Q&A with Interior Designer Peter Tay

He's designed homes for the likes of Zoe Tay, Stefanie Sun, Kym Ng and even Zhang Ziyi, but for interior designer Peter Tay, his favourite projects are still those that he has done pro bono.

Updated on June 13, 2017 7:06 am

Michelle Ong


A recipient of five awards at the DEA (Design Excellence Awards) in 2014, interior designer Peter Tay is more than qualified to judge this year’s awards. Perhaps the role is not surprising for someone whose portfolio includes having designed for celebrities like Zoe Tay and Zhang Ziyi. Despite his success, however, Peter's favourite projects are still those that he has done for the needy. We sit down to discuss with him his thoughts on this year's DEA as well as design in Singapore.

One of Peter's projects is the interior of this home in Holland Park. Photo by John Heng.

What did you think of this year’s contestants?

I find that the categories this year were very extensive. They not only included residential but also commercial spaces as well. There were also categories that focused on parts of the home like the bathroom and kitchen—this allowed us judges to see how designers could focus on smaller areas and show their understanding of the inhabitants in each space. I think this is very important because design is not just about creating an overall feel, but also about focusing on elements within the design.

Each space has a different meaning for each inhabitant; some could find that the best place to unwind is the bathroom, while others might feel the kitchen is the best place to be after a long day because of their love to cook. This year's winners justified why their interior design was important for the inhabitants of the space.

What is good interior design?

Good interior design is about understanding a space and creating one that is effective for the user. It is not about decoration but creating a kind of "aura" that is interesting. To me, spaces that are interesting are filled with different elements like, for example, light coming into a space to create a shadow, or even ventilation. It’s also about the different types of material used. Through these elements, the users should be able to feel the space through their five senses.

Peter's design for this home in Holland Park plays with textures, reflection, and transparency to provide an experience for the senses. Photo by John Heng.

As a designer yourself, what inspires you?

I’ve been practicing for close to 12 years and I’m still looking for my own language. It’s very important for me that people look at a piece of work and know that it’s Peter Tay’s work. It’s not easy to create that identity because it has to be built over time. For example, if you look at the work of architect John Pawson, you’ll recognise the minimalistic style as his immediately. If you look at Yabu Pushelberg (international design firm), you can see that their designers have their own way of thinking. So for me it’s about searching for this "language". It’s only within the last few years that I got interested in the idea of light and reflection. So for a lot of my interior spaces, I’ve used materials that reflect spaces, allowing the dimension of these spaces to increase.

For his design for this home in Holland Park, Peter used glass to separate different areas of the home and provide visual continuity throughout the space. Photo by John Heng.

How would you describe your design style?

My design is basically modern, contemporary. To me, modern design means it has to be one that can pass the test of time. I designed a showroom eight years ago and until today, it still looks like it was finished very recently. For me, it’s very simple; my design has to capture the essence of the space, and it has to be a design that can last 20 or even 30 years.

You were an architecture student before you were an interior designer. Does your background have a huge impact in what you do?

I studied my first year of Architecture at UWA (University of Western Australia). At the end of the year, I thought I failed the year, so I asked my lecturer about it but he told me I was the top student. So he said, “I’m writing a letter for you to study in this school called AA (London's Architectural Association School of Architecture).” The best thing about studying in AA was that it wasn’t purely about architecture, it was about how you see things. You don’t have to be an architect after you graduate from AA. You follow your passion and whatever you want to do. I love interior design and as soon as I graduated, I knew this was the direction I wanted to go into. It's because of my passion for interior design that even today, I can work seven days a week. For me, I want to create something that is iconic but also everlasting.

Out of all the projects so far, which is the favourite you’ve done so far?

Many people ask me this question, but really, every project is interesting. I had a car accident in 2006, which you can read about online, and that had a profound impact on me. Since then, I've done a church adoration room which was very meaningful to me. It wasn’t a space that was big or had a big budget. To me, it was about having a space where a person could feel bonding (with God) and solitude at the same time.

What do you like most about being an interior designer?

When I was studying in London, I would stop by photographic exhibitions to get inspired just before I headed to Chinatown. That was life for me. To me, interior design is about design as a whole—it's about art, graphic design, and even fashion design. It's all-encompassing. Even though I'm an interior designer, I've also worked on branding for Manolo Blahnik and Richard Mille.

Peter's portfolio includes having designed for the multi-label fashion boutique, Salon by Surrender in Shanghai. The design won him Gold in the Retail Category at the I-DEA Awards 2014. Photo by John Heng.

You’ve worked with celebrities like Zhang Ziyi and Zoe Tay. What was it like working with them?

Zhang Ziyi is a hardworking actress—I had to see her in the wee hours of the morning while she was still filming. I find that these actresses have so much passion and determination. Behind the glamorous life are the hours that go into a scene. Talking to these actresses, we realised that they already had an idea of what they want. We were only there to help them amalgamate these spaces to reflect a bit of their personality.

Do you have any advice for up and coming interior designers?

Even if you lose a design competition, it’s important to continue trying. Only if you have the passion to do it will you want to do better and improve yourself. Through competitions, you’ll not only see others but also yourself. When you see what others are doing, you’ll understand better the direction you are going into next and how you can make yourself different. That’s the goal the young designers should strive towards. It’s all about hard work and passion.

You've seen the designs this year—is there something we can call Singaporean design?

I think a lot of our Singaporean designs have a lot to do with the tropical environment. It’s very different from, say, living in an area that experiences four seasons. The material used is different. It’s also about family bonding activities like eating and sitting together. Those are things that are very typical to the Singaporean lifestyle.

One of the things Peter is interested in when it comes to interior design is the use of light and shadows. Photo by John Heng.

Quick questions:

Favourite building in Singapore?

I love the Colonnade on Grange Road by Paul Rudolph.

Is design an art or science?

I look at design as an art from, but if you’re talking about the functional aspect of a space, like how to create a smooth unobstructed flow in an area, that’s science.

Favourite Singaporean dish?

I love so many hawker dishes. But if I had to choose one, my favourite would be Fishball with Mee Pok (yellow flat noodles).

Do you have any design pet peeves?

There are many. But I think the biggest "No" in a project is that it cannot simply be decorative. The essence of the project is very important.

Is there a project that you’ve always wanted to work on?

I would like to design a space which is affordable for homeless people. I want to see homeless people living in a space where they and their families can experience joy and love.

If there’s one thing you could change about the Singaporean interior design scene, what would you do?

I’d like to see local interior designers come together as a family to promote Singaporean interior design. Not just locally but overseas as well. I think that’s important.

Find out more about Peter Tay at www.petertaystudio.com.

If you have a favourite furniture and/or interior designer, let us know at hello@cromly.com!

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