New life for a dusty gem

The rundown penthouse apartment that Mr Mike Tay and Mr Eugene Yip fell in love with in 2009 was in such a sorry state that more than 80 potential buyers had walked away from it. But Mr Tay and Mr Yip saw beyond its dark, claustrophobic atmosphere, the uneven floors and the frosted windows that obscured the view of the city’s skyline.

“We were blown away by the potential of this unpolished gem from the 1960s,” Mr Yip said. So two years ago, the two Singaporean designers, both 40, reached for their chequebooks.

The duo had been content in a nearby apartment that they had owned since 2006. Even so, they enjoyed their favourite weekend pursuit of property-hunting in their neighbourhood, Tiong Bahru, a sleepy enclave known for its historic buildings and friendly atmosphere that is only five minutes by car from the thicket of high-rises in the city’s Central Business District.

“We passed by this building many times but never thought about what was inside,” Mr Yip said of Kai Fook Mansion, the four-storey corner apartment building that houses about 40 units, including the 1,240-sq-ft apartment he and Mr Tay chanced upon in May 2009.

Inside the curving brick-and-plaster building, they said they immediately noticed the penthouse apartment’s faded beauty: Teak parquet floors; original four-paned swing windows framed in wrought iron and fronted by ornate grills; sections of tiny, white mosaic floor tiling, reminiscent of the austere public housing developments where both men had grown up.

The vintage elements in the apartment have become a rarity in modern Singapore, as many of those 1960 and 1970s-era structures have been demolished.

The apartment also had its own private 1,800-sq-ft roof terrace that, though mostly a junk pile, offered an expansive view of the treetops of a nearby park backed by the city’s skyline.

Apartments with views of the city skyline typically command millions of dollars in Singapore’s housing market. But the duo paid only S$850,000, and set out to restore the place to its original beauty, embarking on a six-month renovation that cost S$200,000 and was completed in July 2010.

Mr Yip, who worked in advertising before finding his calling as an interior designer after renovating the couple’s previous homes, led the project, even to the point of scrubbing the old, dirty tiles by hand.

All the interior walls were knocked down and a fengshui master was brought in to advise on the placement of the living, working and sleeping areas. After climbing five flights of stairs and being warmly greeted by the dogs, it is hard to reconcile the sun-drenched, spacious and open-plan space, effortlessly stylish with modern yet retro flourishes, with its formerly decrepit state.

From the entry, a 17-ft-long hallway leads to the living room. The hallway is hung with framed swatches by Mr Tay and a photo of the neighbourhood. Off to the right, a painted white concrete stairwell with black parquet treads and an angular metal handrail leads to the rooftop, where a new kitchen and dining area are located.

Behind a white door to the right of the entrance, in a space that had been the kitchen, is a walk-in closet. Its shelves display vintage items, like a century-old telephone from a junk shop in the city’s Chinatown.

The closet leads into the duo’s 180-sq-ft bedroom, the original apartment’s living room, which is decorated with graphic black-and-white leaf-inspired wallpaper by Mr Tay, two petite wall sconces, and a teak platform bed designed by Mr Yip.

The thrift store furniture they have collected over the years found an ideal home in the mid-century-era apartment. In the living room, mismatched vintage and reproduction armchairs upholstered in mustard yellow, light blue, and soft brown fabrics form a conversational circle underneath a Dutch-designed chandelier made of milk bottles bought for S$850 at a neighbourhood decor shop.

The roof deck is perhaps the apartment’s greatest transformation. The duo knew they would entertain there a lot, so it only made sense to have the kitchen and dining area easily accessible and on the same level. The new kitchen is tucked away behind a 4-ft-high walnut-topped brick counter. It is protected from the elements by an aluminium roof, which also shields three square steel-and-glass cocktail tables designed by Mr Yip that when placed together form a dining table. Mr Tay upholstered their high-backed stools in one of his floral fabrics.

They confess they still relish their weekend hobby of searching the neighbourhood for forgotten gems. They found beauty in one such diamond in the rough. “We felt we belonged here,” Mr Yip said. “The mood, the style – it’s just us.”

Source : Today – 6 Jan 2012

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