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“We love to live outside, so it was really about designing the space the way we wanted to use it.” - HELEN DUCE

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Staying Grounded

An expat couple turns their street-level apartment into a stylish liveable home.
Mar 4, 2017 5:50 AM

When Helen Duce and husband Patrick Rona learned that good ground-floor apartments in Singapore were "like unicorns - they come up really infrequently", they didn't have too many expectations about going to view an old unit within a 1980s complex along the East Coast. Naturally, they ended up buying the place.

The 3,000-square-foot home was spread over three levels and had good bones, as they say. Its previous tenant had internalised the space, darkened and sealed it from the outdoors apart from a door leading to a large fish pond occupying most of the terrace, located just above street level. There were water features, interior walls covered with thick green glass and gold wallpaper, and the floors were cheap wood laminate. "It wasn't to our taste," says Ms Duce by way of understatement.

"We decided to do a massive renovation, open it up and use the outside space - we wanted a sense of light, to bring the outside into the house." She adds, "Being expats, we love to live outside, so it was really about designing the space the way we wanted to use it." The couple and their two young sons (ages 13 and 11) had previously enjoyed living in a rented black-and-white shophouse along Upper East Coast Road.

The brief to Jonathan Poh of Studio JP was quite specific, and the first step was to gut the interior. He says, "They wanted a kid's nook on the top tier so we created a two-bedroom apartment (plus den) that was a bit isolated yet private, but could be seen (via a glass panel) from the kitchen." The living area was opened up to include the terrace and the floors were finished in a light-coloured cement screed.

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In early 2015, after six months of renovation work, the family moved in, and were more than pleased with the results. "This is a modern interpretation of the black-and-white aesthetic - we wanted it to feel Singaporean, not like it was out of some glossy magazine," says Ms. Duce.

The boys' apartment, kitchen and dining area, maid's room and outdoor utility space are on the upper tier, while the main living room and terrace are on the middle level. Off to one side, a few stairs lead down to the master bedroom and a guest room, used by Ms Duce's parents during their frequent visits from England. Within the master bedroom is a separate home office for Ms Duce, who runs a business consultancy with a focus on addressing social and environmental issues.

She also happens to be a Cordon Bleu-trained cook who loves to entertain regularly. The open kitchen allows her to cook and chat with her guests at the same time. Asked to describe her home as a dish, she says: "it's an everyday dish but also a little bit exotic - stylish but not sterile."

A bar counter at one end of the dining area is "the real winner in the design," she adds. "The men have a habit of leaning on the one side of the bar while the women sit on bar stools on the other side - it's a social phenomenon, really primeval." Nearby, a small guest toilet is characterised by its exposed red brick walls - not a sign of an unfinished project but an indication of the designer's quirky sense of humour, according to Ms. Duce. "It's meant to approximate an edgy urban look," she says.

An eclectic and colourful mix of local and Asian art acquired during their five years in Singapore hangs on the walls. Also scattered throughout is art and furniture inherited from Mr Rona's father, an accomplished architect who migrated from Hungary to Pittsburgh in the United States in the 1950s. Among the items are an original chest of drawers and dining set by renowned Japanese-American architect George Nakashima, a woodworker and furniture maker who was a leading member of the mid-century American craft movement.

The apartment is all things to everyone. On any given evening, the adults might be enjoying downtime and gin-and-tonics out on the terrace with Frosty the Toy Maltese, while the boys might be practising on their musical instruments in the living room or playing with their pet rats J.J. and Zeebie in the den. Now, Ms. Duce has her sights on redoing the utility area to enhance its appearance. "There's always a Phase Two," she says, happily.

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