel Singapore.