What does a designer’s prewar home look like?

By Aaron De Silva / EdgeProp | November 11, 2017 10:30 AM SGT
"Life is everything," says Nathan Yong about his bohemian home.
You might expect the home of a furniture designer to be slick and polished, like a well-curated showroom. But for Nathan Yong, the opposite is true. Home for him is a slightly dishevelled apartment in a two-storey, prewar terrace just off Haig Road in Katong. This is just the way he likes it.
“This space isn’t super-efficient – the drains get choked and rats run in sometimes, but I love it because that’s what life is like. You can’t get that in condos,” says Yong, who co-owns multi-brand home furnishing store Grafunkt in Millennia Walk and also designs for brands like Ligne Roset and ipsa ipse ipsum.
“I don’t think my house looks like a typical designer’s house. It’s actually rather bohemian. Design isn’t everything. I get my inspiration from life and living,” he adds.
The building, along with seven others in an estate bounded by Jalan Tembusu and Haig Road, was once the quarters of the former Public Works Department (PWD). The buildings are currently managed by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA). According to Yong, each apartment is leased out on an eight-year term, although the SLA reviews the tenancy every two years.
Yong’s 1,300 sq. ft. two-bedroom apartment has unique features such as a kitchen chimney (which has been sealed off) – hinting at a time when households cooked with charcoal-fired stoves. The estate itself has a village-like feel, a quality that drew Yong to the area in the first place.
“I had a friend who stayed here about 15 years ago. That was the first time I visited, and I thought it was amazing. It didn’t feel like Singapore because of the space and the fact that there weren’t many tall buildings around. But I was quite young then, and not ready to move out on my own.”
In 2009, when Yong was finally ready to find his own space, he wasted no time putting in a bid for an apartment in the estate. He wasn’t successful at first, so he bought a three-bedroom unit in Waterbank at Dakota instead. Then, in 2014, he re-submitted his bid – offering $2,700 a month – and won. He promptly moved into the estate, and rented out his condo.
“My condo is like many new developments: cold, hollow, and lacking in charm. It doesn’t feel ‘earthy’. Whereas this apartment is on the ground, so you can feel the soil and grass (under your feet), (look out at) trees and hear the birds sing. I find it real, and I feel a sense of rootedness.
“Here you get nature and wide-open spaces even though you’re in the city. As a designer, a dreamer, I want to have that space. I’ve even bought singing birds to feel in tune with nature! The life that I want is more real and rooted, more organic.”
Yong also appreciated the apartment’s regular, functional layout. In the plan, the spaces are composed of squares and rectangles, with no odd corners. The 3.4m-high ceilings and ample windows make the space feel larger too.
Walking down the hallway
To make his surroundings homely, Yong installed solid floors on top of the original white ceramic tiles, added a wooden deck on the patio, and planted bamboo trees in the backyard. He replaced the frosted glass windows with clear glass ones to let in more light. In the kitchen, he put in new cabinets and a farmhouse sink for a rustic feel. He also used a rusted paint finish on a column and beams in the living room to make the structural supports stand out as focal points.
The furniture is a mix of Yong’s own designs and pieces he sells in his stores. The TV console, dining table and master bed are from his own line – Folks – while the coffee table is a design for Ligne Roset. The dining chairs are by the Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa while the shelving unit is by the Swedish architect Nils Strinning. Both are retailed in Yong’s shop.
Yong is also very fond of the estate’s community spirit. “The neighbourhood is quite bohemian. There are a few (creative types like) architects and photographers living here. Felix Ng, who’s the director of Design Film Festival, is my neighbour. There’s a good mix of Singaporeans and foreigners. The Malay lady who lives opposite me holds the community together. She’s been living here since the 1970s or 1980s. She knows everyone who comes and goes. When she hosts Hari Raya dinners, she invites everyone over.
“If I could stay here forever, I would,” says Yong, although he admits that nothing lasts forever in Singapore. “There are always rumours of redevelopment: a new road that will cut through the estate to connect Haig Road with Tanjong Katong Road, or that the whole estate will be cleared by the end of next year. The best thing for us to do is just enjoy our time here while we can.” And that’s precisely what Yong is doing.