House Tour: Kaye and Justin's Home of Adventure, Magic, DIY

They say the home is where your heart is, but what if your heart belongs to the world? Kaye and Justin are travel aficionados that bring the magic of travelling right into their home―their overseas purchases become inspiration to creating something new and unexpected to be found in every little corner, whether it’s a piece of Paris, Japan, or the Singapore of their parents’ past.

Updated on June 12, 2017 17:06 pm

Alexa Lim Xiangyun


I’ll admit it. I wasn’t in the best of moods when I reached Kaye and Justin’s HDB block last December. It had been a long week, stretched by an interminable cab ride from a Grand Prix racer-wannabe who seemed bent on leaving his passenger (me) nauseated (he succeeded) upon reaching our destination. As the lift ascended, I steeled myself to be more pleasant than a Grinch who hadn’t gotten his Christmas―yet.

I guess I’m not such a good Grinch after all for the mere sight of their door, adorned with a handmade Christmas wreath that emanated so much warmth, melted me into something like an eager Rudolph knocking.

Now, Kaye describes her home as “warm and cosy, overflowing with food, art and toys,” but the truth is that it’s a home overflowing with both warmth and cosiness. Food, art, and toys are the hidden elves serving up delightful surprises in each little corner, bringing with them the owners’ charming liveliness and hobbies.

The apartment is merrily and neatly arranged. There are wooden spoons from Japan, spice bottles and pots from France, prints from a Swedish stylist and photographer. Bushels of greens and dried flowers sway over individual tables and floor vases. A huge bouquet of fresh baby’s breath brightens up the dining table. Different floral and woody scents mingle and mark their territories. It’s terribly relaxing.

Many proud DIY projects stand around the house: refurbished vintage cabinets salvaged from the older generation, jazzed-up IKEA furniture, and this pipe shelf above their coffee corner. Kaye tells us more about it: “We had been looking around for a small shelf for quite a while to hold our coffee and tea cups, but nothing caught our eye. One day, I showed them a photo of a pipe shelf I found on Instagram, and a week later, we have our own pipe shelf in our house lovingly made by my dad and husband."

Indeed, there was much love that went into the process, for it proved to be trickier than its small size suggested. Justin relates: “Even with the help of my experienced father-in-law, we found it difficult to get the shelf levelled and straight as there were so many connecting joints. Moreover, the wall wasn’t levelled as well, which made the installation even tougher! It took us hours of trial and error before we finally got it up proper.”

“I would say that patience is of paramount importance when it comes to such DIY work. As the saying goes, more haste and less speed. Rushing is the worst thing to do when embarking on such projects as it easily leads to frustration and undesirable outcomes. DIY and modification works on existing furniture may be very tedious and time-consuming, but it's very rewarding when you see the end result,” he adds.

It is beautiful and heartwarming to learn how their furniture and DIY projects contain both their parents’ memories and work. While Justin’s parents’ home is a “treasure trove” where many of their furniture pieces came from, Kaye’s father played a part in shaping these pieces into what they are now.

“My dad helped upcycle two vintage cabinets I picked up from my in-law’s place. He sanded them down, gave them a fresh coat of white paint, and replaced the broken glass. I spruced them up with hardware―drawer knobs―that I bought from France and Luxembourg and stuck on washi tape to give them a more classic look,” Kaye says. “Besides the two vintage cabinets, my in-laws also handed down to us three children chairs, which my dad helped sand down and repaint. My husband used to sit on these chairs when he was a kid, but now these chairs function as our bedside tables, holding our favourite books that we read before we go to bed.”

“We also have vintage bowls and plates handed down by my mum and mother-in-law stored with our beer supplies,” she continues.

I was delighted to find a kindred spirit in Kaye―instead of traditional souvenirs, much of what she brings back from her travels are practical household items. These oft-bulky items, like a tea kettle and weighing scale, would hardly be seem practical then, but ultimately bring different parts of the world into everyday life.

“I do my homework every time before every trip so that I know what are the things worth buying. I look for things that tells a special story, handmade by locals or something that would help remind me of certain good parts of the trip,” Kaye reveals.

“For example, I brought back this copper pot from E.Dehillerin from Paris when I went there with my hubby about three years ago. I knew I had to get it the moment my hubby brought the pot to me. I get reminded of the sights and smells of Rue Montorgueil―of French chicken roasting and cheeses―every time I use the pot."

"My hubby gets worried every time I chance upon a supermarket. He knows that I can’t resist picking up cans, bottles, and jars of local produce as souvenirs when I see them! I love food that are packed in bottles and jars because I get to keep the bottles and jars as souvenirs after I finish the contents.”

Besides their practicality, these treasured items collected from all around the world hold memories and travel experiences, which inspire their apartment’s design. Most of the walls here are kept white and simple to complement this massive collection of knick-knacks and memorabilia, but there is a stretch of corridor that illustrates a little Parisian scene, created with just her imagination and washi tape.

“It wasn’t a planned DIY but something that I created at the spur of the moment. I had many rolls of black washi tape left over after sticking them onto my cabinets and doors so I thought I could use them on the wall as well. I sketched a window, a bench and a lamp post on the wall using a pencil and then stuck washi tape over it to create the outlines,” Kaye relates.

“My husband thought I had ordered one of those wall stickers we saw online but he was really shocked when I told him I did that with washi tape. He was impressed but then he complained that the lamp post ain’t straight!”

This Parisian scene leads to the living room, whose doors open into a large angular space that only lacks a fireplace and the winter season―it looks like it came right out of a European home.

This is also where the marriage of Kaye’s love for both travel and DIY finds takes centre stage. Locally sourced furniture are complemented with decor items from different countries, as Kaye brings us through each piece. “The black armchair in the living room was sourced locally to match the black bourgie lamp from Kartell in the living room. It’s where I curl up and read when I’m alone at home. The Peter Rabbit pillow was bought during a trip to Taiwan and the rabbit that stands beside the armchair is from FrancFranc before they exited Singapore.”

Behind: “The mirror with the moose head was purchased from Robinsons and the frame is from IKEA. We have a little display ledge below the mirror behind the armchair. On the little display ledge is a couple of knickknacks and souvenirs from our travels: right now, we have the incense burner from Luxembourg, painted ostrich egg from South Africa, a vintage baby shoe wooden mould gifted by a friend.”

“Beside the ledge, my dad helped build several narrow shelves on which we keep our magazines on display. The mandolin was brought back from a trip to Mexico for my hubby.”

“This display fish bowl was made with stones, fake moss, and a little torii gate bought from Japan representing the famous Itsukushima shrine on the island of Miyajima. During low tide, visitors can walk out to the torii gates in the sea. The two rabbits represent my sister and myself.”

Justin describes the way Kaye has brought together such a variety of items and inspirations to create a space that is "another of my favourite places." "It’s bright, airy, and full of Kaye’s customisations. I really enjoy her styling of the living room; it’s something simple with very little renovation, yet very comfortable and cosy,” he says.

Given the deep creative streak in Kaye, it’s not surprising to find a room solely dedicated to the fulfilment of DIY and craft projects. She laughs when I told her I thought it was a kid’s room and tells me it’s actually her favourite spot in the apartment. “This is where we store our toy collection and where I do my sewing and DIY projects. It’s like a tiny studio for me which I share with my husband.”

“We love to just hang out in that room and do our own stuff. There is only one table in that room and we sit facing each other. We may not be yakking away while we concentrate on our own projects, but we like it that we are spending time together even though we may not share the same interests,” she continues.

This little haven is also where Justin, who has been building toy-models for over a decade, recharges and bonds with Kaye. “Whenever I am stressed, I like to just stay in there to appreciate my toys. This never fails to take a notch or two off my stress level.”

“I especially enjoy the moments when we spend time together doing our our own crafts in the room. As Kaye has mentioned, we may not be talking but I appreciate that we are spending time together despite having different hobbies,” he says.

It seems that Justin is latching onto Kaye’s love for creating DIY projects and decorating, having designed their master bedroom's bathroom and creating his own washi tape additions on their light switches. After all, it is these many magical touches that make their life together at home an adventure as extraordinary as travelling: “Although it can be slightly annoying at times as it takes me a while to find my stuff, I do have to say that I’m almost always pleasantly surprised with how her rearrangements turn out,” he chuckles.

“That’s why I don’t get tired of the house. And I do truly love to stay at home.”

Tips from the couple:

On keeping the home airy and clean-looking:

“We chose to keep the walls white so that it is easier to match with the knickknacks and memorabilia. For bulky furniture, we also chose those with simple lines so that it does not become too overwhelming when we add on our collection. I have many items on display, but also many others that I’ve put away! I love to change things around so that the display stays interesting.”

“Plants can also make a lot of difference; they also help to keep the air in the house fresh. I have many greens in the house. Not all are real because it can be difficult to keep plants alive in a house with low natural light. I also try to buy fresh flowers from time to time. It really helps to brighten up the house.”

On cleaning:

“A little effort every day makes a lot of difference. Both my husband and I work full time and we have no helper. We do more tedious chores like mopping the floor and washing the toilets during the weekend, but I make it a point to strike off at least one simple chore off the list each day. It could be as simple as giving the dressing table a quick wipe-down or putting away the bathmats to soak so that I can throw them into the wash on Saturday/Sunday. My husband and I also make it a point to open all our letters and file them immediately instead of leaving them on the table as we know that they will just end up under the carpet when guests come.”

Home and decor inspiration:

“I read publications such as Frankie magazine, and books published by edition PAUME, a Japanese publisher that features European apartments and shops.”

Who: Kaye Chow Xiuwen, Civil Servant; and Justin Lee Yue Mun, 33, Oil and Gas Industry
Type of house: 4-room HDB flat
Size of house: 113 square metres
Cost of renovation: S$12,000 for renovation, approximately $10,000 for furniture

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Photos by Alexa Lim Xiangyun


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