Wherever Nina Beale settles around the world, she makes it feel like home. The Australian hauls her beloved furniture with her like some would their most treasured keepsakes or most comfortable pair of jeans. Some of these pieces have followed her from Sydney, where she hails from and met her husband David, to London—where she worked as an investment banker, got married and had a daughter India—moved back to Sydney for a stint and then on to Singapore in 2009. In the current instalment of this transplanting trajectory, she gave birth to her second daughter Poppy, as well as a third offspring in the form of her furniture business, Bungalow 55. Located at Dempsey, the whitewashed, light-blessed showroom, adorned with framed watercolour botanicals, timber-and-rattan chairs and art deco chandeliers, embodies a judicious yet serene vibe.
Her own home is equally placid, albeit with a more affecting backdrop. Beale resides in a pre-war black-and-white bungalow on elevated topography that offers a vast aspect of sky and treetops. Built for senior medical staff in the Royal Army Medical Corps deployed to the Alexandra Military Hospital in the 1940s, the house’s design features a marriage of appropriated mock-Tudor and Malay vernacular elements, such as wooden ventilation grilles reconstituted in concrete for passive air flow, broad verandas and tall jalousie windows. Beams, column bases and features painted black as night against a white foil earn it its acclaimed moniker.
Thick, robust columns shelter the porte cochère looking out to the pool that appears to snapshot the sky into a still sheet of cobalt, framed by white-painted timber decking. The hot morning sun makes dipping my toes into the sun-specked coolness a tantalising prospect. Beale welcomes me, mirroring my thoughts on the weather. She brings me into the living room, where the heat immediately dissipates due to the high ceiling, timber blinds and shade from outstretched roof eaves.
An abaca rug provides casual texture underfoot. It is a sandy foil to the assortment of seating upholstered in blue and white shades. Painted botanicals from Beale’s shop line one wall, contrasting an opposite wall with artwork of abstracted navy shards. The comfortable yet contemporary set-up diverges from the trammels of oriental kitsch embraced by most foreigners who move to the tropics. “Most expats buy new furniture and sell when they move. With me comes all my stuff. We’ve built a home with them. That’s important to me, keeps me grounded and helps me transition,” she says. Beale has dressed her furniture for practical living, replacing leather with outdoor-friendly fabric “so you can sit on them with wet towels, swimming costumes. We’re not precious. We have dogs and children, so the house is very liveable. We live in every room,” says the tanned, lithe Beale, oozing preppy chic in a casual pair of white trainers.
She brings this laid-back, unpretentious attitude to her business, which focuses on creating comfortable, relatable home environments. “Being Australian, I love everything from the sea; anything nautical. We’re not trying to be too ‘beachy’ or formal, but comfortable and stylish,” says Beale. Dominant blue and white tones reflect this aquatic love.
I also spy bowls of white seashells placed on tabletops. “I’m an avid collector of farmed coral. I love sea life decorating my home. It makes the space feel more relaxed and is also a way of adding some texture rather than simply using ornaments,” discloses Beale. Vintage monochrome prints of a surfer at the staircase are relics from her beach house in Australia, adding a touch of old-world glamour and nostalgia. White, as an overarching colour, injects the home with an amiable breeziness.
Beale is grateful for the experience of living in this old building. There are only 300 left, most of which can only be rented through the Singapore Land Authority. The costly rental of the large plots and stigma of supernatural existence (the Japanese housed prisoners in some during the Second World War) make them elusive for most Singaporeans. “It’s an incredible privilege. The appeal was that we could do whatever we wanted inside the house as long as we don’t knock down the walls. It’s a great canvas to experiment with in terms of design. We redid the kitchen, which was old. The rest is pretty much the same structurally,” says Beale, sharing that the building’s conservation status curtails more ambitious renovation plans. “The main thing we did was extend the pool deck. It was off-centre so we tried to centre it a bit more [to the house],” she adds, exhibiting a keen eye for proportion.
“My children tell me what’s good, what’s relevant. They help with social media—the reels, everything”
Beale also extended and layered over the original grey flooring of the portico with white epoxy paint, making it more commodious. White upholstery on the portico’s sofa and lounge chairs blend into this alabaster setting; a glass bowl filled with cowrie shells, mini and large, forms its centrepiece. The asymmetrical house plan sees a staircase extending from one side of the portico, accessed through a small foyer where a neon motorcycle painting throws a graphic shock into the perfectly coordinated palette. “It was painted in Singapore by Australian artist Jasper Knight. He fixates on the urban landscape. In oozing bold, vividly coloured paint, he transforms relics of industry into Technicolor icons,” describes Beale.
On the other side of the portico is a sheltered patio, open to breeze. Beale had placed a long dining table here, embellished with a striped white-and-cobalt tablecloth and surrounded by white-painted rattan dining chairs. “The all-year-round tropical climate led us to make the decision to have no dining table indoors. We only have one area to dine, which is outside overlooking the pool and garden that we have lit with fairy and garden lights. This home is all about spending time outside rather than in, which we enjoy, especially after being in a classroom or office all day. It helps us to unwind,” says Beale. The house’s protean nature accommodates spatial adjustments such as this; the original dining room is now a foyer where large mirrors reflect light and amplify the delightful qualities of space. An oil painting of a woman by artist Brian Ballard draws attention to a corner. “It was from the Cadogan Contemporary Art Gallery in London and was a present from David when India was born,” shares Beale.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, parties held in the house were grand affairs. “We used to have dinner parties for 20 people. God, how did we do that?” says Beale in feign stupefaction, alluding to more tempered times of late due to lockdowns and mandated visitor thresholds. The house was the backdrop for David’s annual Christmas office parties. “We had the girls’ school choir singing Christmas carols and served traditional Australian festive fare. Oh, and lots of wine and bubbly. Decorations could range from filling the pool with balloons to floating birds illuminated in colour.”
Personal parties involving up to 30 guests were more intimate but no less meticulously concocted by the particular hostess. She scrolls through her mobile phone to show me one enchanting night when she hung fairy lights above a long table on the front porch. “We like doing our own catering but we have also used the super-cool mobile oyster bar from Luke’s Oyster Bar & Chop House. Guests were given party favours in the form of panama hats to wear or Budgy Smugglers swimwear should they wish to cool off in the pool,” Beale recounts fondly.
She has no personal photographs downstairs, preferring to keep public and private quarters distinct. While the first storey is about openness and connection with the land, the second storey is all about being tucked away among foliage, akin to being in a tree house. A spacious family room above the portico is the girls’ hideout with friends, made welcoming with ample lounge seating. Skateboards from The Skateroom featuring artwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat hang on the walls, giving a clue to the girls’ predilection for sports.
“Both girls share a love for the water so swimming, wakeboarding and more recently, wake surfing are their favourite water sports. Poppy is an avid skateboarder and both girls love touch rugby,” confirms Beale. Her husband is equally active, waking up at 5.30am daily to exercise before work. India arises at the same time for swimming training.
In the master bedroom, Beale constructed a wall in front of the wardrobe to create an alcove for a study nook. Like the rest of the house, framed paintings are the main form of décor. During the pandemic, she added an alternative work area at the portico downstairs. This is one of her favourite parts of the house, aside from the handsome columns on the first storey. Beale handles most of the work for Bungalow 55 on her own, save for a part-time staff who helps to man the shop. On the genesis of Bungalow 55, Beale reveals that it was a confluence of motherly duties (David travels a lot for work and her former job would entail the same, resulting in a lack of care for the girls) and a love of doing up her home. “I’ve always been a homebody. After long days at work, I love coming home to chill. Obviously when you have children, you’re home a lot more and you tend to entertain at home more, so home becomes increasingly important.”
“I love sea life decorating my home. It makes the space feel more relaxed and is also a way of adding some texture rather than simply using ornaments”
The name of her business pays tribute to this domestic focus, while 55 embodies strength in numerology. “It’s wonderful; the store is my passion and I have work-life balance with my family. I feel very fortunate that in the past 12 years in Singapore we’ve had help. So home is looked after, we are looked after. The helpers cook for me. In Australia or the UK, we don’t have that structure. Singapore has helped me to reinvent from the corporate world to being a working mum,” Beale reflects, adding: “My mum was the same. You can still work and have children. It’s good to have something for yourself.”
Her children have been inadvertently involved in the business. “My children tell me what’s good, what’s relevant. They help with social media—the reels, everything. It’s not intuitive for me to do social media, but you have to be present [digitally]. They also help look after the shop,” Beale shares. During the week, everybody is busy so weekends are reserved for family time. “We like to use the downtime to be with the children and each other. Weekend sports are now back so that adds another element. We walk a lot around our area of Labrador Park, Hort Park, Keppel Bay and to Mount Faber. If it’s sunny, we like to unwind by the pool and give the dogs a swim.”
It is not just the canines that enjoy the pool. Being nestled in nature, it is inevitable that all sorts of critters visit the compound. “We have had a large family of otters slither under our front gates and take themselves for a swim in our pool. It was an unbelievable sight,” says Beale, listing the odd snake, monkey and monitor lizard as guest. “As a general rule of thumb, we don’t like anything black or anything that slithers,” she muses.
Living in this house has given her a true taste of tropical living. It is a contrast to her childhood where she resided in an apartment in the suburbs. “My dad flew with Qantas Airways for 35 years so we travelled a lot with him. An apartment is fuss-free—so easy to lock the door and head straight to the airport,” she comments. Singapore has a special place in her heart, not only for the fact that she has built a family and business here. “My parents met at the Singapore Swimming Club on a flight layover,” she divulges on a life here that was seemingly predestined.
Photography Sayher Heffernan
Styling Jasmine Ashvinkumar
Hair and make-up Angel Gwee using Anastasia Beverly Hills and Davines
Hair and make-up assistant Gina Chen
Styling assistant Jason Sonja