Why &Larry? That is the question. How many design firm principals would put an ampersand before their name, instead of after?
Larry is different. He’s Larry Peh, principal of a six-person firm in Singapore that’s making international waves—whether he likes it or not.
As a designer, Larry is different because of the way he sees himself. “I’m an introvert,” he says. “I’ve been under the radar for many years. I love what we do. I love to design. But I don’t much fancy making speeches or going to parties. I attract similar people. We’re a bunch of introverts here.”
As a firm, &Larry is different because its location isn’t in one of Singapore’s trendy, leafy districts with bars, boutiques and cupcake shops. It’s not in the CBD, the central business district with its name-architect-designed skyscrapers overlooking the glasshouse domes and high-tech supertrees of Gardens by the Bay. It’s tucked away in an office building in an industrial park off the expressway that takes you to Changi Airport.
Peh founded the company in 2005 after dissolving a business partnership in Neighbor Studio, the creative agency he’d founded with a former Temasek Polytechnic classmate. “I finally realized what I was meant for,” he says, referring to the painful six-month postbreakup period during which he did more self-reflection than designing. “I realized that I didn’t like corporate work. That I didn’t want to change or challenge the world. That I didn’t care much about awards. So I started anew. At &Larry, we take a more humble approach. We don’t troll for clients. We don’t post on Behance. All our work comes through word of mouth. Besides, some of our work is for clients like private residences that don’t want their stuff splashed all over the world so competitors can copy it,” he adds.
All that humility and desire for privacy, however, hasn’t stopped Peh or his firm from winning prestigious accolades, including Singapore’s President’s Design Award—twice, in 2014 and 2016. The award, established in 2006 “to increase appreciation for design that makes a difference in people’s lives,” has been presented to the country’s leading architects, industrial designers and fashion designers. Peh is one of the few graphic designers to date. “Meeting the man who was president of our country—Dr. Tony Tan—was the greatest award of all,” he says.
But the thing is, Larry is not just a graphic designer. He’s also a strategist and a photographer and an art and photography collector—and a fashionista. In fact, he cofounded and runs a menswear fashion brand, Faculty, that offers his own designs in denim, dress shirts, T-shirts and accessories. As befits a graphic designer, all the garments are black, white and gray (with a few touches of blue). A current Singapore guidebook quotes Larry like this: “My clothing is based on pieces I bought that I thought could be improved upon.” As just one example, the copy on faculty.com.sg points out that the White Club Oxford Shirt has “deeper patch pockets that can accommodate a pen and notebook, and black bands at the cuff openings to prevent the appearance of dirt and sweat stains.”
The equally perfectionistic introverts Larry has chosen to work with, and who’ve chosen to work with him, are Kelvin Pang—a colleague and friend for 20 years—now project manager and lead writer; senior art director Adora Tan; senior designer Kenneth Zeng; designer Celestine Tan; and art director Stephanie Ng. All are Singaporeans of Chinese descent—as is more than 75 percent of the island’s population of just over five and a half million—who studied communication design, creative media design and business at the local schools LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore Polytechnic and Temasek Polytechnic.
My visit to the studio began with a tour of the firm’s portfolio by Adora Tan, who’s been with the firm for ten years as creative lead for key projects, heading up research, conceptualization and art direction. She showed me memorable ads and promotions for Bynd Artisan, a chain of local stores that specializes in fine leather and paper goods. Equally successful are the firm’s understatedly elegant branding projects for the offices of GIC, the investment organization that manages Singapore’s foreign currency reserves. I especially liked the cool VIP invite to a Maserati event in the shape of a license plate, actually embossed in metal. And then there were the seven love letters that make up the unusual DVD packaging for a film by seven directors who created cinematic love letters to Singapore. And the beautiful “memory box” housing the DVD for a documentary film honoring Singapore’s food heritage; inside are postcards of images of Singapore’s hawker centers—wildly popular eating places with food stalls that purvey every kind of local specialty.
“Our clients want something that hasn’t been done before,” Adora pointed out. Yes, the briefs for these projects surely included production budgets that didn’t limit the designers to standard formats. Inspired by research and a deep understanding of Singapore’s multicultural society, these designers specialize in visual and tactile delights like handmade collages, candy “stones” flavored like local favorites, and hand-bound books stitched with multicolored threads. “We craft real, hands-on stuff that’s developed through a lot of free play,” she added. The firm’s work is hardly limited to projects on paper or promotions that can be delivered by messenger. Many assignments include motion graphics, websites, social media planning and implementation, exhibitions, interior features, and store signage. And strategy and naming.
Indeed, at their desks in the art-, photography-, book- and memorabilia-filled studio, Larry and Kelvin can often be found conferring, strategizing and wordsmithing proposals for clients, like the retailer Takashimaya. Other big-name international clients include banking group BNP Paribas, Google, Herman Miller, Louis Vuitton and furniture company Steelcase. Larry and Kelvin proudly demonstrated their branding work for Direct Funeral Services, a client some designers would turn down, or at least turn up their noses at. Their comments illustrate the &Larry philosophy and methodology:
“The company provides a service that’s important to all four major religious groups in this country. We want to help them grow. If design can really help, we will help them,” Larry said. “We want to stay true to their founding philosophy but at the same time provide direction going forward.”
“We ask a lot of questions. We are patient. We go deeper and develop the heart and soul of the brand,” Kelvin added. “In this case, the three dots of the brand symbol, which represent communication, compassion and continuity, have meaning to our older generation.”
As I admired the solution—a bold yet dignified logo in English and Chinese—other compelling things were going on in the 1,700-square-foot space. Kenneth was perfecting a clever paper clip logo for Unscripted, a group of interior architects. Celestine and Stephanie were prop styling and shooting still lifes of sweet buns and custard tarts for Tong Heng, a purveyor of Cantonese pastries for which they’d collaborated on the shop interior design and created packaging that combines traditional Chinese elements with contemporary touches.
I had a few more questions for Larry. “So, why is your firm called &Larry?” I asked, finally.
“Imagine a space, a line, before the ampersand” was his answer. “Anything can go in that space. The client name—and Larry. The product—and Larry. It’s all about seeing our clients as partners and collaborators.”
Aha. “And what about the classic, understated typography you favor? One doesn’t see much Baskerville and Caslon in Singapore.”
“I like things that are timeless and elegant but at the same time modern, like the work of Charles and Ray Eames. Serif typefaces are elegant, but the way I use them has a certain rebelliousness. As a student, I was drawn to Emil Ruder. I wished I could have gone to Switzerland. But,” he paused wistfully. “In any event, I want us graphic designers to look more like legal advisors, more professional, to get more respect.”
“Amen. Switzerland? You could work anywhere, yet you’ve chosen to stay in Singapore, a country half the size of Los Angeles.”
Kelvin answered that question: “We are all homegrown here. Singapore is driven by economic success. The country puts money into the DesignSingapore Council, into our two design museums. We get a lot of support.”
Larry concluded: “I love being on my own turf. We can get anything and everything done here. And it’s a great base from which to do business anywhere in the world.” And then he was back to figuring out for another client how to combine traditional Chinese calligraphy and iconography with elements of Swiss poster design—in a completely new and unexpected way. ca