On the face of it, Peter Tay has lived a charmed life.
He’s an acclaimed interior designer, responsible for some of Singapore’s most upscale interiors – particularly penthouses and bungalows in tony districts – with several awards to his name.
His list of clients reads like a who’s who of Singapore and beyond, including celebrities – from the Queen of Caldecott Hill Zoe Tay to Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi – billionaire businessmen and luxury property developers.
And he has a penthouse in the eastern part of Singapore, filled with collectible furniture pieces. He is known to own one of Singapore’s largest furniture collections.
Yet, these are just material for the 43-year-old. Of late, he has been fuelled by a strong desire to give back to society and turn towards the spiritual side of things.
A Roman Catholic, Tay is in the process of designing the interiors of three churches, one in a little village outside of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, and the other two in Singapore – upgrading the Church of Sts Peter and Paul in Queen Street, and designing the upcoming Church of the Transfiguration in Punggol.
After the launch of his self-titled book late last year, a hardcover coffee-table tome so thick and heavy it requires two hands to carry, Tay had a revelation of sorts. At his huge office-and-warehouse space in Ubi Crescent, he says: “This book tells me, ‘Peter, it’s time for you to go back to where you come from. I started from nothing – I launched my own company, worked for myself – so helping a church, which helps those who have nothing, feels right.’
“So, you forget that you have worked with celebrities. That’s not important. It’s about, ‘Peter, you’re starting again!’ This is what makes me happy.
“I want to tell people that, in life, it’s not just about success at the top. It’s not about my rich clients. I just want to give happiness to the less fortunate.”
Those who know Tay – and many of those who know of the famous designer – still remember his car accident in September 2006; the crash grabbed headlines in the local news.
It was mid-morning on a Monday and Tay, as is still typical of his packed-to-the-brim schedule, had already been in and out of meetings. He had slept at 2am the night before, and was also suffering from the flu. He believes he slammed his Toyota Supra into a tree along Bedok South Avenue 1 because he was tired and drowsy from the flu medication.
He was lucky to be alive. The accident left him in a coma for three days, and put him in hospital for about two months with horrific injuries. Doctors warned his Taiwan-born wife, who was also expecting their first child then, “to just prepare for the worst” because they didn’t think he could survive, he recalls, eye brimming with tears.
Although he cannot remember what happened, his wife told him that she had whispered to their then as-yet-unborn son: “Just wait, when Daddy wakes up from the coma, then you can come out.”
Tay says that when he finally awoke, his son, Gabriel, was born that very day. Ten surgeons later worked on his face and jaw to repair the damage. Today, the metal plates in his face are still there and he has no sense of taste. “I can taste only metal,” he says. The hospital stay – which cost him about $200,000 – also wiped out his savings.
As a testament to his passion for his job, Tay got back to work as soon as he could, despite doctors’ orders for bed rest. “They wanted to do a small operation but I told them to forget about it. I wanted to work, so I went back immediately.”
Asked if he’s made it all back, and he says: “Yes, but the money is not important. At this stage, I have everything. What is important is how I can give back. How can I help the people who are sick, or disabled or poor?”
Although that close brush with death occurred eight years ago, it’s clear that it still gnaws at Tay and is responsible for his growing sense of spirituality. His book only spurred the process, he adds.
Indeed, he says that every cent from the purchase of his monograph, handpainted and bound by Japanese specialists, is going to Abilities Beyond Limitations and Expectations (Able), an organisation under Caritas Singapore’s wing that aims to help the physically challenged community.
Over the next few months, Tay is also going to give lectures at Able as a volunteer. He already lectures on design to degree students at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.
A few weeks after our first meeting, we meet again for a shorter session, this time at a Joo Chiat coffee shop. He has just come back from setting up his entry at this year’s Venice Biennale, which influential Dutch starchitect Rem Koolhaas has curated.
Called Reflection(s), Tay’s piece for the Time-Space-Existence exhibition is a Zen garden that’s designed to blur boundaries between places. The 5m by 6m room is enclosed on three sides by acrylic partitions, with two LCD screens on opposite ends. It runs at Palazzo Bembo until Nov 23.
Over a can of chrysanthemum tea, Tay, in electric blue Nike sneakers and casual pants, says: “It’s been a fantastic experience. I see other architects’ work and thinking. You start to question what interior space is all about. For me, it brought up the idea of reflection – and that has actually encompassed my thinking in the past 11 years.”
It is funny to think that he has only been working since 2001. The story of his almost meteoric rise to the top of the interior-design world has been told before, but is worth repeating.
As the younger son of a civil-engineer father and music-teacher mother, he studied at Catholic High School and Temasek Junior College. He admits to not having any aptitude for drawing; he was “the worst student for art in class”. Unsure of what he would study at university, he followed in his brother’s footsteps, and took up architecture at the University of Western Australia.
There, a lecturer told him he had talent and wrote a letter of recommendation for Tay to continue his studies at the prestigious Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. The school is known for producing some of architecture’s top names, such as Geoffrey Bawa, Zaha Hadid and Koolhaas.
It was at AA, as it is popularly known, that Tay blossomed. It was not a place for him to learn the everyday things that architects do, like drawings and plans, but ideas. “AA taught me to follow my heart and do whatever I wanted to do, and I think this was a very successful education.”
It was also where he met his wife, who was a fellow student there. Today, they have two sons.
Tay snagged his first project on a trip back home for the school holidays: remodelling maestro hairstylist David Gan’s Passion Hair Salon at the now-demolished Promenade. They had met when Tay walked into the salon while looking at designer furniture at the mall. After a chat about furniture design, Gan gave Tay the job.
That same year in 2001, Tay, a fresh AA graduate by then, also got his second project, a Good Class Bungalow in Third Avenue. Although trained as an architect, he chose interior design instead. It was the right path.
Asked how his career took off so quickly, he was at a loss for words, before saying: “I don’t know, it was really luck. Until today, I’ve been very lucky. But I do feel it is very important that, in every project, you have to be sincere and listen to the client.”
And listen he did. As word spread of Tay’s good work in the upper echelons of Singapore’s society, project after project followed and, soon, he was designing the homes of celebrities (many of whom are also clients of Gan) and business personalities.
This year, he swept up four awards at the i-DEA Awards 2014, including Overall Design of the Year/Design Excellence Award for his work on a Good Class Bungalow in Belmont Road.
Of this house’s design, Tay explains almost dreamily and in painstaking detail its unusual glass bridge and the butterflies that flutter to its vertical garden.
Seeing those winged creatures awed him. “I felt it was the happiest moment in my life, that I have designed an interior space where the butterflies go.
“Design is not about designing a space that I think looks good. It’s about where the kids will be happy, the joy that you give.
“It’s not about showing the client’s wealth, money and the most expensive furniture, but the shadows that fall on the floor, the light that comes on, in the house.
“Money cannot buy this kind of space – a place where a client can feel the air, the water, the shadow, the reflection, the quiet. They feel peace at home at every moment of the day. This is how I see design.”
It’s this passion that Tay is appreciated for, as well as his attention to customers. He is notorious for working seven days a week and sleeping only about five hours a day. “Even if my client wants to see me on Sunday, I’ll do it. This is my attitude towards life. I’ll see them any time they want.”
Later he reveals that he has hardly any downtime, and what little he has is spent with his young family. What does he do to unwind? He replies quickly: “Nothing. I really don’t have time to relax or exercise.
“I’m never tired because it’s my passion. And also because my customers are my best friends.”
Tay is most struck by the support his clients have shown him through the years, many of whom rallied around him after his car accident. He counts as friends people like Simon Cheong from luxury property developer SC Global, for whom he’s designed more than 10 showflats. Of his clients, he says: “I just want to do a good job, and I want them to have the same affinity to the project as I do. I’d like to see it as something we can finish together, not me as the designer, but them also playing a design role.
“This is extremely important, as it has to reflect their personality. That’s why 11 years on, I still cannot achieve a style that people look at and say, oh, that’s Peter Tay’s work. Until today, I’m still looking for
For Tay, that search, along with his spiritual quest for deeper meaning, continues.
He has already started work on the church in Cambodia, which is slated to take a year and a half to complete. A few months ago, he was approached by the church. When he got to the site, he was struck by the sight of abandoned children who were suffering from Aids. He says: “I was really shocked. I can’t do much for them, the most is to design a church. And I don’t want to collect a single cent.
“So this church in Cambodia is extremely important for me, because it’s for the poor people there. I hope it gives them happiness. And I hope to see them happy, walking in the finished church, playing in the open field. It’s exactly like seeing butterflies going into a designed space.”
If it looks anything like the Adoration Room at the Church of Sts Peter and Paul, the design will be minimalistic and light filled. “It’s not about the adornments, but your relationship with God. I eliminate the distractions.”
Occupying the entire 5th floor of a nondescript building off Ubi Crescent, Peter Tay’s studio is a cornucopia of artefacts and prized paraphernalia he has amassed over the years. “It’s just like a karung guni store,” he says, referring to the cramped space. The objects, however, are much more precious. Each tells a story, and none is for sale – not even for Zhang Ziyi. Here, he talks about his four dearest pieces.
Ebony Eames Lounge Chair & Ottoman
The Barcelona Day Bed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Shelf by Charlotte Perriand for Cassina and Standing Lamp – 3 Arm by Serge Mouille