Mei-Lan Tan
Mei-Lan Tan is the co-founder of UME STUDIO, a home object design studio located in Oakland, CA. A recent Forbes 30-under-30 honoree in the Arts and Style category, we have long admired her incredible eye for shape and movement in static objects and her perspective on artful living.
Tell us a bit about you and your work.

I’m Mei-Lan Tan - I co-founded a design company called UME where we design and produce objects for the home. Our counterpart UME STUDIO works at a larger scale on retail interiors and architecture. Additionally, I am teaching at UC Berkeley as an Architecture professor for studio courses. I’ve spent the last 6 years moving around different countries and places, sometimes over the span of 3 months and sometimes staying for a year collecting objects, cultural rituals, a sense of daily life associated with these places. Finally settling in the Bay Area, I found an amazing space that is perfect for our vision, and a place to always come back to.

What were some of the catalysts that led you to what you’re doing now?

I think I was keyed into my obsession with objects as I collected little objects and items for my home while travelling around the world. I would dedicate part of my suitcase to bring back home pieces from everywhere, I wanted to hold onto the different types of crafts available, the locale of the materials offered. It became my ritual to have objects on display in my home, and no matter how little I had in my apartment at the time, each object always made the biggest difference in my space. As a designer working at Herzog & deMeuron at the time, the accumulation of objects in my home simultaneous to working at an architectural scale really reminded me to remember the human scale, and the everyday object. When I met my cofounder, Victor Lefebvre, we understood our like-minded spirit in materials and objects and decided to start UME together.

Who are some of the women you most look up to?

Collyn Ahart, Christine Binswanger, Stefanie Henkle, Tina Frey

How did you get involved with design as a profession?

I’m trained as an architect and formerly worked as an architect while holding a B.Arch. I’m interested in both scales, of object and architecture and find it important to work on both scales simultaneously. The synthesis between objects and space is really the relationship I seek a deeper understanding of as one is placed in the other. Especially today when we tend to own less but own more consciously. I started working more professionally with objects in a funny way, I was renting out homes in upstate New York and furnishing the homes with objects and furniture I had made, and realized this brought a different perspective to the rental economy. The properties I worked with caught on and I kept furnishing more and more homes - which eventually was the reason I chose to pursue and design objects with UME as a separate entity. I’ve become very interested in seeing how people live, how spaces become lived in.

What sets your design approach apart?

Learning from the everyday, slowing down to understand the moment, we design with our ideas embedded in ritual. This is really inspired by a year and half of nomadic design and collaborations around the world and living daily life. Our objects question their use to become experiences, our production is not one of products, but of stories. Products are things we buy and discard, stories are kept and cherished, we believe this way design is anchored in time, and this is how an object becomes a ritual.

One day the soap kept slipping in the shower, and this is how our Erode soap was developed — a soap that is stationary and that erodes and changes as you use it, producing a different type of ritual around hand washing.

Where do you find inspiration?

Inspiration can come from anywhere really. Whether it’s from reading or just taking a walk and seeing the environment change around you. Currently I am a little obsessed with gourds after my most recent trip to Hangzou and Suzhou. I came back with quite a collection and I enjoy curating an “exhibition like” table in my home, picking what objects I put out at the time and what sits next to the other. I love to look at craft objects, the utilitarian objects that are stripped of design and have no author. Craft objects age better through use and their durablity is built into its design. This is something I admire as I tend to design more sculptural objects that are utilitarian, but that I can’t strictly call a craft object.

I also enjoy to drive all around California, whether its the rugged coast or inland towards gold country, there are a number of one street towns that are incredible to drive through and are surrounded by natural beauty. That’s one of the reasons I live in California, the beautiful winding roads, many bridges, rivers, oceans, and the diverse settings you can drive through.

What role does what you wear play in your life?

Getting dressed in the morning is one of the true joys in my life. Whether it’s to get down into the shop, to go teach at Berkeley, or to meet a client. There are small and subtle ways to suggest your own identity while trying to put on the many hats representing the different roles in your life. Often shoes are the one piece that I really fall for. They really define how I feel that day and help me dress up or dress down. Most days I wear a uniform of a white t-shirt or button down and black pants. There is no number of white t-shirts that I would consider capping as a quota, the cuts are always so different! If not in my uniform, I generally tend to move towards statement pieces that I hope to keep for a lifetime.

What does it mean to you to be a “modern citizen”?

Understanding that dressing simply doesn’t mean boring! The seasons have led us to believe that we constantly need to update our wardrobe and exchange the old for the new in our closets. It’s important to find the clothes that have the interesting cuts and best fits, then I wouldn’t be on the search for new things.

Mei-Lan's Favorite...
Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Great China — Double Skin Noodles
“Step by step, inch by inch, brick by brick” — Three Stooges
Dia:Beacon (Beacon, NY)