In my youth, I had seen these black-and-white walk-up apartments close to town. The British built them in the 1950s to house civil servants. Art deco elements—curved profiles, tall windows—are charming and proportionately pleasing. Their monochromatic tones are striking in their simplicity and generous balconies buffer secretive interiors. There are no gates or fences to keep prying eyes out, and towering trees allude to the development’s vintage.
I had the chance to quell my curiosity when I visited the home of Tjin Lee, who recently moved into a ground-floor unit with her husband John Lim, two young sons and a helper. Lim works in the oil and gas industry, while Lee is known for her myriad entrepreneurial endeavours. The founder and managing director of Mercury Marketing & Communications is behind the successful Audi Fashion Festival and memorable content for brands like La Mer and Cartier. A respected social influencer, she also champions worthy causes such as female entrepreneurship by co-founding CRIB (Creating Responsible, Innovative Businesses) and Life Beyond Grades—a movement that aims to reduce stress on academics as the singular metric for success.
Textured mosaic tiles carpet the common foyer and a contoured step leads up to the entrance. Lee opens the door, her gregarious personality and hospitality making her instantly likeable. She also speaks speedily with an infectious enthusiasm. Bountiful daylight from the hallway windows accentuates her cobalt blue dress and crimson lips against alabaster walls. “It has been hectic just getting the home ready for school,” she shares on moving in with plastic bags of belongings the day before school reopened in January. Her older son Tyler studies close by, which was one reason for the move. The need for a separate room to work from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic was another.
“I loved living in a shophouse and wanted something old again, with high ceilings and big rooms”
Logistics aside, Lee is also enamoured with old spaces. “Before, we stayed in a condominium, and before that, a conserved shophouse. I loved living in a shophouse and wanted something old again, with high ceilings and big rooms.” The ceiling is indeed high, and the hallway, unusually wide. The architecture’s monochromatic theme is amplified with bold, chequered vinyl flooring running from the front door into the living and dining rooms. It directs the eye toward a magnificent vista of botanical wallpaper across the common areas.
The lush, painterly images of tropicana are familiar and otherworldly all at once. Its expanse, together with the drama of the diamond floors, is rarely encountered in Singaporean homes, where industrial chic or minimalist tendencies dominate. Lee’s incessant travels inspired the setting. “I wanted to instil a sense of escape, like being in your favourite boutique hotel or stylish little cafe overseas. My idea for this home was to create a haven for the family, a place to dream, to exhale and retreat from hectic urban life. In a year without travel, we now escape at home. I loved it when the boys saw our home for the first time and asked delightfully if we were going to stay in a hotel.”
Lee credits interior decorator Barbara Fritschy of Make Room for the spatial coherence. “Though I knew what my style was, putting it together would have been impossible without a tastemaker like Barbara,” says Lee. She showed Fritschy a photograph of the fashion designer Johanna Ortiz’s 16th-century Spanish villa in Colombia, which had a bucolic mural by Colombian artist Eloin Rivera. Fritschy tapered the image’s rustic vibe and expressive indulgence to Lee’s sophisticated personality.
“We moved away from natural materials like rattan and jute, opting for luxe materials like brass. The black-and-white flooring is quite colonial and the jungle wallpaper brings the outdoors in, but beyond that, we didn’t want to play up the home’s colonial history because that didn’t resonate with the young family that will be living in the space,” says Fritschy. Black ceiling fans complete the old-world ambience. “In the condominium, we didn’t have high ceilings so we couldn’t have fans,” says Lee. She enjoys the tropical way of living here with minimal air-conditioning, also made possible with the ample windows and a porous plan.
A round, brass-accented table from local furniture retailer Commune anchors the dining room. Above floats a PH Artichoke light pendant from Louis Poulsen. Its copper plates glow in the sunlight and its feathery form mimics the foliage in the jungle wallpaper. It is more sculpture than light fixture really. “I’ve wanted one for 20 years. Looking at something so beautifully designed makes me so happy,” laughs Lee on her obsession. It is apparent that she had fun putting the home together. The end product is an embodiment of dreams, discoveries, experiments and kinship.
Lee acquired many items from local retailers and brands. “I love working with small shops and makers. Also, Instagram is a wonderful community. For example, local retailer Qualità Home saw the house coming up and said they have the perfect marble tray,” says Lee, pointing to the tray with gilt handles on the golden lazy Susan. Her support for local creativity is admirable.
“I want to give back more to the local community because we’re not going to be getting visitors due to the pandemic. If we don’t support and sustain our own economy, nobody will,” she reflects. The pandemic also informed gestures as seemingly mundane as choosing an entrance console with drawers for masks. “You never needed a console with drawers before as people didn’t chuck their masks about when they got home.”
“The architecture gives to the family a casual way of living and endures the hard knocks of two energetic boys”
Moving into this old house, she also had to adapt to its quirks. For instance, she swapped the original locations of the living and dining areas to accommodate the television. “The thing with these old, unique spaces is that there are a lot of windows. It looks second nature now that the TV goes over there, but that was supposed to be the dining area, being next to the kitchen.” The television sits on a low console, which is another unplanned move. She had wanted to mount Samsung’s The Frame TV on the wall, surrounded by framed pictures like a gallery as the TV can screen art masterpieces.
“I tried to hammer into the walls to hang it up but the contractor said it was not going to hold up; these walls are made of dust. You can still see the marks,” says Lee on the erroneous holes above the TV. While the apartment is elegantly furnished, it does not feel too precious. The architecture gives to the family a casual way of living and endures the hard knocks of two energetic boys. “My family sprawls here on weekends.” The large sofa from Commune facilitates that; it is also perfect for hosting guests.
For eight-year-old Tyler and six-year-old Jake, she conceived a den inspired by their love of whales and sea creatures. Hello Circus wallpaper with gentle waves back a double-decker bed, and across the room two model boats perch on a bookcase. “The little wooden boats were hand-carried back from our travels—one from Bali and one from a craft market in Cape Town,” shares Lee. On the wall, a painting titled ‘Fluffy Forest Travel’ by Korean artist Noh Hye-Young completes the travel theme. “I love the whimsy of the little car, carried away by balloons over a sea of blue, cloud-like trees.”
The bedroom overlooks the kitchen’s wash area, where a compact Ikea shelf houses the children’s toys in neatly labelled trays. “It’s not aesthetic but it’s functional because now my helper in the kitchen can look out for the boys whereas in the condominium, the kids were in their room and the helper, far away in the kitchen.” The apartment’s layout supports this connectivity. It is a fluid loop of rooms, corridors and balconies—of which every room has one. The kitchen’s back door opens to a common lawn, expanding the home’s sense of spaciousness.
“I love the neighbourhood’s spirit. It feels like a kampung where the kids play together in the backyard and call to each other from inside their houses. Neighbours look out for one another. It’s a free-spirited, diverse community that we are getting to know,” says Lee.
In the kitchen, a banquette seat and table becomes a breakfast nook for the boys. Above hangs an artwork with dynamic strokes by Lee’s niece. “She was inspired by my boys’ energy. I can actually see that.” A new cast-iron stove fits the kitchen aesthetic with original white, mosaic- tiled countertops. “I don’t cook but I wanted to see a beautiful stove when I opened the kitchen door from the living area.” She goes on to share a serendipitous tale of an Instagram follower’s husband sending a few tiles from Malaysia when Lee asked online where she could find the missing tiles on her counter—so old they were unattainable in Singapore.
In the study-cum-lounge room, we find Jake flopped on the floor, absorbed with Lego blocks. A dainty, grey study table is backed by another botanical wallpaper on the wardrobe doors that doubles as Lee’s online meeting backdrop. “This room gets the best light so it’s best for Zoom calls,” she says. On the floor is a blush carpet, and by the window a rustic rattan Aliki daybed from Island Living. “We also call it the Quiet Room because sometimes the boys fight as they share a room. If this room’s door is closed, the other brother cannot come in so the other has some privacy,” Lee divulges.
For her own tranquillity, she heads to the master bedroom. Drapes soften the light from a band of windows behind the bed. On the walls are grey wallpaper with subtle organic lines, writ large from an artwork while underfoot, a large carpet covers original, utilitarian white tiles. “This is my escape room because the other spaces are so loud and coloured.” She eschewed built-in wardrobes for Ikea cupboards, but changed the handles for some polish. This being a rental home, she was careful with costs. But she did customise the cabinets in the corridor leading to the bedrooms to fit the wall’s narrow width.
Their uneven heights and a ceramic Seletti monkey lamp swinging from the ceiling add playfulness to an otherwise staid transitional space. Lee opens the cabinet doors to reveal neatly displayed handbags. “I love this because in my former home, my bags were hanging off hooks and getting mouldy.” A framed photograph with rich rust tones of the Antelope Canyon in Arizona continues the wanderlust motif. “It’s called ‘Sands of Time’ and is shot by my friend Iroshini Chua. I won it at an auction for charity at The Eye Ball, organised by another friend Dr Ho Ching Lin. Wonderful things happen when women support women.”
The picture encapsulates Lee’s nature. “I’m a seeker of new experiences and adventures, a risk-taker at heart, and am never afraid to choose the path less travelled.” This also translates to a home that is soulful and authentic. It offers her respite from work and a perpetually active mind. “People around me joke that I have no off-switch and I think it’s not entirely a joke. My mind is constantly racing with new ideas or seeking solutions even when I’m relaxing.”
Travel was an indispensable way for her to tune out, and here in this home, she is able to find pause.
Deputy Editor: Amelia Chia
Photographer: Sayher Heffernan
Art Director: Henry Thomas Lloyd
Fashion Director: Desmond Lim
Makeup and hair: Greg’O using Estee Lauder and Keune