The Life Interview

Daring dreamer

Creative director Larry Peh pursues and achieves goals even when others think he will fail

Larry Peh
My life so far: Larry Peh as a baby with his mother.
My life so far: Larry Peh as a baby with his mother.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF LARRY PEH
My life so far: Peh (bottom right) with his friends from Zhonghua Secondary during his teenage years.
My life so far: Peh (bottom right) with his friends from Zhonghua Secondary during his teenage years.
My life so far: Peh (centre) with some of The Design Society founding members (from left) Jackson Tan, Chris Lee, Hanson Ho and Pann Lim in 2012 and receiving the President's Design Award from President Tony Tan last year.
My life so far: Peh (centre) with some of The Design Society founding members (from left) Jackson Tan, Chris Lee, Hanson Ho and Pann Lim in 2012 and receiving the President's Design Award from President Tony Tan last year.
My life so far: Peh with some of The Design Society founding members Jackson Tan, Chris Lee, Hanson Hoand Pann Lim in 2012 and (above) receiving the President's Design Award from President Tony Tan last year.
My life so far: Peh with some of The Design Society founding members Jackson Tan, Chris Lee, Hanson Hoand Pann Lim in 2012 and (above) receiving the President's Design Award from President Tony Tan last year.

If you dare award-winning creative director Larry Peh to do something, chances are he will work hard to prove he can do it.

As a child trying to emulate his older brother's drawings and those in the Hong Kong comics he devoured, he became good at art. So good that he was disqualified from a children's art competition at the Science Centre Singapore.

The judges thought his intricately drawn spaceship, done in colour with crayon and watercolour, was the work of an adult.

It became the first lesson of his career in the creative industry here, disappointed as he was by it. He explains: "It taught me that my ideas have to be relevant to the right people at the right time."

It was just one of the many times he had to pick himself up from bruising situations in life.

I want my work to be something that people would study and reference after I die... or show my products to my grandchildren and they would be impressed with what I did.

LARRY PEH, founder and creative director of &Larry, on one of his life goals. The avid music and photography fan's office walls are covered with prints by photographers

While many would have given up early on, Peh's tenacity has taken him from being an average student in the Normal stream at Zhonghua Secondary School to a President's Design Award laureate last year for his work, which includes branding, advertising and spatial design.

The 38-year-old is the creative director and founder of design studio &Larry, which turns 10 this year, and counts Takashimaya, The Hour Glass, The Marmalade Pantry and the Economic Development Board among his clients.

In 2012, respected global architecture and design publication Perspective Magazine named him as one of 40 creatives under the age of 40 to watch. His work has also been featured by renowned international design magazine Wallpaper* and art and design publisher Taschen.

Recently, he fulfilled another dream, starting menswear label Faculty, where he is the creative director, with two partners in June. It was something he says he had to do now, rather than regret later.

From a young age, his creativity could not be bottled up. As a student, his books would be filled with "graffiti", including images of punks with swords and guns.

While he managed average grades overall, he got a spurt of motivation during the year of his O levels.

A teacher, who was legendary for punishing poor students with tasks such as doing squats and putting them down as a way of motivating them, told Peh he would take back all the harsh things he said if he topped the class.

Peh buckled down, gathering a group of friends to help one another study. He topped his class for his O-level preliminary examinations.

"I went to the staff room to ask the teacher to take back his words. He didn't. But I realised I can do what others consider impossible for me. Studying is not my forte, but if I put my heart into it, I can do it."

He did well enough to go to a junior college, but wanted to go to Temasek Polytechnic to pursue visual communications.

His housewife mother and father, a retired sales engineer in the marine industry, were disappointed, but they could not stop the 17-year-old, who had fallen in love with glossy rags such as Harper's Bazaar that fascinated him with their art direction and page layouts.

He dreamt of being like his idol, Frenchman Fabien Baron, who joined Harper's Bazaar in 1992 as creative director and turned it into what critics called "the world's most beautiful fashion magazine".

Peh was determined to study what would set him on that path. His three years at Temasek Polytechnic were not easy, but he was pushed by teachers who saw his potential.

For example, ceramic artist and Cultural Medallion recipient Iskandar Jalil, who taught him foundation art and design, refused to let him hand in work that was sub-par.

He learnt an important lesson: "Iskandar would look at those pieces and say he couldn't feel what I wanted to say... and that I was not being honest. That stuck with me. Till today, with my work, I'm honest with myself and my mediums."

After graduating with a diploma in visual communications, he was eager to get a head start in the creative industry and got a job at Men's Folio, a fashion magazine.

He did layout design, experimenting with bolder pages and getting a chance to explore his love for fashion. Hungry to learn, he would sneak out with fashion stylist Eddie Halim on photo shoots to learn how they were organised. He was tasked to carry clothes and steam them.

He swopped that glamorous world for army fatigues after four months. But while doing his national service, he collapsed in his bunk, foaming at the mouth. Doctors found a blood clot in his brain and gave him two options: an operation which could remove the clot, but drastically change his appearance, or let the clot disappear on its own.

He chose the latter, but had to live with "six months of hell" - he could not go out, was sensitive to light and sound, and those who spoke to him had to whisper.

Miraculously, the clot disappeared and he went back to complete NS, doing clerical work.

When he completed his stint, he contacted Chris Lee, a senior from his polytechnic who had started his own creative agency Asylum in 1999. Lee was put in a difficult position - Asylum was a small start-up and did not have space for a new employee.

But a day later, he had a change of heart and offered Peh a job. Peh went straight to work without even discussing his salary.

In his two years with Asylum, he found his momentum. From design work to meeting clients to pitching ideas, the rookie creative aced his first two years on the job. Then he handed in his resignation - a move that Lee, 44, saw coming.

The Asylum founder says that he sees a lot of himself in Peh, in that they could both sell the world .

"When you hire good people, they'll always have ambitions. It was natural for Larry to want to do his own thing. You just have to take the years they can give you. So when he left, I gave him my blessings."

Peh co-founded design agency Neighbor with a polytechnic schoolmate at the end of 2002.

It was another uphill battle, as the company struggled to find clients and pay the bills. After six months, he sat his partner down and they made a list of things they wanted to achieve before they called it quits.

Peh explains: "It was my ego, or at least an answer to myself, that at least I've tried hard and succeeded. It was our last shot to make Neighbor work."

Their to-do lists included not worrying about money and being respected for their work. Other loftier aims: to have a million dollars in the bank - which they did - and become a coveted firm that interns would beg for a job with.

Eventually the interns came, along with awards from prestigious institutions for their design work on branding and advertising campaigns.

In 2005, Peh left Neighbor after creative differences with his partner. The sudden change of pace threw him into depression, even though it should have been a happy time. He had just gotten married, bought a Housing Board flat and taken a backpacking trip to Europe for his honeymoon.

Peh is married to a secondary school art teacher, a former schoolmate at Zhonghua Secondary. The couplehave a seven-year-old daughter and a son aged five.

He likens those six months that he was jobless to a "lion who has had its mane shaved off".

"I was sitting at home, not knowing what to do. I was short-tempered. All my friends were busy with work, but I was sitting alone, drinking coffee."

He decided to take the plunge and registered &Larry in November 2005.

It was his work with his second client, film-maker Royston Tan, 38, which got him out of his funk. Schoolmates and close friends since their secondary school days, Tan approached Peh to design the posters for his 2005 film 4:30, about a lonely latchkey kid who develops a fixation with the Korean tenant who shares his apartment.

The brooding film resonated with Peh's mood at the time. His posters for the European market proved so popular that those which were put up at bus stops in Berlin for the film festival there were stolen and people were asking for reprints.

It was his revival moment. "That good response picked me up. I know I do good sh**. I stood up again and the jobs started coming."

Since then, Peh has also done the art direction for Tan's 881 film in 2007. Last month, he and his team were behind the art direction of 7 Letters, the highly acclaimed anthology of short films by seven writer-directors here, including Tan. He worked on the trailer and came up with the name and concept for its collateral.

Tan says of Peh: "He does not bullsh** when it comes to his work. There's a lot of heart when he designs. There are times when my budget is not big, but he still gives it his all."

A decade on, &Larry - Peh chose the name so his client's name comes first on their sign-off - is hitting its stride. After he started as a one-man show working from home, there is now a six-man team and they work out of an office off Upper Paya Lebar Road.

Having made so many comebacks, he expects the same vigour from his team. They present only one option to clients - Peh says the team has a 100 per cent success rate with clients accepting their single pitch - and have never had to cold-call or beg for a job.

A sentiment that guides his life's philosophy is one of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's famous quotes - "Never fear."

Candidly, Peh says: "I'm not saying I'm at the top, but not many people have experienced low points like I have, when I was doubting myself. But I've never succumbed. I just pick myself up and try and fight again."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 03, 2015, with the headline 'Daring dreamer'. Print Edition | Subscribe