When Koh Zhi Yi was a young boy, he would follow his design-loving father to garage sales, found through the classified ads in the newspapers that he would comb through religiously every morning. Stories abound on the people they met and the mid-century modern furniture they discovered and brought home. “This was the pre-Internet era. We’d get lucky when some owners had good stuff but didn’t know how much they were worth,” Koh recalls fondly.
Some of these precious finds now furnish the HDB apartment he shares with his wife Lee Minlin. The couple, who married in 2019, moved in in January this year. Albeit modestly sized, the home has a considered feel, with various mise en scène of furniture and objects that draw the eye around. Koh’s love of midcentury modern and vintage design, passed down from father to son, is palpable.
“Things in that era were made to last,” he explains on his affection for items made post-World War II that embodied a distinctive craftsmanship and quality. Lee and Koh, who are 29 and 32 respectively, met at Singapore Management University. Their creative home speaks nothing of their careers in finance, and is a delightfully surprising place to encounter within the staid HDB block and characterless common corridors.
While waiting for their home to be built, the couple lived for several years with his parents. During that time, they started amassing things for their home, via Carousell and at flea markets when they travelled. The main door opens into the dining area, made inviting with a marble-topped Oval 78” table designed by Florence Knoll for Knoll International. There is a story about the table. “It was from a Japanese expat. We dismantled it and hid the top underneath a relative’s bed so my mum won’t complain,” Koh shares, half-in-jest at his father’s design-hoarding tendencies. The originally white marble is slightly yellowed with age. “That’s the beauty of the marble; it’s meant to be used,” says Koh.
It is surrounded by a melange of design classics—three Charles & Ray Eames DCM dining chairs for Herman Miller across a trio of Arne Jacobsen-designed Fritz Hansen Series 7 chairs, with their ‘Made in Denmark 1985’ labels still plastered underneath. The same chairs are used in Koh’s father’s house. “We took some extras over,” he says. He also hijacked a vintage Panthella standing lamp designed by Verner Panton in 1971, whose bulbous shade emits a warm glow around the room.
At the head of the table is an eccentric little creature—a plastic chair whose backing of a cluster of hamburgers with eyes gazes animatedly toward the main door. “This is from the ’80s, which I got online. It didn’t come with a base so I found one from a random chair that fit,” Koh says fondly of the seat that used to grace a McDonald’s outlet in the US. Two more McDonald’s-related paraphernalia sit at the top shelf of a modular FM Reolsystem teak wall shelving unit designed by Kai Kristiansen in the dining room, bought from local vintage store Noden.
“We’d get lucky when some owners had good stuff but didn’t know how much they were worth”
“These are cookie jars, the head opens up,” Lee says, pointing to the Hamburglar and Ronald McDonald ceramic busts. Below, a ketchup-red painting of the McDonald’s logo was a gift from a colleague. A diminutive Colonel Sanders figurine stands poised next to a comical Planters peanuts copper tray, while several sculptures with irreverent hand poses and an alabaster bust of Donald Trump stand on top of stacks of design magazines, such as Casa Brutus from Japan, and Lee’s collection of cookbooks.
“I cook a lot,” says the amiable Lee. She searches out key tomes of particular cuisines. There is one on Indian restaurant Dishoom in London atop Peru – The Cookbook featuring 500 traditional home cooking recipes from chef Gastón Acurio. “I really enjoyed it when I was in London; they try to simplify Indian recipes for common people, and chef Acurio is very crucial in internationalising Peruvian food,” she notes. As for her specialities, they are Japanese donabe (clay pot rice). “I love cooking Japanese food, and exploring how to use local ingredients and flavours with Japanese cooking methods.”
Koh, who is a fan of political satire, takes down the Trump bust and opens the base to reveal a shallow dish. “This is an incense burner by Japanese clothing and lifestyle brand Neighborhood. “When you light it up, the head will smoke,” he muses. “I collect all sorts of funny things.” Another funny thing leans in a corner. It is a tall matchstick-like lamp designed by Thai designer Chaiyut Plypetch of Propaganda in collaboration with Tokyo’s Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. “You can change the top from yellow to red, but it is a bit eerie, like you’re in a temple,” says Lee on the Carousell find.
There are many characteristic luminaires around the house aside from this one. On the wall shelf, Koh points out a recent acquisition. “We got this lamp from our most recent trip to Paris. It’s called the Pelota lamp, designed by C Casati and E Ponzio for Lamperti Studio DA in Italy. Pelota is a Spanish sport where the glove is shaped like that,” he says on the lamp’s curvaceous shade. In the adjacent living room, a vintage Jean Prouvé Potence wall lamp from Vitra hovers over a Modernica daybed, a Paimio Armchair 41 designed by Alvar Aalto in 1932 displaying the engineering feat of bent plywood, and a Cité chair, also by Prouvé, that was designed for the student residence halls at Cité University in France.
A common brand of items found around the house are storage systems from USM Haller—designed by Swiss architect Fritz Haller for USM, which was founded in 1885 by Ulrich Schaerer as a producer of iron works and window fittings. The system frame is based on and constructed with three basic elements—the ball, connecting tubes and panels—and Koh’s father had prior to this amassed enough over the years to furnish his own house, with extra pieces chucked in the attic or in relatives’ homes, and then a warehouse after they ran out of space.
“The USM Haller collection we have at home is from at least 10 people. Some are from offices built in the ’60s or ’70s who decided to revamp. My father made friends with furniture shop sales people and second-hand furniture dealers who let him know about special sales,” Koh says. There is a USM Haller trolley in the corner of the dining room, whose sunflower-yellow panels suit a neighbouring Child Chaise Chair by Keith Haring. “When I was in my in-law’s home, it was parked in a corner and I thought this trolley would be quite nice for our house. The next morning, my mother-in-law said ‘why don’t you take this trolley over’, and I said ‘yes!’ It was originally grey panels but I preferred a pop of yellow, so Zhi Yi’s dad found yellow panels and changed it,” Lee says gleefully. “We put the drinks here when we host people,” adds Koh.
The home feels more open than typical public apartments built today because the couple did away with one bedroom, replacing it with the living room that joins fluidly with the dining and kitchen, thanks to a bevy of sliding panels. These were designed by Shed Studio, an interior design firm helmed by Edmund Ong and Sheena Sim whom the couple engaged due to their similar love of vintage designs. “Edmund is also a fan of Jean Prouvé. In his earlier days, Prouvé [developed mass products including] moveable partitions with these port holes,” says Koh on the screen’s apertures. Client and designer agreed to have the rims of the windows in a raw metal finish to match the home’s vintage vibe. The panels change the character and function of the spaces as they are adjusted. Two standalone panels act as decorative backdrops to the living room in one configuration. Combining one standalone panel and a set of moving doors encloses the kitchen for heavy cooking. The couple enlarged the kitchen for their regular cooking and hosting needs. “We have been hosting meals every weekend since we moved in,” says Lee on their love of company.
There is USM in the kitchen too: a tall unit and a standalone counter in white. Shed Studio customised an engineered quartz countertop in off-white and added rails for kitchen towels. Lee flips down the panel doors to reveal pots and assorted tableware. Trays can be pulled out for efficacious kitchen organisation. On the kitchen’s white and dark wood palette, Lee admits to a penchant for the Scandinavian look. The engineered dark timber floor in a herringbone pattern continues across into the kitchen from the main living areas, echoing the spatial flow. It is also possibly a subtle nod to Koh’s interest in fine tailoring and vintage fabrics. “When you are interested in vintage furniture, you’d normally be interested in the whole gamut of vintage things,” he says. “As a teenager, it started with buying vintage clothes, going to thrift stores, the Salvation Army. As I grew older, I explored vintage watches, and then furniture when we started to furnish our home,” he shares. He now drives an early ’80s Mercedes 280SL.
His vintage watch collection comes from the era between the 1940s and the 1980s. “Each era presents watches of different aesthetics, proportions and movements. That’s what appeals to me. I have a wide range of types of vintage watches—dress watches, divers, sports watches, etc. It is the ‘chase’ that really provides the thrill—trawling online ads, auction websites, secondhand platforms to look for that elusive vintage watch model and then seeing it in your hands that is well worth the effort,” he says. There are also tales tied to each encounter, such as the one time a cousin travelling to Italy helped to bring back his first vintage Rolex and uncovering several valuable pieces in flea markets when he had least expected to.
The couple’s recent trip to France also saw purchases such as a fabric by Ministry of Energy that now hangs above their bed in the master bedroom. Two of Philippe Starck’s Gnomi stools for Kartell from Carousell stand sentry by each side of the bed, doubling as bedside tables. A wall was painted taupe to contrast against twin vintage white Louis Poulsen hanging lamps. In the room, a set of second-hand String modular shelves has photo frames exhibiting the couple’s wedding pictures taken in Jaipur, India, where they headed as fans of Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel for a backdrop of the famous Pink City.
For sure, the couple are not averse to colour, but they are applied like accents throughout the home. In the study room, against a backdrop of pewter-coloured USM Haller units, is a vintage McDonald’s hamburger table lamp and a colourful quartet of artist Ottmar Hörl’s cheeky gnomes. A limited-edition, bright orange Petite Potence lamp designed by the late Virgil Abloh in collaboration with Vitra extends from the wall above the window. “The lamps are numbered. This is 001. I bought it from a guy who knew Virgil, that’s how he got this number,” says Koh.
“When you are interested in vintage furniture, you’d normally be interested in the whole gamut of vintage things”
Perhaps the most interesting tale is about the illusive and much sought after Vilbert chair designed by Verner Panton for Ikea in 1993 that the couple were eying on the Instagram account of Stephanie Er—lifestyle influencer and creative director of design studio Creampie. Koh had been a fan of the chair after seeing one in Shed Studio’s office. “She was going to re-do her home and started listing stuff on Instagram stories. Initially we asked if this was for sale, and she said no. Last Saturday, she listed this so we quickly responded,” says Koh. Here is another tale of providence, of one chair passed from one Vogue Singapore home to another across space and time.
Photography Sayher Heffernan
Styling Jasmine Ashvinkumar