Designer Crush: Mei-Lan Tan, Co-Founder of UME Studio



1. How did you get your start in design?

I first became interested in design when I came across several architecture-related projects in high school history class, including the Chicago World Fair and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. My curiosity led me to pursue an Independent Study in Architecture where I was very optimistic about making changes in the world and I designed a low-income housing complex with a zero-energy building in the middle of Santa Monica. I then studied architecture at Cornell and practiced at Herzog & de Meuron, where I grew more interested in the smaller scale of objects and furniture, realizing their power and effect in changing a space.

2. How did you meet Victor, and how did you decide to collaborate on UME?

Victor and I first met while working together in Basel, Switzerland at Herzog & de Meuron. Although we never worked on the same projects during our time there, we quickly became friends and discovered we had a similar design approach. Coincidentally Victor ended up in San Francisco while I was living in upstate New York, we both had an immense desire to work at a smaller scale and use our hands. So it seemed natural to start a design studio together.

3. UME differentiates itself with its focus on materiality, craft, and technique leading to design, rather than the other way around. Why is that important to you and how does it change the end result?

I have a small obsession with common objects, or instruments, that I collect everywhere I go, whether cups or sponges or forks, they are simple, functional objects of use. It’s easy to compare them and see similarities in the way they are used and made, tools without design, we are seeking the roots of creativity. This type of investigation allows us to examine their craftsmanship and use, and potentially a trend in the more natural impulse of how to work with a certain material across cultures. Working with materials and craft sets up a context and frame for us to work within and these objects hold such specific qualities, such as texture and weight, and how they can be segmented and shaped. They become the primitive form we begin to contemplate in our work. This also helps break down preconceived ideas of what a thing should be in our cultural system of design in the modern day. What we then have is a richer and more rigorous understanding of how to work creatively with a material, from the technique of working with it, to the design and function. Our process is about material, craft, and technique first, which is different to the norm in architecture, where a design exists in drawing or form before it is realized through a material.   

4. Describe one of your most memorable projects.

One of my most memorable projects is our soon to be released Zabuton Sofa. It is a project I hold close to my heart as it has been ongoing for two years and every step has been carefully planned and thought out, and every person involved has such talent and skill in their craft. We knew we wanted to work with a futon maker but we didn’t know what we would make. The project really started when we talked to the owner of a traditional futon company and he explained the history of his company, how it was a family business that evolved with the needs of society, and how they are still making futons the way they were making them in 1918. We had so many ideas of what to do but, in the end, we took the Japanese futon, this piece or armature as our model for comfort and repose in Japan, and married it with the Western equivalent – a sofa. What we ended up with is an evolved version of both a futon and sofa, a play on soft and hard through a modular system, highlighting the beauty of sitting low to the ground. There are plays with privacy and even deluxe layers of cushioning that all have the single goal of adding comfort to the body.  

5. You collaborate with designers and artisans all over the world — why is that diversity important to you and how does it inform your work?

Collaborating with designers and artisans around the world is a really enriching part of our studio and design process. It is a lifelong learning process that gives us a glimpse into the experience and skill that these artisans have been developing for years. The synergy behind working with a collaborator really keeps us questioning our design process, which is a good exercise in negating a natural tendency to design for the user. When we involve a craftsperson early on in the design, it not only informs the object, but it becomes part of its genesis.  

We are at the crossroads of a lot of disciplines: design, architecture and art. We have a mindset of discovery and persistence, and we have experience with a lot of people who individually carry their visions through craft. What we offer is a voice and opportunity to produce a piece without too many constraints, as well as a space where our collaborators can do something freely while showcasing their skills. We do this through a lot of talking, collaboration and through friendship. We provide a creative outlet that allows them to express their talents in their craft, and their creative process in turn enriches our design. Together, we create a dialogue that is usually different than what they are doing, and gives them the space to do what they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do and focus purely on their craft.  

6. What’s your ideal vacation destination and why?

I think my ideal vacation destination is like the vacation I have always dreamed of but have never taken! Remote and disconnected from modern life, most likely to the most southern tip of Italy with a lot of cliffs and crashing waves, and different hues of deep blues in the water. It is landscape and open sea, but with the cultural richness of seaside Italian towns, and possibly a good swim.

Lightning round!

8. Favorite movie?

Tie between Broken Embraces (Almodovar) & 8 ½ (Fellini).

9. Go-to karaoke song?

Jumper (Third Eye Blind).

10. Favorite pizza topping?


11. Early bird or night owl?

Night owl.

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