Career bloom after mid-life crisis for landscape designer John Tan

Award-winning landscape designer John Tan (right) wants to design gardens that bring people together.
Award-winning landscape designer John Tan (right) wants to design gardens that bring people together.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

Engineer-turned-landscape designer John Tan found a new life in horticulture

8 Q

From a treehouse for adults and children to lush home gardens, landscape designer John Tan's work has won much acclaim.

The 57-year-old started Esmond Landscape and Horticultural in 2000 and, since then, has scooped up awards at international competitions such as the Gardening World Cup, RHS Chelsea Flower Show and the Singapore Garden Festival (SGF).

His interest in landscape design blossomed after he suffered a self-described mid-life crisis in the early 1990s.

The computer engineer by training sold his engineering firm and enrolled himself in part-time diploma courses at the Singapore Botanic Gardens' School of Horticulture. He also worked at his friend's nursery in Clementi.

"I sometimes don't call myself a landscape designer. I call myself a lifestyle designer," says Mr Tan, who will compete in the landscape category at this year's SGF, which runs from July 21 to Aug 3.

He says the Gold and Best of Category Awards he won at the Lias (Landscape Industry Association of Singapore) Awards of Excellence were for projects where the home owners approached him even before they approached the contractor.

"We did them specifically to meet the needs of the families."

The former chairman of Lias has two daughters aged 19 and 21 and his wife runs a real-estate company.

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"A garden is important," says Mr Tan. "But what is also important is how you want to entertain or how you want the life to revolve around the landscape.

"My job is to bring you out to the garden. If I can't do that, then I've failed."

1 What is one of your favourite projects?

The house at 145 Jalan Batalong East in Loyang. Even before the (old) house was torn down, I was already looking at it.

In every design, if I can, I have a patio and outdoor set. That was what we did. We had a lounge set, but also outdoor dining at the far end.

It was broken into two areas. In between, I had an open area with frangipani, a sculpture and a water feature. There was even a bar counter. When you sit down, you feel the garden is all around you.

2 What is your home garden like?

I used to have a 2m-high bougainvillea in my Housing Board flat balcony - it was the only plant I had in my home. Now, I have an olive tree.

When my wife saw the projects I did, she said: "Our home has only one plant."

So I installed a hanging spice garden for our balcony. But I later took it out because she never took care of it.

3 Why have you focused mostly on residential projects?

To me, my clients are my friends. I need to be close to them and understand their needs. But if you are talking to the chief executive officer, chairman, designer (for a single commercial project), everyone has his own opinion.

4 Who are some landscape designers you look up to?

Briton Henry Steed - his works are fantastic. Another Brit, James Basson, does very desert, Tuscany-style landscapes. And from Japan, Yosuke Yamaguchi - he places stones and stacks them up without cement.

5 What challenges do landscape designers face these days?

We are not getting young people into the industry. The pay scale is not attractive. There is no succession.

The second thing is mindset. The business model here has to change.

Right now, it's like, "You're doing only the softscape (the plants)," says the contractor. "The rest, don't touch" - the hardscape (paving, trellises, gazebo, garden lighting, stones and so on) is his job. If you give me the whole garden, we can create a cohesive landscape. Now, it's broken up into bits and pieces.

6 How do you hope the industry will evolve?

Designing for sustainability and maintenance is key. We also have to appreciate that the landscape industry needs foreign workers.

7 How has your approach to your work changed?

In 2006, when my mother died, I felt I had not spent enough quality time with her and went through a year of depression. Subsequently, my garden designs became about family and friends being together with nature. I also changed my lifestyle, spending more time with my family.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

For my honesty, the lifestyle I try to give my clients and my passion for what I do. Knowing that I can help design a garden that is able to bring people together to spend quality time is all the reward I need.

• The Straits Times is the official media partner of Singapore Garden Festival 2018.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 04, 2018, with the headline 'Career bloom after mid-life crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe