Reinventing the Everyday

California-based UMÉ Studio combines art, craft and function in creations influenced by Asian craftsmanship and attention to detail

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Mei-Lan Tan and Victor Lefebvre, the young duo behind UMÉ Studio, have different backgrounds but share a vision and love for materiality. From an Indonesian-Chinese family, Tan — who was born in the U.S. — studied architecture at Cornell University before working under Caroline O’Donnell. French architect Lefebvre was educated in his home country and Japan, and after a period spent at Kengo Kuma’s Paris firm he received a state research grant that led him to move to Kyoto, where he established his own practice.

Tan and Lefebvre met only a few years ago, while they were both working at Herzog & de Meuron in Switzerland, and quickly realised that they were on converging paths.

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In September 2016, they took the plunge and launched their own design studio in northern California, where they create now create limited-edition objects in partnership with architects, designers, artisans and artists from the West Coast and further afield like Paris, Kyoto and Ubud. The items — ranging from soaps, trays, cups and bowls to mirrors and sofas — designed by UMÉ Studio all reflect the idea of transcending the original function of these everyday objects, whose aesthetic is what Tan and Lefebvre describe as ‘simple and thoughtful’. Simultaneously powerful and poetic, these products are the result of an exploration into the relationship between objects and their contexts.

One of the studio’s most demanding projects to date was the sofa they designed in collaboration with Japanese futon and cushion producers Takaokaya, which took two years to bring to life. Tan and Lefebvre’s biggest challenge, however, is something they face on a daily basis. ‘If you ask people, they tell you they don’t need design, while in reality they don’t realise that everything is designed,’ says Lefebvre. Giving importance to details, Tan and Lefebvre have an intuitive creative process. ‘We travel, gather objects and experiences, and live our life,’ Lefebvre says. ‘And one morning, you end up in the shower holding a little piece of soap that you’ve been using for months, and it gives you an idea about how to make something unique.’ That’s exactly what happened with the sculptural Erode Soap Summit Series, created in collaboration with Californian artisanal soap manufacturer Tonic Naturals.

Constantly refining their approach and continuing to combine traditional craft with contemporary design, Lefebvre and Tan are currently working on designing a soap for fashion brand COS and a large-scale sofa. Regardless of the project or scale, their dedication to materiality, craft, tradition and exploration makes them skilled storytellers as well as designers.

Text / Karine Monié
Images / Courtesy of UMÉ Studio

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