Singapore's Designers of the Year

The Designer of the Year prize in the President's Design Award recognises outstanding designers in any discipline. LEE JIAN XUAN and NATASHA ANN ZACHARIAH talk to this year's three winners

A house in Holland Park (above) done up by Mr Peter Tay (left).
A house in Holland Park (above) done up by Mr Peter Tay (left). PHOTOS: JOHN HENG
A house in Holland Park (above) done up by Mr Peter Tay (left). PHOTOS: JOHN HENG
Mr Tan Kok Hiang (left) designed a spine connecting the Henderson community club and Bukit Merah West police centre (above). Mr Larry Peh, who is named Designer of the Year at the President's Design Award, runs his own firm, &Larry. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, ALBERT LIM
Keeping Tabs On Time necklace (above). PHOTO: &LARRY
Mr Tan Kok Hiang (left) designed a spine connecting the Henderson community club and Bukit Merah West police centre (above). Mr Larry Peh, who is named Designer of the Year at the President's Design Award, runs his own firm, &Larry. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, ALBERT LIM
Mr Tan Kok Hiang (left) designed a spine connecting the Henderson community club and Bukit Merah West police centre (above). Mr Larry Peh, who is named Designer of the Year at the President's Design Award, runs his own firm, &Larry. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, ALBERT LIM

Tan Kok Hiang, director, Forum Architects

From his vast repertoire of designs ranging from contemporary mosques to gleaming five-star hotels, veteran architect Tan Kok Hiang regards a humble community club here as a personal architectural feat.

The two-storey Henderson Community Club originally housed only the CC. Mr Tan, 54, was then tasked to design the Bukit Merah West Neighbourhood Police Centre, which would take up four storeys and be connected to the CC.

But he faced some initial resistance from the CC staff. "The people who had been there for so many years were upset that someone was moving in. There were a lot of territorial instincts and human emotions. The CC people told me, you can't build the four storeys higher than our roof," he recounts.

"So I created a third element - the circulation spine - as the solution. I designed it so that you could get to the upper floors of each building only by going through the spine and such that they had to share the lift. It was an element that brought harmony and got people to share and work together," he tells Life! with pride in an hour-long interview at his sleek, uncluttered office in Forum Architects in Ann Siang Hill. The buildings were completed in 2000.

One need not look far to see how Mr Tan's works have shaped Singapore's landscape. A five-minute stroll from his office takes you past the stately Maxwell Chambers, which was his brainchild. The four-storey arbitration house won an Architectural Heritage Award from the Urban Redevelopment Authority in 2012.

Other buildings within a 15-minute drive that bear his firm's signature include offices at Shenton Way, apartments on Cavenagh Road and the National University of Singapore's (NUS) campus at Bukit Timah.

This chameleon-like versatility won Mr Tan Designer of the Year at this year's President's Design Award. It is his first win, after two previous nominations.

A jury citation said: "He has worked on a wide range of projects... and is able to consistently create outstanding building designs that relate well to their surrounding contexts."

But ask Mr Tan if he has a fixed style and he resists the notion of being pigeonholed. "I prefer bits and pieces of ideas which are edifying for me," he says, citing French designer Le Corbusier's classic Villa La Roche as an example.

"The whole idea of natural light being so powerful, it can illuminate and infuse spaces with an ethereal quality. I was looking forward to that when I designed Assyafaah," he adds.

The modern 3,350 sq m Assyafaah mosque in Admiralty Lane was lauded for its progressive design - it has no dome or traditional minaret but bears Arabesque patterns on its exterior - when it was built a decade ago. It won international accolades such as the Chicago Athenaeum International Architecture Award in 2008 and the Barbara Cappochin Award in 2005.

"We live in a multiracial society and modern features make such mosques more accessible to visitors from everywhere, even non-Muslims," says Mr Tan.

Structural engineer Hossein Rezai, who nominated him, wrote in his citation: "Kok Hiang's architecture is driven by the higher purposes of context... the country and beyond. The Assyafaah mosque project epitomises all these."

The son of a car salesman and housewife decided to pursue architecture at the age of 16, after he walked past an "awful, ghastly" building on Grange Road. "I remembered thinking, 'Nobody should be allowed to impose an ugly building on passers-by.' We have a responsibility, even if it's our own house, to make sure it's pleasant and not detrimental to people's visual health."

And he lives by that credo - he and his wife Ho Sweet Woon, 52, also his co- director at the 40-strong Forum Architects, designed their two-storey home in the north-eastern part of Singapore, where they live with their two sons - Jun Hao, 17, and Si Hao, 20, both students.

"We fought like hell over the design," he says of her. "But at work, we're a good fit. I'm a big-picture person, I have half my head in the clouds. She has her feet planted firmly on the ground."

Despite a hectic schedule, Mr Tan insists on being an active member of the architecture community - he mentors final-year students and sits on the school advisory committee at the NUS School of Design and Environment.

He says: "Architects are the guardians of the built environment... We create spaces that are safe, hygienic, beautiful and enhance life."

Lee Jian Xuan

Larry Peh, designer, &Larry

One of the toughest questions the President's Design Award jury asked designer Larry Peh was why his haul of awards was smaller than those of his peers.

The creative director and founder of branding agency &Larry replied: "Awards cost money to take part in and take a lot of time to prepare for. I'd rather give that money to my staff for bonuses and treats."

And his five-man firm is so engrossed in its projects, it often misses the deadline for awards submissions, he added.

The jury appreciated the 38-year-old's candour and the fresh, engaging approach he takes in his design projects. The citation reads: "Larry has designed his social commentaries with the highest level of originality, sophistication and cultural relevance, so that even non- Singaporeans can enjoy them."

The awards already in his possession are not to be sneered at either. He received accolades from prestigious institutions such as the British Design & Art Direction, New York One Show and Singapore Creative Circle Awards. He has also been featured by renowned publishers such as Wallpaper* and Taschen.

But the President's Design Award is a different ballgame. Mr Peh says: "It was always on my mind, even if I have a pretty good reputation outside of Singapore. A lot of the work I do has a colloquial angle to it, so I think it would be good to be recognised in Singapore too."

Some of his works include the Objects and Subjects series where he creates artistic projects that are not for sale. He has created about 45 works to date.

In HK Table, for example, he recycled crates found in the back alleys of Hongkong Street into a table. For Keeping Tabs On Time, he modelled a silver necklace - which can also be a lanyard - after parking coupon tabs.

He was also behind the poster design for film-maker Royston Tan's 2005 movie, 4:30.

He has done spatial branding - using space as a medium to express a brand - for organisations such as the Economic Development Board, interior design for Google as well as an advertising campaign for Sincere Fine Watches.

As a child, he did poorly in school, but was an excellent artist - so good that he would be disqualified from children's art competitions because the judges thought his work was done by an adult.

Later, he met a classmate in Zhonghua Secondary School whose sister was an air stewardess. She brought home many fashion magazines and Mr Peh would thumb through them when he visited. The work of creative director Fabien Baron for Harper's Bazaar caught his eye. Mr Peh, who was in the normal stream in school, says: "I was so taken with the beautiful layout and typography... I wanted to be like Baron."

His parents - a housewife and a sales engineer in the marine industry who is now retired - were disappointed when he took up visual communications at Temasek Polytechnic even though he did well enough to enter a junior college. He has an older brother who is a logistics manager.

Mr Peh, who is married to an art teacher and has two children aged five and seven, says: "It didn't mean anything to them. They wanted me to be an engineer or a lawyer."

After serving national service, he worked at Asylum, a design agency run by Mr Chris Lee, his senior in Temasek Polytechnic. He worked there as a designer for about three years and then co-founded design agency Neighbors in 2001. He left the company in 2005 and set up &Larry on his own that same year.

Ask him to pick a project that has been a game-changer for him and he says: "I don't have a 'so good moment' for any particular one because I have a love affair with every one of them. I give my all for each job, but when I'm finished, I move on to the next one."

Natasha Ann Zachariah

Peter Tay, interior designer, Studio Peter Tay

He has a clutch of interior design awards to his name, but celebrity interior designer Peter Tay has always coveted the President's Design Award. "Even if it took me another 15 years to win it, I would still have tried my best to get it. It's the highest award a designer can get in Singapore and it's about the recognition you get from fellow Singaporeans."

Third time proved to be the charm for the 43-year-old, who was nominated twice before.

Friendly and humble, his approach to his work is just as grounded. "I believe you have to stand firmly before you go on to the next step, which means I can't venture far overseas if I don't have a good footprint in Singapore," says Mr Tay, who has designed the homes of celebrities such as Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi and home-grown singer Stefanie Sun. He is designing a 3,000 sq ft apartment for Taiwanese singer Wang Leehom in Taipei to be completed next year.

His modern and luxe designs are often characterised by serene spaces, lots of wood and a play on natural light.

He has done up more than 30 bungalows and apartments since 2012, and worked with big names such as luxury watch brand Richard Mille and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel & Resorts in Bintan.

He cites three works that have stood out for him: an installation for the Venice Architecture Biennale in June, putting out a coffee-table monograph of his work last year and designing the adoration room for the Church of St Peter & Paul in Queen Street in 2006, a project he found "meaningful".

His big break came after a chance meeting with celebrity hairstylist David Gan in 1997. Mr Tay was then on a summer break from his studies at the prestigious Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, better known among the fraternity as AA.

Gan gave him a job remodelling his salon in The Promenade, located where Paragon now stands in Orchard Road. Pleased with his work, Gan recommended him to his friends, which led to a string of jobs for Mr Tay. But a car accident in 2006 left him in a two-week coma. He needed several operations to repair his face and jaw. He took almost a year to recover from his injuries and he lost his sense of smell.

Mr Tay, who graduated from AA in 1999 and set up Studio Peter Tay in 2003, says: "God gave me a second chance at life."

Once he recovered, he was back to pulling 16-hour work days daily.

Though he has a team of five employees who help him run the job's technical aspects, such as doing renderings, he meets every client himself and follows through on each project personally. He is married to Taiwan-born Rebecca Wang, 42, who quit her job as a masterplanner for an architecture firm to look after the couple's two boys, aged eight and two.

He puts his success down to hard work and passion. "I'm very honest about the fact that I can't draw - that's why I have my staff do it. But I put my heart and soul into delivering my best on every project."

He may be known as an interior designer to the stars, but Mr Tay also does pro bono work, designing churches in Singapore and Cambodia. One of his current projects is a rehabilitation centre for Abilities Beyond Limitations and Expectations (Able). The group under Caritas Singapore, the social and community arm of the Catholic Church in Singapore, helps the physically disabled here.

"My friends tell me I should just do one a year, but my work shouldn't just be about celebrity homes," he says. "I want to help improve the lives of people who use these churches, help give them a nice space to come and pray in."

The President's Design Award has spurred him to aim higher. "This is only the beginning. I'm pushing myself harder now. I want to branch out even further overseas and work harder at my craft."

Natasha Ann Zachariah

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