Whenever you come across pictures of beautifully furnished HDB flats, chances are they’re the work of interior designers and stylists who’ve managed to transform a generic-looking home into something stunning. Here, they spill their personal decorating secrets that you can follow to enhance your living space, from maximising and saving space to creating a visually beautiful home you’ll be proud to own:
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Before considering the decor, work on the floor plan where possible — with the aim of creating an open, fluid space. “Move any utility or storage rooms to the perimeter of your home to achieve a single, open, central area commensurate with the proportions found in larger apartments,” advises Sydney-based interior designer Nicholas Gurney, who is reowned for his skills when it comes to transforming small spaces.
If starting from scratch isn’t an option, consider removing any unnecessary walls, in order to create a similar feeling of airiness.
When Nicholas works on a small-scale project, he likes to use a method he calls “add and subtract”. He says: “Murphy beds and folding or extension tables are readily available and are a highly effective solution — add them to the room when you need them and subtract them when you don’t!”
Likewise, a butcher’s block on wheels is a nifty extra work surface that can be moved out of sight when not needed.
While a soft neutral scheme is usually suggested to make a space appear larger, it isn’t necessarily to everybody’s taste. “If what you love is big, bright and bold, then don’t be afraid to show it – no matter how small the rooms may be,” says Nikki Hunt of Design Intervention.
“When faced with decorating tiny rooms, it can be tempting to play it safe but colour and pattern can actually make those small rooms fun and inviting. With so much to see, the boundaries will blur.” Mix prints, shades, textures and trinkets for a home so full of personality, you won’t notice its size.
Storage space is often an issue, but there are plenty of ways to increase the functionality of large furniture items to deal with this. Bu Shukun of Architology is a master of disguise, creating bespoke pieces that work twice, if not three times, as hard.
“We created a kitchen island that is a stove, dining table and TV console all at the same time. The layering of functions allows the limited space to have multiple dimensions,” he says of a project his team worked on.
“A unified colour palette that runs throughout the house will help it feel larger as it decreases visual noise,” explains Caroline Chin-Geyler of Arete Culture, which creates bespoke interiors and furniture for its Singapore clientele. “I like to use predominantly neutral palettes in small homes as it makes the spatial flow feel less ‘choppy’.”
Adopting a scheme in clean, soft shades such as taupe, mushroom or beige will also enhance light, naturally amplifying the space of a room or a home. Consider this particularly in areas such as corridors or windowless bathrooms, which will benefit greatly from a lick of fresh, uplifting paint.
Heavy materials and fabrics will immediately weigh a room down, so look at alternatives for some of the larger items of furniture, and play around with soft furnishings and accessories. “Add lashings of reflective materials such as glass and acrylic to lighten the mood,” suggests Jeremy Tay of Prestige Global Design.
Trading a solid teak table for a more whimsical, glass-topped one will immediately give the illusion of a larger space, as would replacing heavy drapes with sheers and swopping shaggy rugs for low-pile ones.
The illusion of space is actually down to proportions and ensuring that all of the items within a room interact seamlessly with one another – a giant sofa in a small living room, for example, will visually swamp it, so consider customising furniture to fit.
“Instead of buying a smaller-scale piece, a custom-made sofa will not only fit a space, but will also remain comfortable, because you can maintain the depth while altering the length,” explains Jeremy.
Mirrors are the go-to trick for any interior designer looking to create depth and space. Nina Beale of Bungalow 55 likes to arrange three long mirrors along the back wall in a dining room to make it feel grander. It also creates a point of interest on an otherwise blank canvas and is a fresh alternative to a piece of art.
Instead of trying to cram “traditional” furniture into a space, consider whether you really need it or if there might be a more optically pleasing option. Sideboards and seating can often clutter a space unnecessarily but, if you feel that they serve a vital purpose, look at other ways that you might be able to achieve the same result.
“Versatile pieces of furniture such as ceramic stools or upholstered ottomans can be used as additional seating or servers when entertaining,” suggests Nina Tolstrup of Danish small-scale design experts Studiomama.
While bedroom and bathroom doors are mandatory, consider removing those that aren’t, and leave a statement door frame instead. Alternatively, sliding doors do the job just as well, and are completely unobtrusive. “Sliding doors built into walls leave you with more wall space,” says Nina.
When interior designer Rashi Tulshyan designed her own apartment, she wanted to create a “modern luxe” feel, but not necessarily by splashing out on high-end furnishings.
“[My husband and I] kept the motto of ‘high-low’ for our design from the beginning, which meant we wanted to splurge on key items and save on others,” says the 27-year-old founder of interior design company, Home Philosophy.
When the couple bought the 16-year-old condominium apartment in Havelock Road last year, the floors, kitchen and bathrooms were rundown. They spent $100,000 on renovations, including removing some walls to create larger spaces in the kitchen and bedroom; and just under $40,000 on furnishings for the 1,450 sq ft apartment.
“The biggest splurge was on the marble floors,” she says, pictured above. The cost, including that of hacking the old, reddish granite tiles, was $20,000. “It was a big cost, but there’s something about the natural grains in marble that a tile can never replicate. Also, it’s cool on your feet and it gives a luxe feel.”
Other splurges include a hand-woven Kashmiri rug made of wool and bamboo silk, bought for just under $5,000 from Hassan Carpets.
At the other end of the spectrum, the large kitchen, which Rashi is proudest of, comprises Ikea cabinetry and cost $8,000.
“When I was looking at working with local carpenters, the cost was close to double,” she says. “There is this perception that Ikea is for college students… but its quality is really good. It uses wrap-around foil laminates for its cabinets and the machinery that’s used to do the wrapping is very expensive. A lot of local carpentry just stick the materials together.”
Adding a marble tile backsplash and black granite sinks kept the look polished.
The guest bedroom, which has a Scandinavian theme, was put together for an affordable $5,000 using furniture from Ikea and Castlery. It has a dual-tone painted wall and curtains, as well as Oriental antique accents in the form of mint-green $150 stools used as side tables.
“It’s something we see happening, whether it’s fashion – you wear your Zara and H&M, accented with great shoes or a really nice bag – or food – you splurge on a great meal once a month and eat at the hawker centre the rest of the time,” Rashi says.
From industrial chic to Japanese minimalist, there are myriad styles to emulate. Interior designer and founder of Wee Studio, Mr Yeo See Wee, suggests that home owners create a lookbook with images of a few things they like. It’s key to avoid cluttering the concept with tons of ideas:
“If you have 10,000 pictures of every style, that makes it very difficult for you and your interior designer to decide what style to go with.”
Owner of April Atelier and architecturally-trained interior designer Vanessa Ong, 31, recently completed renovating her own Build-To-Order flat. She adds, “Take time to observe spaces, objects, textures that inspire you or places you’ve visited. Your home should tell a story of who you are.”
Vanessa gives this tip: limit the colour and texture tones to four or five options and play around with different materials instead.
For her own home, instead of going with funky colours for each room, she and husband Nigel Chan kept the walls mostly white. Besides making the home look brighter, this allows the furniture and decorative accents to pop: “By restricting the palette, you get simplicity. Adding lots of things in doesn’t mean better design.”
Vanessa and Nigel’s BTO flat on the second floor faces other Housing Board blocks, which left parts of their house quite dark. In the original layout of the four-room flat, a few of the walls prevented sunlight from reaching the deeper recesses of the house, such as the kitchen.
Their solution: knock down some of the walls in the kitchen and replace the brick wall of one room with a sliding door. “Our priority was to bring natural light into the house. It gives you a feeling of warmth,” she says.
With home owners moving into smaller digs, clever space planning is needed. Ms Gwen Tan of Formwerkz Architects says home owners should plan for more storage for future possessions. That means building storage upwards, utilising vertical surfaces, and mounting electronics and lighting on walls.
HomeRenoGuru’s Mr Teo says that first-time home owners often underestimate the storage space they need. They need to plan with the future in mind, he says.
Interior designers suggest incorporating built-in storage. For example, having floor-to-ceiling shelves to maximise wall space, or opting for beds with storage beneath them.
Many apartments in older flats tend to be along common corridors – which means you hear everything that happens outside your windows. Nosy neighbours can also peek in anytime. One clever idea by Elpis Interior Design is to erect a “half-wall” that offers privacy and still lets light in. To make full use of the wall, mount a television on it.
Aym Design’s Ms Picanco says one can consider hanging heavy fabric curtains on windows that face a walkway. She also points to innovative products such as acoustic films which can be applied to glass to increase sound proofing.
“Privacy at home is invaluable – we all want to feel a sense of retreat when we walk in the door,” she says.
The first thing that catches your eye in Molina Hun and Sujono Lim’s flat at The Pinnacle@Duxton is a 2.85 m-long matte black table seemingly floating between two terazzo plinths.
The dining table is a multi-functional piece that dominates the 1,022 sq ft home. Besides being a spot where the couple work and eat, it separates the living room from the work nook and the bedrooms at the back of the house. This is not the typical layout in which home owners play up the living room and segregate spaces more distinctly.
But Sujono says they started by looking at their lifestyle and taking stock of how they planned to use the space – something he encourages home owners to do instead of following a set layout template.
The couple run Sujonohun, a multi-disciplinary design practice, and to them, furniture is an investment as they intend to keep it for a long time. Molia, who is the creative director at the studio and an adjunct lecturer at Lasalle College of the Arts, says home owners should set aside a budget for good furniture pieces. “Instead of buying cheap furniture that may not last, choose pieces that can move with you to your next home,” she advises.
Interior designers Yeo See Wee, 32, and JJ Yip, 28, of Wee Studio, try to push boundaries with their design proposals, at times including bold or untested ideas. For starters, their home is a dramatic ode to a dark palette of grey and black hues, breaking traditional decor rules of choosing bright colours to create an airy space. This look, Ms Yip says, works for homes with lots of light coming through. But, she warns, interiors like this may mean more cleaning, as dust shows easily on dark surfaces.
They also used hand-drawn Italian tiles with busy patterns to create a feature wall in the kitchen.
A clever way to cut visual clutter is to hide the bolts and nuts, such as sliding door tracks and do away with regular handles for doors and cabinets, so surfaces look seamless. In See Wee and JJ’s home, it’s hard to tell that the couple have lots of stuff as everything from clothes to appliances are hidden behind cupboards and drawers.
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