S03E02: Helen Tan, Executive Chairman of Blanc Designs, Malaysia

In the beginning, we just told them we could do everything, anything. Any design you want, we can do it for you without knowing what we were very good at.

Helen Tan

Today’s episode is about Helen Tan who is the Executive Chairman of Blanc Designs based in Penang, Malaysia. 

helen tan blanc designs penang malaysia
Helen says that her motto is “create a life while making a living”.

Before we started recording the episode, Helen was perplexed. How could she showcase the visually arresting work that she has done for clients? After all, we were only recording in audio! 

It was a challenge for Helen because she is artistic and like every artist, visuals speak more audibly (pardon the pun!).

Despite her financial studies background and working for a few years in London, Helen came home to Penang, Malaysia to work in the family business of supply and distribution of car tyres. 

And yet her heart was always in the arts. She described how she would visit museums and art galleries in London and found that she was always joyful in these places. And that was how she realised she had to pursue her love for the arts.

Unlike most Asian parents, her parents were supportive and encouraged her to explore her passion when she told them her dream of setting up Blanc Designs.

Blanc in French means white and like a white piece of paper, it is an unexplored possibility. She explained that her logo incorporated her East-meets-West thinking as “bai” which means white in Mandarin is also the B in Blanc. 

The vision can sound very rosy. But when you put it into work, you have reality, you have resistance, you have different ages of people that you need to manage [as a business owner]. 

Helen says her greatest inspiration is her parents for allowing her to pursue her dream in art. Charlotte Brontë’s “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last” is her favourite as she believes that just because something has been done the same way for years doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be another way. 

It is no surprise then that she loves Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody for its avant-garde song structure and most interestingly, Walt Disney’s Zootopia for its sumptuous animation and rich storytelling. 

In the beginning, it was quite hard because I would always feel that this is the right way and I learned my lesson through things that things didn’t work and I’m very open-minded to admit that it didn’t work out.

Helen is excited to incorporate art as 3D forms for homes and offices rather than have art within a frame and within the confines of the museum or gallery. She tests and tries unconventional ways of displaying and appreciating art while creating pieces that are functional. To her, art is life and life is art.

Helen says,” I want Blanc Designs to be an arts facilitator or educator to provide students with the basic skills and knowledge of arts to foster creativity and innovation which is essential for our country’s socio-economic growth.” 

In this episode, Helen talks about:

  • Her multisensory project for her client (and she even asked to “experience” the space once it was completed) 
  • Walking away after getting shortlisted for the Penang Arts District which was a RM30mil container-themed arts district design conceptualization
  • Using shapes and colours to project the philosophy of Dandy ( I also interviewed Michelle of Dandy in the last season – check out that episode too about being a restaurant owner) 
  • Her inspiration for her work (involving sharks, whales and Tate Modern) 
  • Why she needed to instill business processes despite the initial pushback from the creative folks in her team 
  • Looking beyond her projects (and what else is coming up for Blanc on the digital front)
  • Her favourites – Freddie Mercury, Alexander McQueen, Damien Hirst – and why
  • How she responds to criticism as a design person

Connect with her: https://www.facebook.com/blancdesigns

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