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SWEDISH sisters Emelie and Ellen Heden are 33 and 25 years of age respectively, but they have a passion for things much older than themselves - some dating back to the early 1800s.
The duo recently launched Mobler, an online Scandinavian vintage furniture store. "Mobler" is Swedish for "furnishings". "We have a love of old furniture," says Emelie. She adds that in Sweden, it is common for homes to have a mix of old (some possibly passed down from one generation to another) and new items.
"The old definitely adds character to a space," she says.
She would know. Emelie had previously worked in Singapore and spent three years as a marketing manager for an upmarket furniture store. "While it is easy to find the new, designer items, it was more difficult finding antique items or just pieces with character."
She returned to Sweden in 2013, with a dream of starting her own vintage furniture shop. Singapore is a natural start for her, "since I'm familiar with the market", she says.
"Singaporeans are well-travelled and I feel, more than ever, that they are turning towards furnishing their homes with both new and old items. At Mobler, we want to offer something different from the high-end brands, Ikea, Chinese antiques or Indonesian teak pieces."
According to Emelie, Sweden has no shortage of antique dealers, and the sisters would often drive out of Stockholm to visit them.
They picked up pieces that date from the early 1800s Allmoge (folk in Swedish) and Romantic Gustavian (1770s), to Art Deco pieces from the 19th century. There are also pieces from the Bauhaus era, as well as more recent items from the 1960s. Emelie says that Scandinavian antique pieces tend to have more streamlined silhouettes compared to those from other European countries.
Some interesting and rare finds include an American coffer from the mid-1800s. These chests were used by the Swedes who migrated to the United States, and later returned to their birth country. "It is a chest, but you don't have to use it as it is. It could double as a coffee table, a contrast against a modern sofa," suggests Emelie.
The range of items that Mobler carries includes chairs, dining tables, cabinets, drawers and even smaller items such as elk horns, plates and brassware.
At their family country home in Ostergotland, the sisters found old music manuscripts which they are also putting up for sale. "They do make unique art pieces when framed," suggests Ellen, a former graphic designer, who is Mobler's creative director.
Lighting is one category that Emelie is especially proud to have. There are floor and table lamps from the 1950s.
"When I was living here previously, many told me to go to the lighting shops along Balestier Road, but those I saw were not pieces that I wanted in my home," says Emelie. "The ones that we have on Mobler have so much more appeal and personality." The sisters took it upon themselves to keep costs low by cleaning and restoring the antique pieces, photographing and then wrapping them for shipment to Singapore.
"This way, we can keep prices affordable," says Emelie. They filled a 40-foot container with over 500 products, which made its way here in July. They try not to over-restore the items, "but rather, we leave marks on the tables, so that they have character and do not look too pristine", adds Emelie.
Customers can expect to pay S$60 for a 1930s tin bowl, S$900 for a 1960s armchair, and S$3,000 for a metal chest of drawers. Besides the smaller accessories such as glassware, and chairs, most of the pieces in the Mobler collection are one-offs. Emelie says that getting funding for Mobler has been one of their biggest challenges. To secure the investment needed, she ran a crowdfunding campaign with FundedbyMe. She declines to reveal how much was raised, "but it is finally a dream come true", she says.
While Mobler operates as an online business, the sisters do have a warehouse/showroom in Balestier. "We can deliver items to customers, or they could pick it up here, and they can touch the items before buying too," says Emelie. Since their soft launch on Aug 29, they have sold about 10 items including a lamp, an armchair and a chest of drawers. The sisters plan to return to Sweden to source for more items once they have cleared about half of their current stock. "We have good relationships with our dealers, so if needed, we can easily call them up to specify items that customers may request for," says Emelie.
The sisters have set their sights beyond Singapore. "We want to be able to expand to Malaysia and Hong Kong, and to the rest of the Asia-Pacific," she adds.
ALVIN Tan's story is a familiar one. The ex-civil servant was unable to find decorative home items that he wanted, so he decided to start his own store selling furniture painstakingly curated by himself and his wife, 35, a civil servant.
The couple were looking for furniture and accessories to furnish their home with last year."We mainly searched for products made in Scandinavia as we love their elegant simplicity," says Mr Tan, 33.
"Some were available while many others were not, hence we decided to purchase via a web shop in Europe."
The experience pushed him to want to be an online retailer, and in August, he became one by starting online furnishing store Bibliotek. He says that in Europe and the US, it was common for people to buy furniture online.
"I wanted to bring this experience of being able to access established and upcoming labels easily, in a comfortable and approachable manner, to people such as myself in Singapore and the region."
Being able to shop for furniture online makes shopping less intimidating than stepping into a high-end furniture store, he adds. "Bibliotek" means "library" in both Danish and Swedish. He says that the name was chosen to represent elegant simplicity, quiet excellence and fine craftsmanship while aspiring to be a space and platform to introduce local and regional brands internationally.
"Our company philosophy of sustainability, craftsmanship, and considered design motivates us to continuously search for functional everyday products and future design icons with these qualities," he says. "We want to introduce these products to a new generation of savvy and design-conscious consumers."
This is Mr Tan's first foray into e-commerce, but he says he has always had a passion for furniture and furnishings. Bibliotek currently carries 14 furniture and accessories brands, including Alessi from Italy, Menu and Normann Copenhagen from Denmark and Studio Hiji from Indonesia.
He says he is familiar with some of the brands as he had bought their products before. "I came to know some of the other brands when I visited Maison & Objet Asia earlier this year," he says, referring to the annual furnishing show. He seeks to have a good mix of classics and new releases for each of the brands - and also a varied selection of items across all product categories.
Consumers can expect to pay S$360 for a cane chair from Studio Hiji, S$299 for an Alessi espresso maker and S$302 for a hanging copper lamp from Kimu.
As the couple had set up their home before Bibliotek was started, Mr Tan says they have a small number of items from the brands that he is now selling such as Architectmade and Normann Copenhagen.
"The beauty of it is that in the process of researching on brands to work with, I've uncovered gems like KIMU from Taiwan, ease embroidery from Thailand, and kuru and Desinere from Singapore. My wife and I have been adding their items to our home and we cannot wait to share their designs and products with everyone," he adds.
Mr Tan says it is still too early to tell which items are popular, but "the lights and clocks have had much interest".
He is confident that the Singapore market is ready to shop for sofas without first being able to test them out. The e-commerce market is growing rapidly, he notes. "Not too long ago, many were hesitant to purchase clothing online as they were unable to try them on. Fast forward to today, purchasing clothing online is commonplace."
Thus, he believes that online shopping is equally applicable to furniture and home accessories. "We are very selective about the brands we carry to ensure good design, functionality and high quality," he assures.
He plans to add more brands to Bibliotek's inventory but he stops short of having a physical store.
He is a firm believer that buying items for the home online will be the new norm and there are some elements of online shopping that cannot be replicated in brick-and-mortar shops. "These include the ability to shop at a time and place that's convenient to the consumer and discover more about the products through our website before deciding on their purchases," he says.
Bibliotek items come with a lengthy product description, including the designers' inspiration and dimensions. The retailer offers free shipping for purchases over S$99.
Mr Tan says, "I want to be at the forefront in this area, so we're focusing our efforts on improving our customers' online experience."
MIXING IT UP
IT all started with the reupholstery of old furniture. Maud Felius, then a Dutch expatriate, began by designing chairs that were customisable by colour and fabric."To complete the look, I started offering ceramic lamps, wooden coffee- and side-tables, stools and home accessories for sale - and Belouk was born."
Ms Felius explains that Belouk, a word that she made up, stands for "creating your own unique style and mixing timeless elements". She does some of her sourcing herself, and also works with furniture suppliers.
Armchairs make up the bulk of Belouk's range of furniture, priced from S$995. There are two styles that consumers can buy off the rack - one with cushions in a geometric print and another in floral print. The remaining selection is where consumers can customise their own pieces. The chairs are made in Indonesia and done in several styles, such as His and Hers, French and Round - the difference being in their shapes.
"The looks we are trying to achieve is European, mixed with Asian elements, a combination that projects lots of style," says Ms Felius, who has previous experience in home furnishings.
After picking their preferred style, customers then pick from Belouk's range of velvet or cotton fabrics that come in a variety of colours. (Belouk will soon offer its own range of printed fabrics.) Customisation takes from six to eight weeks to complete.
For their range of tables, Ms Felius selects those made from elm wood "as they are not only of good quality but also stay beautiful and timeless for years and years". The elmwood pieces come from China.
Ms Felius, who has been living in Singapore since 2005 with her husband and their two daughters, is especially proud of her range of ceramic lamps which she sources from Indonesia and Vietnam and which she retails for S$649 onwards. The lamps are all handmade and she pairs them with lamp shades made from linen sourced from Belgium and the Netherlands.
"Ceramic gives them a strong look, but that hardness is balanced with the linen shades. The lamps are eye-catching and will look good in any home," she says.
Small wonder then that those and the arm chairs are Belouk's bestsellers. The shop's current range of home accessories include display pieces that have an exotic feel about them, such as a tribal war vest and money sticks - made of shells stacked one on top of the other on a stick. They were used as a form of currency in ancient times.
"These are definitely talking-point pieces as you can't find them in other shops," she says.
She is currently updating her accessories offerings and said the next collection will include wall art, vases and hand-blown glass candle-holders. "We will also soon be introducing a new collection of ottomans that are handmade in Singapore."
Belouk's clients are a mix of expatriates and locals, and Ms Felius also works with interior designers to decorate showflats.
To complement the Belouk online store is a showroom at Adam Park which customers can make appointments to visit. "Most people prefer to see the items first before they buy, instead of buying online," she says. Ordered pieces reach customers in about three days, or they can opt to pick those up themselves from the showroom.
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