Interior designer Peter Tay wants to shake things up

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 14, 2013

Peter Tay is at a point in his life when he wants to shake things up just a little.

At age 42, he is in a rather comfortable position. First, he is best known as the interior designer to the stars, among them actresses Zoe Tay, Kym Ng and Zhang Ziyi, singer Stefanie Sun and hairstylist David Gan.

Peek into a bungalow or penthouse in Sentosa Cove, Holland Road and the Bukit Timah area and if you see long, uninterrupted lines, loads of warm natural light and large expanses of wood, all livened up by modern classic furniture, chances are good that Tay was involved.

Of that sort of furniture, he is recognised as owning one of Singapore's largest collections.

His biography has its less happy moments, however. In 2006, he was behind the wheel of a car that smashed into a tree, putting him into a coma.

After several operations on his head and face, he bounced back less than a year later to a 16-hour-day, seven- day-a-week work schedule.

We are here in a large industrial space in Ubi Crescent which serves as his office. It is also a warehouse and a museum. Almost every inch of floor space is taken up by classics from Charles and Ray Eames, Jean Prouve, Arne Jacobsen, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.

Tay buys, never sells.

The chairs, lamps and tables pile up here and spill over to his family's penthouse in Guillemard Road.

The first items in his collection come from the time he was an architecture student in London, seized by a fever after he laid eyes on the treasures in the city's flea markets.

He is clearly among the few who has turned a passion into a very successful career.

We squeeze our way around a table - "It's a problem, having so much furniture," he says, laughing apologetically as we gently push things aside to make room - and talk about his book, his first, that will have its Singapore launch next week.

Tay likes to think big. The coffee-table hardcover is a bicep-busting chunk of glossy black, with more than 300 pages and sold in a heavy presentation box. The print run will be limited to 1,000 copies.

Inside is a project catalogue, showing off the understated modernist look that has been his calling card for stores, homes and offices since he started work here in 2001.

He is a Catholic who attends Mass every Sunday and who does pro bono work for churches. His spirituality has increased since his recovery from the horrific accident.

At this stage in his career, he explains, he is aware of his paradox: He is a man who cares deeply about design as a doorway to more enduring values, but has to grapple with the notion of him as the man dressing up the homes of the rich and famous. Hence, the book.

Listening to him talk at length about its design and photographs and why he needed to seek out an art book publisher in Niseko, Japan, and have it printed by a specialist in Osaka ("See the edges of pages? Hand-painted"), one gets the feeling that he sweats every detail, worries over every item in every project, and it probably explains why Asia's monied elite ring him up each time a developer hands them keys to a new waterfront cubbyhole.

Ask him what he wants the book's readers to know about Peter Tay - it is, after all, titled after its author - and his thoughts suddenly turn philosophical.

"That it's not just about celebrity homes, homes for the rich. I want people to know that money cannot buy space, quality of life, the space that I create for you. It's not about showing off how rich the owner is. I want to say that this light, coming in from the window I designed, making that shadow on that wall, is natural.

"It's about the happiness of your children enjoying that space. You cannot buy that," he says.

"I'm sorry, but that's how I feel," he says, laughing at his own earnestness. He wants to surprise readers with what he calls the "poetic side" of his work, a view that he thinks is hidden behind the fluffy label of "designer to the stars".

Accordingly, the descriptions accompanying the photographs never drop designer names nor do they mention luxury materials. Instead, they offer thoughts on silence, simplicity, privacy and intimacy.

The book will be priced at $178 and sold through design stores Space, Proof Living and Xtra, among others, with part of the proceeds going to the charity Able (Abilities Beyond Limitations and Expectations), which supports the physically challenged in Singapore.

Tay's only disability as a result of the crash is anosmia, the inability to perceive odour. That damage is actually a benefit when he has to use dodgy portaloos on construction sites, he jokes.

"The workers tell me, 'Hey, don't use that toilet!' and I tell them, 'It's okay, I can take it!'" he says.

The enjoyment of his favourite foods, nasi lemak and mee pok, is undiminished, he says, and, he adds, while he considers hairstylist-about-town Gan to be a dear friend, it is a neighbourhood barber who snips his locks.

That accident one morning in late 2006 along Bedok South Avenue 1 was probably caused by a combination of overwork and flu medication, he guesses now. A chunk of memory just before the accident and several weeks after is gone. He was alone when his sporty Toyota Supra hit a tree. No one else was hurt.

His wife, Taiwan-born Rebecca Wang, 41, remembers that she was at work, in an architectural firm, when she got a call from her mother-in-law.

She was already in tears when she was told of her husband's injuries. The taxi ride from her office to Changi Hospital proved to be another trial.

"The taxi driver asked me why I was crying and when I told him, he asked me what kind of car and where it happened. He said, 'I passed that car. It was in a bad condition, all smashed up.' I cried even louder," she says.

Two weeks of coma followed and then several operations to repair his face and jaw. She was in the final weeks of her first pregnancy at the time of the crash and Tay's first glimpse of his first child, Gabriel, happened just after he awoke from the coma. Several weeks of rest, physiotherapy and counselling followed to deal with his physical and mental trauma.

In five months, he was back to work, the lack of which, for the workaholic, was the greatest stress factor of all during his recovery, she says.

Today, Gabriel has just turned seven and the couple have another son, Lucas, aged 18 months. His wife has stopped work as a master planner to be a full-time mother.

They met when both were students at London's Architectural Association School of Architecture, better known by its initials, AA, and the alma mater of notables such as Ron Arad, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Richard Rogers.

"I helped her improve her English, she helped me in Chinese, we fell in love," he says.

The youngest of three children of a civil engineer father and music teacher mother, he says he showed very little artistic ability as a child when he went to primary school at Catholic High and then Dunman High at secondary level. Temasek Junior College followed.

Undecided as to which course to take, he followed the lead of his older brother, who had studied architecture at the University of Western Australia. His sister studied music at the same university and is now a teacher. There, his talent was spotted by a lecturer, who wrote a letter of recommendation to AA.

He would have to pay his own way in London, but he could not pass up the chance, and his relatives and friends helped with the cost.

During the 1990s, there were few stores in Singapore which carried the modern classic furniture that he loved. One of them was Abraxas Designs at the Promenade. On holidays home from London, he would linger there, looking through its windows "at things I couldn't afford", he says.

Close by was Passion Hair Salon, which surprised the student with its collection of Philippe Starck pieces. It piqued his curiosity enough that he went in for a cut.

The salon's owner, Gan, also a fan of modern furniture design, attended to him and soon they were deep in conversation about their shared interest. Gan was so impressed that he gave Tay his first interior design job: a remodelling of the Promenade salon.

Gan, 51, tells Life! in an e-mail interview that back then, Tay's "design thinking was deep and different, even though he was still a student".

He was pleased with the outcome and plugged the young man into his network of celebrity friends. The introductions would have come to naught if Tay had not been good in his job, says Gan.

"I trusted him and they - the singers and actors - trust me... they all were happy. Peter has good taste, he is humble and he respects designers that are internationally acclaimed and he seeks to improve," says Gan.

Tay says he grabbed Gan's offer and completed the salon job just before returning to school. By then, he knew that designing buildings was not to be his calling.

AA is a school which values original thinking and personal passion, he says, and he took it to mean that he should follow his heart.

He had no need nor desire to take the step of qualifying as an architect. He would not be short of work. In 2001, the same year as Gan's salon project, he was offered the job at a Good Class Bungalow in Third Avenue. There would be more jobs than he could handle, both here and overseas, including Zhang Ziyi's Beijing penthouse in 2006.

Tay is very much an artist with a particular metier and he knows it. He turns down offers from prospective clients who want him to do a home in, say, a neo-classical or classical Chinese style.

He has six people working in Peter Tay Studio. The number fluctuates depending on the number of clients.

One thing is certain - every job demands his personal attention in the client meetings and in the overall design. This means working on weekends, which are the days that clients are free to visit job sites. He sometimes takes son Gabriel along, "to learn design", he says.

Photographer John Heng, 34, has known Tay for five years and for the book, worked on the photography sessions with the designer, going to homes and shops around Asia.

"He wants things to be perfect for the photo. He will move a chair back and forth, back and forth, just a tiny bit."

That eye would not be worth anything if he did not have a gift for communicating with the rich and powerful, Heng adds.

Tay exudes a confidence to which clients respond, he says. And while clients know that you hire Peter Tay for the Peter Tay look, they sometimes try to get him to break his own rules.

"They will ask him to fit in a Chinese antique, but he won't throw a hissy fit. He will try to talk them out of it in a friendly way and if they insist, he will negotiate with them about where to place it," Heng says.

For now, Tay is focused on the launch of the book that records his evolution as a designer.

Looking back at his artistic past is one thing, looking back at the dark days of the crash is another and he is not one for emotional self-indulgence, especially when his memory of the event is largely a black hole. He has moved on.

He says: "It was as if I went to sleep yesterday and woke up today. What's important is that I've come back and now I have a life. Today is a brand-new day."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 14, 2013

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