I’m not the most detail-oriented person. I’m more of a big picture, creative thinker than an industrious and meticulous doer. So while it has been super easy and super fun to work on the overall design, look and feel of my kitchen, completing the detailed design is driving me to tears.
I express my creativity through my cooking – trying new ingredients or creating my own recipes. It’s a sacred space for me. It is also the heart centre of the family. Often times, I find all of us are gathered in the kitchen – cooking, cleaning, eating, or just chatting. A typical morning finds my husband making coffee, while I assemble the kids’ lunch, and the kids eat breakfast. There’s commotion and banter. There’s life.
After years of making-do with sloppy kitchen design I have the opportunity to create something that meets my needs. My goal is an efficient kitchen that is lovely to behold and a pleasure to work in. The space is planned and organised; there is a place for everything so that everything can stay in place, avoiding clutter and waste.
I’m spatially challenged and can’t think in inches or centimetres or the preferred unit of measurement – millimetres! So I’ve taken to carrying a measuring tape everywhere I go. If my interior designer says, “The drawer is 500”, I immediately whip out the tape and show myself what 500mm looks like before I make a decision. For the longest time I thought drawer of 13cm height was super narrow, but actually it’s quite a lovely height for a kitchen or bathroom drawer. To get a better idea of kitchen drawers and cool features, I spent almost an entire day in IKEA, armed with clipboard, draft kitchen layouts, and my tape. I went from kitchen to kitchen, opening and closing drawers, measuring width and height and depth, getting a feel for dimensions and drawer design, and checking drawer inserts, soft closing mechanism, hinges, accessories (some pictures shown below). Waste bins are a particular interest of mine since I separate wet and dry garbage, and separate recycling items. My interior designer probably thinks I’m crazy for the number of waste bins I’m planning. My husband definitely thinks so. I don’t really care, I believe we must reduce, reuse, and recycle.
I spent a lot of time online looking at bins, spice racks, and other products that would help me organise my kitchen. I have learnt that decanting and storing food products in labelled containers helps to keep them fresh, to plan shopping, and to reduce waste. All the while looking amazing for Instagram.
After the IKEA study tour, the countless articles on kitchen design, review from Wirecutter, inspiration from Pinterest and Kitchens of Instagram, it was time to make some design decisions and have some points of view on how the design would be accomplished given the constraints – space, original structural elements, sizes of appliances.
Next came a 5-hour work session with the interior designer to plan each and every aspect of the kitchen thinking foremost about function, efficiency, and ease of maintenance. It was a very important session and I remember coming home feeling elated that we had nailed down every detail including the colour of wood, laminates, handles and knobs, drawer mechanisms and hinges.
Then I get a message…
So it’s back to the drawing board to go over every piece of the kitchen design to review and confirm, and most likely, make changes/compromises. This is not what I planned to do on a Friday evening. But at least there are beers chilling in the fridge.
We are now in the second month of the RenoTransformation. Despite the labour shortages, approval delays, shipping issues, we seem to be making good progress.
At the beginning of the year, almost two months before the work started, I drafted a list of guiding principles for the project. This is a habit from my former life as a business consultant. When we have a clear set of principles to guide the design, decision making becomes easy. When there is a conflict (and there will be conflict), referring back to the principles removes the emotion from the equation and you can make a sound decision. Furthermore, the decisions are consistent because they are all based on the same set of principles.
Here are some of the principles I wrote down in January:
1. Timeless design – will I like it 2,5,10 years time?
2. Longevity – use good quality materials that will not need to be fixed or replaced often.
3. Modern traditional design – my husband and I took online quizzes to help us identify our design style. We then spent a good amount of time on Pinterest looking at photos of different rooms organised by design type to confirm that what the quiz told us and what our eyes found pleasant were one and the same.
4. A place for everything and everything in its place – I first learnt this principle in a business school class on Japanese Management philosophies and techniques. The principle may have originated on the floor of a Japanese automobile factory but it is very crucial for a well-organised, clutter-free home.
5. Function is important, but the design doesn’t have to be ugly. Also, let’s not have pretty things that don’t perform any function or worse, impede function. E.g. I don’t need LED light strips that look pretty but don’t illuminate. I can use textiles, art, plants, and other decor objects to bring the pretty.
6. Design and choice materials must be suitable for Singapore’s hot, humid, and rainy climate. We know there are some things we just can’t have. E.g. I can’t have statement chandeliers over the dining table or in the centre of the living room because a ceiling fan is more important.
I’m so glad we’ve had these principles to guide our transformation journey. I totally underestimated the emotional aspect of the journey. I totally underestimated how difficult it would be to stick to the overall vision and the guiding principles for the house.
Yesterday I spent the morning at Hock Siong, my favourite second-hand furniture store in Singapore. I saw this totally gorgeous 3-seater wooden sofa with mother of pearl inlay work. It was so beautiful and I was so tempted. I stood there for a few minutes, mentally rearranging the furniture to check if we had space. Equally tempting were the vintage cabinets and carved wooden frames. But as beautiful as the objects were, they didn’t meet our needs or aesthetic. So I returned home empty-handed.
I love Wirecutter. Before every purchase, I religiously check if Wirecutter has reviewed the category and let their recommendations heavily influence my decision. The people at Wirecutter are that good. I have referred to their advice on coffee makers, dishwashers, stoves and ranges, stand-in mixers, kid headphones, label printers, portable bluetooth speakers, bedsheets, backpacks, even umbrellas and iPhone cases. Sometimes, I read their reviews on random categories just for fun. The products Wirecutter recommends are not always available in Singapore but the knowledge is always relevant. I like to to know what features are essential vs. desirable, what to avoid, what are the leading products in different price categories, etc.
So obviously when it comes to the RenoTransofrmation, I have been reading Wirecutter a lot. Last week we had to decide on switches and sockets, which I learned are called wiring devices. I would have never guessed. Anyway, I started searching Wirecutter for recommendations and found a whole section on Smart Home devices – smart bulbs, smart switches, smart security, smart locks and doorbells, smart home sensors, smart this and smart that. I realised I wasn’t very smart when it came to home tech. I have the required boxes for broadband, and Apple TV. And that’s about it. We don’t use Alexa or Google Assistant. Siri is used only to check the weather or to set timers or to have existential conversations.
While it is very exciting to be able to control appliances, lights and fans with an app, I don’t think we are ready for it. First, some of the devices are not really needed. Our weather is uniformly hot all year – it’s either hot, or hot and wet. I don’t have central air-conditioning and I don’t need to maintain the house temperature throughout the day. I don’t need a smart doorbell with all the bells and whistles like security cameras, because Singapore is relatively safe and there is almost always someone at home. Second, the tech is expensive. Like any new tech in early stages, smart home tech attracts a premium. Third, I don’t want to rely on an app on my smart phone. What happens when I forget to charge my device (as it happens more frequently than I’d like)? What happens if there is a blackout and I lose wifi for hours and days? Or there is just poor connection somedays (as we have experienced in 2020). Fourth, ever-present security concerns pertaining to devices connected to the Internet – am I being watched? Who’s listening through my devices? Is my data being collected and transmitted and where?
The technology is evolving. Our architect narrated a story about a client who bought expensive smart bulbs only to find out a few months later that the smart functions now rested with the switches instead of the bulb. And the smart switches work with any type of bulb. It seems installing just smart bulbs and switches takes a fair bit of planning. I reckon that developing a harmonious ecosystem of smart devices is complicated, time consuming, and expensive.
Our requirements are simple – appropriate task and ambient lighting, easy to use devices, good clean design, and affordability. It’s easy to not get influenced by latest trends and buzz words when you are clear about your needs and what does/doesn’t work for your specific situation. Even if Wirecutter has an entire section on Smart Home appliances.
I’m curious and interested but as of now I’m going to sit out the Smart Home tech movement for now. When it comes to the adoption of this innovative tech, I don’t need to be an ‘early adopter’, I’m perfectly okay being a ‘late majority.’
Sometime last year, we decided to repair and renovate our beloved house. What started as a kernel of an idea has grown into a sturdy little plant. After our wedding, the birth of our children, and our move from NYC to Singapore in 2007, this is the biggest, most transformative event for my husband and me.
We were uncertain of embarking on a renovation journey during a pandemic. But it seems that being forced to spend most of the time within four walls of a house has sent people on a renovation binge like no other. Your house is now expected to function as a home, office, gym, restaurant, movie theatre, spa, play area/recreation centre. It seems most of us found our homes lacking or in our case, in need of repair.
Our last renovation experience was ten years ago when we remodelled our kitchen and bathroom. At that time, when the contractor asked me what kind of kitchen countertop I wanted, I said “Black”. This time around you can quiz me on the relative properties and benefits of quartz, solid surface, acrylic, and natural stone as well as the brands available in the market, both local and European.
In short, I have fully committed my creative energy to this process which I have lovingly termed “RenoTransformation”. Because I don’t merely want to fix my house and make it pretty. I want to make it fit for purpose and make it lasting. I want to use this opportunity to change some bad habits (e.g. cluttering) and form some new ones (e.g. composting).
I have borrowed the New York School of Interior Design’s Home: The Foundation of Enduring Spaces from the library several times. I have read most chapters from Lighting Design Basics a book on lighting design. I’ve been reading the relevant sections of L’art de la Simplicite for pointers on living more with less.
I have learnt that my design style is transitional or modern traditional. I like the idea of Scandinavian minimalism but I know I want pops of colour and ‘stuff’ in my house. Stuff that tells stories, that reminds me of places I lived in and people I used to be. I don’t want to rid myself of mementos and keepsakes and wipe away memories from my childhood, and my college years in Bombay, my time as a newly-wed in NYC, my work life in Singapore and of course my kids.
I follow too many design and home decor Instagram accounts to count. I follow accounts for North American modern design, Indian textiles, Japanese pottery, traditional British design, Scandinavian furniture, European lighting design, local Singapore businesses and artists. I have discovered I love iconic pieces of furniture from the greats – Charles and Ray Eames, Saarinen, Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner, and company. Though I can’t afford any of them.
It’s been an intensely enriching experience.
Sometime last year, I looked at my bedroom and realised it said nothing about me. Looking at my room you couldn’t tell what kind of person I was, what my interest, hopes and dreams were. The room performed a function but it was so impersonal. It was a very depressing realisation. I want my home to reflect who we are as individuals and as a family, our heritage, our life in Singapore, our time in NYC, our current interests, and our hopes (e.g. the replica Saarinen table may one day be replaced with the original).
The beginning of a journey is always exciting, I feel like I’m at the start of an epic trek. I have a partner, a guide, my gear, the trail is mapped out, and my legs are rested and ready for the road ahead. I know there will be setbacks and missteps and compromises. They are expected. But when we reach our destination, what a view it will be.
And it’s done. Or is it just starting?
I have finished the 12-week Artist’s Way program. I’m slowly sinking into the most delicious feeling of accomplishment. Over the last several years, I started more than my share of programs, challenges, courses, routines, everything from the spiritual to the mundane. And each time I gave after a few days or weeks. But I stayed with the Artist’s Way, and though I took my time to get through weeks 8-12, I finished the program.
I set out on this journey, not knowing the end outcome but I knew the journey was necessary. I worked hard, dug deep, and stayed honest. I faced the monster under my bed. The journey has been so rewarding – I found MYSELF!
Thinking about change and nurturing myself were the key actions for Week 11. I reflected on all the ways I’ve changed since Week 1 and also made some commitment towards how I will continue to change. Reclaiming myself as a person, independent of the roles I play, has been the single biggest change I’ve made. Making time and space for myself, and teaching my family members to respect my time and space has been another major change. My daughter is welcome to use my desk, but she needs to clean up if she makes a mess. If Mom is doing her yoga class or writing morning pages, anything that is not a medical or fire emergency has to wait. Seems so simple, right? But we have been in a lockdown for three months which means we have been in each other’s presence constantly. Even now, my daughter is sitting next to me creating a game on a coding app. She is also very unhappy with my music choice pointedly asked if I could play something other than the rock music I’ve been playing all morning. My time, my music.
This week I had to plan one loving action every day. I bought an art print from Libby Chambers Art because I love her use of colour, and her painting of magnolias makes me happy. There was much baking this week, of course. There was some yoga, some meditation. Lots of music courtesy Spotify and the Lincoln Centre Youtube channel. I went for a walk in my neighbourhood and took the time to observe and photograph flowers that I’ve always ignored.
The best thing I did for myself this week was sign up for two online experiences with Airbnb. One was a vegetarian Balinese cooking class in Denapsar, Bali, and the other was a piano meditation in Paris. Honestly, I didn’t want the week to end! I have learnt that nurturing myself is possible; it doesn’t require a huge time commitment and it doesn’t have to be expensive.
It is amazing what technology has made possible. I have toured museums, gardens and cities, watched music performances, browsed Art Basel, learnt to cook new recipes, chanted and meditated, and learnt dance without leaving my home. I’m extremely grateful to the Internet Gods for a strong, reliable network connection throughout this very strange year.