Living large in a small space

Published 14 May 2011
The Business Times
By Clarissa Tan

Designing the interiors of shoebox apartments may require bigger, braver thinking than for larger residences.

SINGAPORE being one of the smallest countries on earth and the vast majority of us living in flats, you’d think the concept of living in shoebox apartments – residences of about 450 sq ft or less – is widespread.

WALK THIS WAY: Showflat of RV Edge
WALK THIS WAY: Showflat of RV Edge

Not so. The home has always been regarded as a family space, with various rooms for different functions. Rolling over in your bed every morning to gaze straight into your shower cubicle is still regarded as rather bohemian, if not downright weird. So is watching TV or having dinner with your bed hanging overhead.

This looks set to change. Today, there are only a few condominiums that feature mainly shoebox units and SOHOs (small office home office), and many are huddled in the Little India and East Coast areas. In the coming years though, a whole stack of shoeboxes will tumble into the market.

Oxley Holdings, the property developer that is making shoebox apartments something of its specialty, alone is bringing in at least nine such condos over the next four years. Among these are Loft @ Stevens, Devonshire Residences and Parc Somme. Oxley’s smallest apartment unit will be 258 sq ft, at Suites @ Guillemard. That’s only slightly bigger (we think) than the bathrooms at the Ritz-Carlton. The tiny revolution is on its way.

How does one even start to design for such a small living space? For make no mistake, interior design – as opposed to just moving in willy-nilly and not caring if the towels match the tiles – will be what’s required. In the first place, compact though they be, shoebox apartments are not marketed at the down-at-heel. They are targeted at the image-conscious, jet-set crowd; indeed, the idea seems to be that these people are flying about so much they only need a place for a bed in Singapore.

Secondly, the smaller the space, the bigger the think required for how you are going to actually live in it, getting all your washing and ironing and emailing done while you and your flatmate try not to get on each others’ nerves.

So how?

Embrace the space

Stamp of Personality: Showflat of The Boutiq @ Killiney
Stamp of Personality: Showflat of The Boutiq @ Killiney

Gone are the days when one looks at a small room and tries to create the illusion of a bigger room. ‘It used to be that you had to paint all your walls white, and have full-length mirrors everywhere, in order to ‘widen the space’,’ says Raj Sundrajekar, an interior stylist from Index Design who’s done the showrooms for several stu-dios and very small apartments.

‘I don’t believe in that. Face it, you’ve got a small apartment. Embrace the space. Make the most of it.’

In other words, while you may not be able to swing a cat in your flat, you can do other things with flair. Don’t let mere square footage cramp your style. While designing his apartments, Mr Sundrajekar uses splashes of teal and ochre, colours he says are ‘modern but not overwhelming’. He likes to outfit small spaces with industrial aspects such as concrete and metal sheets, and he sees no reason why you shouldn’t have a bar and ‘cool furniture’. Ceilings are painted black.

Similiarly Angela Lim, director of design firm SuMisura, went all out when she did the bedroom of a showflat for RV Edge, an upcoming condo at Shanghai Road developed by Fortune Estate. The bold, broad black-and-white stripes of the bedsheets and carpet put a zebra crossing to shame. ‘We wanted a masculine, trendy, very sharp look.’

Pull it together

Stay Consistent: Showflat of Spottiswoode 18 (top) & Devonshire Residences (above)
Stay Consistent: Showflat of Spottiswoode 18 (top) & Devonshire Residences (above)

At the same time, says Ms Lim, you’ve got to have a coherent look throughout the entire apartment. The space is too small for you to have one theme in your sitting room and a completely different theme in your bedroom (that is, if you have walls dividing your living and sleeping spaces in the first place). When she designed the showroom for Devonshire Residences, she made sure the colour scheme of the recreational space – ‘white and ivory with punches of green’ – was brought over into the bedroom. The overall effect is one of calm and coherence.

For Roxy Pacific Holdings’ Spottiswoode 18 showflats, she did everything in dark wood and cream, with dashes of gold.

Suit yourself

Your micro-flat will have to suit you, not the other way round. Since every inch will matter, you must put much awareness on your lifestyle, your habits and activities, and mould your space to fit.

For such matters, we need look no further than Hong Kong’s Gary Chang, the doyen of diminutive living spaces. Mr Chang is a designer now globally famous because he’s brought the shoebox lifestyle to a whole new level – literally, because he can kit out a space with sliding panels and curtains, movable walls and fold-down furniture. His spaces change with your needs.

‘Take a more three-dimensional understanding of your limited space, rather than thinking mostly on the two-dimensional floor plan,’ Mr Chang advises. ‘Learn your daily routines and patterns as it would be an intensively time-based design. Ideally the home should mutate according to one’s need at a particular time, in an effort to save resources, be it space or time.’

Every detail is important – ‘Make the key elements of the process of transformation, such as the handles on the movable walls, as user-friendly and comfortable – even better, a joy to manipulate – as possible, or else you would not want to operate them.’

Listen to a guru who knows, for Mr Chang lives in a 355 sq ft apartment at Quarry Bay.

Line ’em up

The kitchen is a tricky area, because there are all these necessary but bulky white goods. There’s only so small a refrigerator can get, before it becomes a glorified beer container. Most designers deal with this by lining up all the required kitchen machines and appliances and ‘hiding’ them within a row of neat cupboard fixtures.

At Devonshire Residences, Ms Lim decided on an L-shaped open-concept kitchen. ‘It’s a full-fledged kitchen, with hob, hood, washer-dryer, fridge, sink, microwave, storage space – all integrated within lime-washed cabinets.’

Smart furniture

By smart, we don’t just mean good-looking. We mean your furniture has to be brainy, capable of more than one function. Ms Lim, for instance, fitted in a swivel mirror into some of her showflats – flip it around and there’s a TV embedded on the other side. You can find beds where bookshelves are integrated onto the bottom and the sides. Ms Lim points out that in her Devonshire showroom, she incorporated part of an L-shaped sofa onto a bay window. In both the showflats for Devonshire and Airstream condo (developed by Millenium Homes), the sofa and stools or ottomans are placed around a table that can be both coffee table and dining table.

Clear the clutter

Needless to say, you can’t go around amassing lots of worldly goods. Indeed, when you live in a shoebox, you’re probably in for constant clutter-clearing. Lee Yeeling, who lives in a 450 sq ft unit at The Cotz at Telok Kurau, says that when she moved into her new apartment with her partner, she downgraded from a king-sized bed to a queen, while several cupboards had to be left behind.

‘Throw everything away,’ she says. ‘Well, OK, not everything. But you have to get rid of stuff and you really have to decide what you need and what you don’t. I have lots of clothes, which I love, and so I converted my bomb shelter into a wardrobe.’

Ms Lee is a good indication of the difference that can sometimes lie between a designer’s ideal, and the experience of an actual resident. To get the ‘look’ of some of these designers – especially if you are sourcing from high-end furniture stores or knocking down a wall or refinishing surfaces – could cost anything between $40,000 and $100,000. Some people don’t want to spend this kind of money on interior design, or they just prefer to do up their homes themselves.

‘I found IKEA really good for what we needed,’ says the cheery Ms Lee, who is 25 and used to live in Sydney. ‘I went there six times just to furnish my apartment. I got lots of storage boxes there, mini cupboards and a new study desk because my old desk was too big.’ She bought her new bed at The Furniture Mall.

Ms Lee says that living in a shoebox apartment can sometimes be ‘frustrating’, but on the other hand ‘it’s really low-maintenance in terms of cleaning’. There are also conveniences – ‘You don’t have to go anywhere for a glass of water, you just reach out your hand.’

Ultimately, says Mr Sundrajekar, the vibe is just to do your own thing. ‘There aren’t any guidelines except that your apartment should reflect you, your personality,’ he says. ‘Then you play around with things, with effects, with shapes and colours.

‘There are no rules, just tricks.’


About Jack Sheo

A licensed and proactive real estate professional, Jack goes beyond just sourcing and marketing real estate properties. Efficient and approachable, he makes the whole experience easy and stress-free.
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