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Dieu Tan

Studio Visit

15th March, 2013
Lucy Feagins
Friday 15th March 2013

Photo by Dieu Tan for More Space Magazine, stylist - Kirsten Bookallil

Photo by Dieu Tan for More Space Magazine, stylist - Kirsten Bookallil

Photo by Dieu Tan for Sydney Magazine

Photo by Dieu Tan for Travel & Leisure, stylist - Megan Morton

Photo by Dieu Tan for the Financial Review Magazine, Stylist - Virgina Van Heythuysen 

Sydney based Dieu Tan is a man of few words and many, many talents. It has been difficult to know where to start with this story because I must say, he is such an interesting and multi-faceted character... it's quite difficult to describe his varied creative endeavours succinctly!  I'll give it my best shot...

Mainly, Dieu is a photographer. He's well known for his masterful skill in still life and product photography.  Whilst it seems almost every other photographer in Australia seems to be focussed on either food, interiors or fashion, Dieu is the master of still life. He's a quiet achiever, hunkered down in his studio most days, producing pixel-perfect product shots, often for fragrance and cosmetics brands, gadgetry or jewellery.  These shoots are produced with such an incredible attention to detail, Dieu really undertakes his craft with the precision of a surgeon.

'Dieu is like the perfect combination of left and right brain' explains Megan Morton, who has worked extensively with Dieu for various clients and editorial titles. 'He's systematic and precise.  He could be an engineer, an aeroplane pilot or an architect' she explains - 'he's a slashie of the highest order!'.   And, in a world now where really anyone with a Canon SLR can call themselves a photographer (!!), Dieu sits at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, making elegant imagery with the utmost reverence for good old fashioned technique, whether he's shooting a magazine cover, or a packaging shot.

Dieu is also a talented furniture maker, who largely taught himself woodworking techniques, and takes on private commissions for various custom furniture and cabinetry projects.  It's a side project - but it's a serious one.  Dieu has an impressive timber workshop not far from his photographic studio, and spends many hours when he's not booked on shoots creating prototypes and one off pieces for friends and clients.

AND then there's the bikes!  Dieu's latest endeavour is Tanto Bicycles - a bike building business that last year turned from a side project into a business because, as Dieu says below, 'I just couldn’t stop'!  Bike building again appeals to Dieu's inquisitive creative mind - it perfectly combines craft, science, and 'a good amount of problem solving', he says.

Dieu Tan's photography website is here, his furniture can be seen here, and his bikes are here!  He has also recently obtained the exclusive license to import and distribute the distinctive 'Strida' bikes in Australia, a unique folding bicycle, designed in London.  They're pretty amazing!  A little more info on this below!

Massive thanks to Dieu for sharing his story and his studio with us today!

Dieu Tan in his Sydney studio, photo - Phu Tang
Tell us a little about your background – Did you always want to be a photographer? How did you first start out in the industry, and what eventually led to going out on your own?

Since the start of high school in year seven, I dreamt of being a photographer. I imagined all the scenarios of what a photographer did on my daily walk to and from school and dreamt of all the cameras and lenses they used. I got into RMIT and studied a bachelors degree in photography. I almost didn’t do it because people would tell me 'it’s not a real career, just do it as a hobby'.

Towards the end of the course, I got really depressed and felt a lot of pressure because I would soon have to find work and somehow prove that I could make a career out of photography. Overcoming my shyness, I eventually got work as a photographic assistant. I worked one year with Greg Delves (a brilliant still life photographer now in NY) and two years for John Gollings (legendary architectural photographer). In 1999, I had the urge to progress and start on my own. It was like leaving RMIT again. It was scary at first, but since making this decision I have felt more proud and satisfied with my life.

Whilst many Australian photographers specialise in shooting food, interiors or fashion, you are the master of still life. What is it you love most about shooting still life, and what have been some particularly favourite shoots / campaigns in recent years?

Still life lets me get into a zone. I like it because there are usually less distractions and the outcome is the result of what I do (on a job, a stylist and I would work together). I like not having to rely on too many other variables to do my work. I think it’s a personality thing and mine is suited to still life. Not to sound like a complete loner, I do shoot some fashion, interiors and portraits, but still life is what I excel in!

Fragance product shots by Dieu Tan

Photo by Dieu Tan for Vogue Living Australia, stylist - Alexandra Gordon

For the photography nerds out there - a peek at Dieu's impressive studio set up!  Photo - Phu Tang
Not only are you a professional photographer – you also design and make furniture AND you're a bike specialist, restoring and building custom bikes. Can you tell us a bit about this business – what inspired you to launch this venture, and what plans do you have for Tanto Cycles?

Friends tell me I have an obsessive personality. My lovely wife (an excellent photographer also) has gotten used to this and is quite supportive. Woodworking and bike building are serious hobbies of mine that gradually turned into side businesses because I just couldn’t stop. I started Tanto Bicycles last year because I felt bicycle building was an extension or progression from woodworking. I love making things and bicycles ticked all the right boxes for me. Building a bicycle involves a lot of craft, science, special tools and a good amount of problem solving.

The process is also making me a healthier person physically now that I am cycling on a regular basis. The biggest challenge I have taken on though, is creating a brand. It will be a slow process but I hope to make the brand respectable in the cycling world by offering great bikes and cycling related stuff. The dream is to one day see Tanto become to cycling what Speedo is to swimming or Callaway is to golf.

Dieu's studio doubles as a bike building workshop! Photo - Phu Tang
You're also the Australian distributor for Strida Bicycles. How did this come about? What is it you love about Strida bikes that inspired you to import these unique bikes, and how on earth do you have time for all these extracurricular projects!?

The Strida is a really unique looking bike. Designed 25 years ago, it has had a pretty interesting history. Mark Sanders designed it while studying at the Royal College of Art in London to make his commute easier to class. Now it’s a global product that is very popular in Europe and Asia. I was very lucky with the timing because Australia simply didn’t have a distributor. I also read somewhere that folding bikes were the fastest growing market for all bike sales in Australia. They are extremely practical and perfect for big cities. We are a bit spoilt in Australia for space, but if you visit very big cities, it makes complete sense. I thought why not – our cities will only get busier and it is better for the environment. Love them or hate them, design wise, they are pretty unique.

Dieu's studio - the bike top right is a 'Strida', with its distinctive triangular shape.  Photo - Phu Tang
Can you share any wisdom on how you manage to juggle so many varied businesses and projects? Is it a challenge to manage your time between so many varied multidisciplinary pursuits?

Some days are a struggle but it doesn’t happen often. Being a freelancer, I’m able to juggle jobs and time. Photography always takes first preference, and jobs are always booked well in advance. All the other things work around my photography schedule. I can work on a furniture project anytime as long as I meet the deadline, and I make sure I give myself some leeway for each project. When it gets overwhelming, I make notes for what I have to do and force myself to go through the list and tick off each chore at a time. It's very satisfying!

Dieu in his wood workshop, not far from his photographic studio. Photo - Phu Tang

Dieu in his wood workshop. Photo - Phu Tang
What does a typical day in the life of Dieu Tan involve?

This is a tough question because I have no routine and I could be working on four different things on the same day. If I’m shooting, I’d go to work, sometimes via dropping my daughter off to school, have a coffee at the studio, and set up for the day. Clients and crew would then show up and we go about doing our jobs with plenty of laughter and gossip in between (that’s a good shoot). By the end of it, I’m usually pretty tired, go home and crash in front of the TV. After dinner and getting our daughter off to bed (about 9pm), I would go through images, edit and retouch the day's work (this can sometimes take days), plan what needs to be done the next day, watch more TV if there is time or just go to bed and look at things on the iPad before I crash. Very unglamorous and mundane!

Dieu in his office. Photo - Phu Tang
Which Australian photographers, designers or creative people are you loving at the moment?

The photographer I’m loving is my wife Chris Chen!  I also like Martyn Thompson and Earl Carter’s work. I’ve always loved furniture designer Khai Liew’s work. To me, he’s like an old master at his craft, not caught up in trends but instead creating beautiful modern, yet timeless furniture pieces in timber. I love Megan Morton’s inventiveness, unstoppable energy and what she is offering in the styling world. Have always loved graphic designers David Pidgeon and Vince Frost’s work. They’ve always pushed the boundaries with what they do.

Photo by Dieu Tan for Travel & Leisure, stylist - Megan Morton

Photo by Dieu Tan for Travel & Leisure, stylist - Megan Morton
Can you list for us 5 specific resources across any media that you turn to when you’re in need of a bolt of creative inspiration?

I must admit, I was a late discoverer of The Design Files. The stories and people here provide great inspiration. I love my morning update from TDF and it’s not because I’m going to be on it! On TV, I get plenty of inspiration from Grand Designs. Some of those projects are amazing journeys and I get so impressed with the people who build the homes themselves. I subscribe to (Inside) magazine for the latest in interior design and gadgets, Luerzer’s Archive and PDN magazine for photographic inspiration and technical updates and when there is time, my other favorite blog is Cycling Tips.

What would be your dream creative project?

In my dream, this is what will happen – Coca-Cola’s global office calls my mobile and says they love my work and would pay me lots of money to fly to the U.S. (I assume it’s in the U.S.) and shoot a month long campaign of Coke print ads and I can come up with the concepts and do whatever I want. After the tiring but rewarding shoot we all go partying…

In another dream, I win $10 million where I’ll donate $3 million to charity (my wife will make me do it – she’s like that). Then I’ll buy a huge warehouse to house my dream studio, wood workshop and bike workshop all under one roof. It will be designed and built by me of course!

Dieu's studio - bikes made by Dieu, stool made by Dieu! Photo - Phu Tang
What are you looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to getting on the plane and going to Taipei for the cycle show in mid March. Taiwan is the biggest bicycle manufacturer in the world, making bikes for the world’s big brands. I'm looking forward to discovering new things in cycling. I’ll be visiting the Strida factory and other factories that make parts and frames for Tanto Bicycle. It’ll also be a semi holiday for the family.

Sydney Questions

Your favourite Sydney neighbourhood and why?

I like the inner west – parts of Newtown, Marrickville and St Peters because it’s kinda edgy, not too bling and trendy, yet close enough to the city. There is still a good mixture of industry around and I love finding small factories that still make things nearby. These places have a mix of working class and professionals, huge cultural diversity and great cheap food.

Where do you shop in Sydney for the tools of your trade?

For photography, I buy most of my lighting equipment through Sun Studios in Alexandria. Digital equipment comes from L&P photographics and a lot of bits and pieces I get online.

For woodworking, I buy timber from Anagote Timbers in Marrickville. This place looks like it hasn’t changed since the '70s. They sell timber from all over the world and the timber yard guys look like they haven’t moved on from the '70s either. I love it! For machinery and tools, I go to Carba-tec in Auburn or Hare and Forbes way out in Northmead.

For bikes, unfortunately it is pretty hard to get tools or components from bike shops in Sydney. I usually source these on ebay or other suppliers all over the world.

What and where was the last great meal you had in Sydney?

Thai at Let’s Eat Thai in Marrickville. We pretty much eat there weekly. The food is great and there is no big queue. Eating out for us involves a handful of places that are approved by our 8-years-young daughter, Tommie. We don’t have family in Sydney so Tommie goes where we go. Once in a while we get organised enough to get a babysitter and go somewhere nice with friends. We’re slowly ticking off the list of places people are raving about. Porteno in Surry Hills is always exceptional.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

I would most likely be in Bondi Junction having ramen with Tommie after her guitar lesson. We both share a love of ramen and yum cha. If I don’t have to take her to guitar I’m either in my workshop working on a furniture piece or at my studio, tinkering with a bike build.

Sydney’s best kept secret?

It’s not exactly a secret but I love the family friendly cycling and walking trails at Olympic Park at Homebush Bay. They go through marshland and bush, and alongside the Parramatta River. It is so tranquil and scenic there. Do it on a bike for a great day out with family.

Photo by Dieu Tan for Habitus Magazine, stylist - Paul Hopper.

The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email