House tour: An apartment in Singapore’s eclectic Tiong Bahru district
Taken by the charms of Tiong Bahru, the owners of this three-bedroom apartment tasked their interior designer to pen a love letter to the neighbourhood. The result is a space that blends Art Deco influences with a Japanese wabi sabi sensibility.
The gentrification of the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood has been widely critiqued, but there is no denying its idiosyncratic charm that still continues to draw people to want to live there.
Apart from the packed weekend crowds, there is the winning formula of the timeless Art Deco architecture, central location, off-beat mix of mom-and-pop shops and Instagram-worthy cafes, plus the walkability and relaxed air due to the low-rise buildings.
It is these reasons that led a professor and his wife to purchase an apartment in the area. He teaches at a local university and she is a director at an engineering firm. They migrated from China to Singapore in the 1990s for work.
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The home is not situated in one of the beloved, pre-war conservation blocks that define the area, but a peripheral four-storey block built 15 years ago. The development is nondescript – tacky even, with drab beige and pewter facade paint – but the unit had good bones.
“Before we bought this apartment in late-2018, we lived in a condominium at Spottiswoode Park. Both of us like the hip and charming Tiong Bahru neighbourhood. When we met our designer Ming Lim from interior design firm EightyTwo, we told him that we would like a place that is simple, calming and pleasant,” said the husband.
The original three-bedroom apartment had a pokey layout. A small kitchen and bedroom situated by the entrance meant that one had to traverse a long, dark corridor before reaching the living area.
“It felt as if you were walking through an alleyway,” said Lim. As the couple lived here by themselves – their son works and lives abroad – they did not need so many bedrooms, so he demolished the walls of these spaces upfront.
In their place is now a spacious open kitchen, now flushed with light not only from the arched window in the living area, but also from the window of the demolished bedroom. A long, Silestone quartz counter makes the kitchen more usable. It terminates in a monolithic kitchen island clad with jade-and-cream Primavera marble.
This counter bridges the kitchen, dining and living area into one continuous zone. It is conducive for the teas and dinners that the couple likes to host, as the person cooking or preparing food can converse easily with those lounging or watching television in the other areas.
The wall opposite the kitchen running from the entrance all the way to the living area’s window is finished in a cream-coloured laminate. It visually connects all three areas, leads the eye toward the amicably-shaped window and the light streaming from it, and contributes to the minimal aesthetic.
Above the kitchen counter, a line of cabinetry terminates with a rounded edge. “I did this to complement the arched window that [was implemented during the renovation]. It is also a nod to the Art Deco movement that defines Tiong Bahru’s architecture,” said Lim.
On the unique marble choice, he explained, “Primavera marble was chosen to create a statement piece for the kitchen peninsula while serving as an ode to the original green metal window frames of the residence. The bottom section was finished in matte satin brass sheet.”
This subtle gloss continues in the floor finish with a brass strip dividing the micro-cement flooring of the corridor and living area, and the ceramic tiles resembling terrazzo in the kitchen.
“The micro-cement floor provides a seamless look across the spaces, and is easy to maintain as it is not prone to hairline cracks. With the exception of the marble and brass, the other material choices were kept to muted, earth tones like beige, grey and off-white. We focused instead on nuances, textures and [layering of space] to achieve a restrained yet refined home,” said Lim.
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Colours are used sparingly as accents. An example is in the furnishing. “The living area and bedroom curtains feature heavy fabrics in burnt orange, steel and dove grey respectively. A layer of sheer curtains filter light in the day,” described Lim.
The living room curtain is particularly well selected to match the shade of the exposed brick wall. The soft, flowing fabric contrasts with the latter’s nonchalant roughness to reflect Lim’s idea of creating balance through opposing qualities.
Not only are the common areas better lit after the renovation, but the bedrooms are, too. The master bedroom and bathroom’s doors were replaced with mild steel-framed, fluted glass doors that pass light through both ways. As the original master bathroom was quite small, Lim pushed a wall out to expand it.
Inside, the countertop’s curved profile resonates with the kitchen cabinetry. The terrazzo-lookalike ceramic tiles in the kitchen also make an appearance here, as well as the second bedroom’s en-suite. This touch of terrazzo adheres to the Art Deco scheme.
In the second bathroom, a quartz counter for the washbasin folds downward into a sitting ledge at the shower stall. Lim replaced the top half of the wall between the bathroom and bedroom with glass panels, bringing light into the sleeping area.
One of the “nuances” that Lim speaks about is exposing parts of the architecture – a raw brick wall at the living area and a beam across the dining. This narrative of layering time adds to the home’s industrial character and rugged charm.
“During the initial renovation phases, the raw concrete structural beams and terracotta brick wall were discovered. They provide strong textural contrasts between raw and refined, matching the style of Tiong Bahru,” said Lim.
The sense of calm he wanted to create drew from Japanese aesthetic principles. “I’ve always appreciated the Japanese wabi sabi concept [which celebrates imperfection rather than hide it], and I felt that the space could incorporate some of these [found] elements. I discussed it with the owners and they were agreeable,” said Lim.
The owners trusted Lim with many of the design decisions, down to the artwork. In the common areas, he picked pieces that help create a coherent interior.
“The art piece in the dining area consists of all the colours used for the interior. It ties in very well with the colour scheme. Another piece features interesting geometric shapes, which I wanted to complement the dining room light,” said Ming.
Like a luminous bubble, the Bianca pendant light from Fontana Arte hovers serenely over a geometric, timber dining table from Karimoku New Standard. These simple forms echo the home’s honest, distilled expressions.
Similarly, the living room furniture were chosen for their pure forms and suitable materiality. The black aluminium Poller coffee table by Wendelbo has a slight hint of marble at the base, and the Rivet end table from local brand JotterGoods adds shine.
With its oak wood base and enlarged opal glass dome mimicking a mushroom – the designer Signe Hytte was indeed inspired by one – the Karl-Johan table lamp from Danish brand New Works is a whimsical touch.
While the couple enjoyed living in the apartment, they later decided to stay at their former condominium as it had more space to cater for their son when he returned home on holiday or business.
They have since rented the apartment out to an expat couple that, like the owners, find comfort in the simple yet well-designed interior, and love being close to the culturally and socially rich Tiong Bahru neighbourhood.
“I’ve always appreciated the Japanese wabi sabi concept [which celebrates imperfection rather than hide it].” – Ming Lim