To design their inner sanctums, Peter Tay needs to get inside the hearts and minds of his high-flying clients. Chong Seow Wei meets the interior designer extraordinaire with an indefatigable drive to dig deeper and aim higher.

“To me, ‘celebrity’ is passe,” says Peter Tay. This, from a man whose name is scarcely mentioned without the preceding phrase “celebrity interior designer”. 

He’s one of Singapore’s most famous interior designers and also designer to the stars, having conceptualised the homes of superstars. At the time of our interview, he was putting the finishing touches to Wang Leehom’s apartment in Taipei.

Celebrity designer. It was an easy role to slip into. He started his interior design practice after graduating from London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture, and his very first design project—a good class bungalow in Third Avenue—made it to the newspapers. “My first project was a big one, despite my not having actual experience designing a house. When it was done, it got full-page coverage in The Straits Times. Can you imagine how I felt? A newbie like me, getting such coverage for my first project? It got me thinking, ‘So easy? Hmm, things seem to come very easily for me.’”

He gained more projects through word of mouth—big-name individuals and brands that he rattles off matter-of-factly. Zhang Ziyi and Stefanie Sun’s homes. SC Global’s luxury show flats. The home of the Japanese owner of Fuji TV, who owns museums in Japan. Furniture showrooms for Armani/Casa and XTRA. Richard Mille and Manolo Blahnik boutiques here. The award-winning Surrender salons in Shanghai and Singapore… 

He doesn’t disagree when we suggest that he is the Peter Marino of Singapore. “I have a client from Zurich who has a number of homes across the world. All his properties were designed by Peter Marino. Only for his Singapore residence, he told me, ‘You have to design it. You are the other Peter who will design my home.” 

In those early years when he was doing a lot of celebrity homes, he “became a bit obsessed with being a celebrity myself as well”, he admits. Crashing his Toyota Supra into a tree in 2006 was a turning point. “I was on medication, which required me to rest, but I didn’t. I was too tired and crashed into a tree,” he says of his widely publicised accident that left him in a coma for three days. “My wife was pregnant with my first son, who was born the very day I came out of my coma. She said the first thing I asked her was, ‘Who is this baby?’ because she was carrying our newborn son.”

Peter needed several rounds of reconstructive surgery for his face and jaw—“my whole face was fractured internally; it’s all metal underneath now and my skin still stings when I wash my face”—and the months he took to recover gave him time to think. “Before, I wasn’t clear about my design identity. But after the accident, I realised ‘celebrity’ doesn’t matter. Why think only about celebrity projects? What about doing projects that are more meaningful and have more substance—more quality in terms of design, and not design that only looks good? That’s when I came up with the concept of Reflections.” 

It’s become his design signature. Polished stainless steel, tinted mirrors and high-gloss polyurethane sprays “create a duality of space”—be it capturing elements of the outside in the reflections, or conjuring spatial multidimensionality. “The materials used have to stimulate and provoke your senses.” Essentially though, it’s about designing a space that reflects the character of the owner: “As a designer, it’s about understanding the identity of the brand, or the persons living in the space. If you design something around what someone likes, they’ll love what you do for them.” 

Reflecting on his second lease on life, Peter now also makes time for more pro-bono projects for churches and the less privileged, to “thank God for giving me a life and for giving me my life back”. “I found it very beautiful watching this old lady walking up the stairs to a museum in London. It was difficult for her but she was smiling every step she took. It told me how much she loved art and how much she was willing to go for it, despite the obstacles in between.”

Fame. Fortune. Peter says his true satisfaction comes from a heartfelt “Thank you for giving me a beautiful space” from his clients. “This evokes a happiness that money can’t buy,” he says. He’s tried to capture this desire to delight in his monograph Peter Tay published in 2013. “Many Singaporean architects have published monographs, but I was the first interior designer to do so. I wanted to share with Asia and the world that we not only have great architects like Chan Soo Khian, but talented interior designers as well.”

Enigmatic photographs by John Heng illustrate his design journey since 2001. The limited-edition tome of over 300 pages is coated in black ink on the page edges so readers have to peel them apart. Page by page. A step closer to beauty. A step closer to embracing his art. 

His design philosophy is to create spaces that evoke a positive atmosphere and encourages communal bonding: “Good design is about creating a space that makes its inhabitants want to be in it, to linger and stay on. A space where, when parents come home, they want to spend more time with their kids—a dining or kitchen area where they can sit together; if the kids sit on the floor nearby, they can still be seen and heard by their parents. The visual and aural connection between parties is important in communal spaces. If it’s a home for a young couple, I can create a shared space where, say, we place a piece of art that holds significance for both of them.” 

In 2014, Peter swept four Design Excellence Awards by the Interior Design Confederation, including Design of the Year 2013/14, and also picked up the Designer of the Year title at the President’s Design Award, which he went on to judge last year. “When I win these awards, I push myself lower—I’m very aware there are more expectations of me, and I remind myself that more work needs to be done and more effort needs to be put in. And if I can’t win the award I want, I will work hard and strive towards the day I can.”

He held the same conviction when it came to this story for Singapore Tatler. Repeatedly, in the weeks leading up to this interview, he told various members of the team: “It’s my dream to be on the cover of Tatler. But if you don’t think I’m ready now, I don’t mind working for another three, five years, until you deem my work good enough that I deserve to be on the cover.”

That’s both humility and self-confidence talking: he knows what he’s capable of and where he’s going, but while content to accept how others perceive him, he’s prepared to strive to prove himself. “I started out from nothing,” says the son of a civil engineer and music teacher. “I had to borrow money to go to London to study, I climbed the career ladder. Then I had the car accident and went back to zero and had to start over.”

“My success is not about talent, but about hard work and passion.” Peter likens himself to a private chef; he relates to Jiro Ono, the white-haired sushi chef of three Michelin-starred restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro in Ginza, Japan. “Although chef Jiro has two sons helping him out, he can’t leave them completely to tend the restaurant. He has to personally mould the sushi with his hands. He says that until the day he dies, he will continue to work as hard as possible and produce good food. It’s never the end, but only the beginning.”

Peter has personally seen through each project in the last 15 years. “I didn’t even realise it’s been so long; I kept thinking it’s 12 years for some reason,” he laughs. Because he invests himself so completely into each project, he is very selective about his clients. Corporate clients must have a strong brand identity; his private clients, usually well travelled and knowledgeable about design and the craft and effort that go into creating quality products, must share his ideology. 

Peter’s accident did not slow him down. He still works seven days a week, 16 hours a day. Tirelessly? He seems fuelled by adrenaline; he talks fast, and drives faster (“I just want to get from point A to B as quickly as possible”). Perhaps, it’s also the perfectionist in him that keeps him from paring down his full plate—he had 20 projects on hand at the time of our interview, mostly luxury residential jobs. 

His work is his lifeblood. Family and a social life take a back seat for now. “A lot of my clients have told me that I should be spending more time with my family. But my wife and I have an understanding—she will spend time with the kids, and I’ll be the breadwinner and spend time with them when I can. It’s not much time, but when I travel overseas, I sometimes bring my two boys.

“Without putting in this amount of effort and hard work, I wouldn’t be where I am today. So as long as a client wants to meet, even if it’s on a Sunday, it isn’t a problem for me. I want to be there for them, always.” Just like they were there for him. Almost 10 years after his accident, he still treasures how his clients visited him while he was in the hospital. “They were the most concerned for me. That was when I realised they were my best friends, my true friends. I’m very thankful for that.” 

“I translate my passion through the space I create for my clients, and I think they feel it themselves,” surmises Peter, who says he’s not one for superficial conversations at social events. “Because I am very sincere to my clients, they appreciate my character and heart, even although I’m not at their level.” The trust and friendship is the pay-off for his time invested in constant communication with his high-flying clients, getting to know them intimately to create spaces that melded to their lifestyles, accommodating their requests and changes, and fine-tuning the final design right down to—we watched him at work—the density of the bouquet of flowers, and coming back when he realised he hadn’t removed the price tag off the vase. 

He tells us how his first concept submitted for the Richard Mille boutique in Grand Hyatt Singapore was met with an earful from Mille himself about the design being “too ostentatious for Richard Mille”. Peter says, “My team, who had worked very hard on it, was very dejected. I told them that it was my fault, because while the design was beautiful, it could have been a store for Roger Dubuis, MB&F or any other brand—it did not reflect the DNA of Richard Mille. So it was back to the drawing board.” He adds guilelessly: “I may be famous, but I’m humble. I give clients a lot of personal attention and I’m willing to change my design.”

Chua Kian Meng, who gave Peter his first big break in residential projects with his house in Third Avenue, says: “I’m very proud of him as a friend and designer. After he did my house, he didn’t look back. He kept climbing.” He recalls Peter tactfully dissuading him from his original plan for a Balinese-style house, which was the trend then. “He saw my drawing plans, but didn’t tell me straightaway that it was an old idea. He told me a few days later that in Europe, people were going for the modernist, minimalist look. I was already at the drawing board stage, so I told him we would make no major changes to the structure’s layout, but I gave him a free hand to change the materials. It was quite a drastic change, inside and outside.”

From their first conversation, they bonded over a shared love for furniture. They later travelled to Bangkok together to buy furniture from a brand that wasn’t in Singapore, as well as to Muar in Malaysia to pick out trees for the landscaping. “It was very easy to work with him,” says Chua, the vice-chairman of Potong Pasir Town Council. “Almost every night, he would bring me to the house under construction and explain certain things to me such as the proportions of the windows. I learned a lot from him about design.” 

“I want people to know me as Peter Tay, period, not Peter Tay, celebrity designer. That status is still there, but it can’t be dragged on forever. Who is Peter Tay after winning the President’s Design Award? What was his journey from there? There’s a maturity and in-depth thinking I feel I have reached, that hasn’t been documented or written about yet. What’s special now that I can offer? That’s what people want to know.” He’s currently working on translating this aspiration into his second book, which will showcase his distinct design concept and the ideology behind it. Unlike his first coffee table book, this will be smaller and more affordable, as it’s targeted at “a younger generation that brings design infused with happiness”. 

That evening after our photo shoot, Peter was scheduled to give an hour-long talk to a 500-strong crowd of his peers and industry players at the Tarkett Creative Awards 2015. As someone who prizes nurturing the next generation, he lectures part-time at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and has also presented at the Kyoto Institute of Technology. 
He chuckles as he denies being strict with his students, before his tone turns firm. “I want them to be successful. I only speak when I sense their passion; I criticise their work. If they’re lacking this passion, I won’t say a single word.”

He, too, learns from successful designers of his trade. “Peter Marino, John Pawson—they have their own design identity and I learn from the way they see things. It makes me open my eyes to what’s around me and be mindful of how to use them in my designs. “Designers such as Philip Johnson and Louis Kahn influence me, because they are modern masters who design architecture while thinking of spatial quality. They think of how an interior will be part of an architecture, which I find extremely beautiful. They are masters whose designs transcend time.” 

A master of modern materiality, ever a student. There’s always more to do, bigger and better. It’s a singular mission, and there’s an urgency in his quest. “This is my legacy. I have to build it myself. I’m very serious about it and want to fight hard for what I do.” 

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