Dipa Swaminathan has come a long way since moving to Singapore from India and renting the spare room of a house in Jurong. Not just the proud owner of a gorgeously eclectic condo in Bukit Timah, the Harvard-educated lawyer is an assistant general counsel for SingTel and the founder of ItsRainingRaincoats, an organisation created in 2015 to support and champion migrant workers in Singapore. And, did we mention that she’s also a wife, mother of two teenage boys, and adopter of a rescue dog?
With this in mind, you could forgive Dipa for not having the time to scratch her own head, let alone dedicate a nanosecond to her living space. But this is not someone who sits still for long. Greeting me with a warm and welcoming smile after her early morning walk, the 49-year-old explains how interior décor and home design has always been a personal passion, yet her skills only truly came to the fore in the past year.
“Travel used to be my way to de-stress and unwind,” Dipa explains. “When the borders were closed last year, I found a new way to feel peace and relaxation through updating my home. Given the chance, I’d happily take on someone else’s home as a project for free, in return for a donation to ItsRainingRaincoats.”
Multi-talented Dipa first indulged in her love of interiors in the midnoughties, when she and husband Vish bought apartments at The Arcadia condo in Bukit Timah to renovate. Once the hard work was completed and they’d spent some time living in the last apartment they renovated, they moved into a black-and-white house near Turf City and kept the apartment for rental. In 2016, they moved back into it and made it their home. Today, Dipa and Vish share their house with sons Vihaan (16) and Kairav (13), Dipa’s mother Janaki, helper Yati, and, of course, Ditto, the dog and official “boss” who is mostly found running away from the shower.
You’ve owned a few apartments in The Arcadia over the years. What attracted you to this condo?
In the mid-90s, I visited my then boss who lived at The Arcadia. When I first turned onto Arcadia Road (which is now a designated Heritage Road), I felt like I was in some kind of paradise – it was so peaceful, green and tranquil. We loved the feel so much that ten years later we bought an apartment next door at Hillcrest Arcadia, then eventually moved to The Arcadia. We bought, renovated and sold a couple of apartments but kept one and rented it out while we lived in a black-and-white. In 2016, we moved in ourselves and made it the home it is today.
What did you like about this apartment?
Aside from the beautiful location, the unique design of the condo is very intriguing. It was inspired by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and every apartment has a lot of exposure to light and ventilation. Our apartment is on the ground floor, facing lush vegetation; it has a stunning front porch that I use as an extra living space. I love the three large balconies that surround it; we keep the windows open so we rarely use aircon.
How would you describe your home style?
It’s very eclectic! It’s ethnic in that it has roots in India, but it’s also filled with pieces I’ve collected on my travels. The décor is colourful and cosy and has developed over the years to showcase a space that reflects our roots but also highlights the places we have been to. It’s not a cluttered home, but it’s definitely not minimalist either.
Staying in due to pandemic restrictions has given you a chance to update your home. How have you done this?
I’ve really gotten into wallpaper, and I found a wonderful shop called Craft Axis (craftaxis.com.sg) that stocks fabulous designs. I spent about two months choosing wallpaper for the foyer wall as you enter the apartment, and for one wall in my dining room. The dining room paper had to be very specific as I wanted to hang art on top of it. Thankfully, it worked out exactly how I wanted it.
Which rooms have you focused on?
My boys’ bedroom was a priority. They share a space, and while they didn’t care what it looked like, it was getting on my nerves! I promised to leave them an area to play handball, got rid of a shelf that had been there forever, repainted the room blue, swapped out the old beds, and framed up some photos from our holidays. I knew it was a hit when I spotted my sons giving their friends a video tour on their phones!
What changes were made to make your space comfortable for working from home?
I was working out of the master bedroom next to a huge ugly massage chair with peeling synthetic leather. I replaced it with a lovely armchair I found for a steal on Facebook Marketplace that has made the room a lot lighter. The guest bedroom was converted into my husband’s office. He believes in feng shui, so it was a bit tricky to convince him to go there at first – thankfully, his feng shui master shared some practical tips, like using a strategically positioned divider to help with energy flow. You have some lovely art.
Where do you source your pieces from?
My art collections come from my travels. The first pieces I bought were the large paintings hanging in the living room – they were from Hanoi, Vietnam, before the children were born. I have a sculpture from Santorini, Greece, which is really interesting. One of my favourite art pieces is from Devon in the UK that the artist created out of driftwood. Other artworks are from India, France and Bali.
Where do you buy your furniture?
I like heavy teak and Balinese-style furniture and I go for quality and longevity rather than following faddy trends. Back in the late 90s, there used to be a shop called The Cannery in Clarke Quay. I’d get a little tugboat down the river from my office at Raffles Place and spend my lunch break perusing the store; 25 years later, I still have many big-ticket numbers from there such as the TV console that now serves as our bar. When we moved to The Arcadia, I bought new items like my bed and bookshelves from John Erdos (now closed). They’re such solid items and come steeped in memories.
What’s your favourite room in the house, and why?
The balcony that opens off from the living room. Not only is it a relaxing outdoor space, but I love the feature wall of tiles there. I’m obsessed with tiles, so much so that I once travelled to Lisbon, Portugal to visit a particular tile shop I’d read about! I bought 16 tiles back to Singapore – it was quite a task hand-carrying them! The master bedroom is where we all come together as a family as the big TV is there.
You’re clearly very busy; where do you get your motivation to renovate?
Last year, migrant workers were caught in the eye of the COVID-19 storm in Singapore. ItsRainingRaincoats was forced to rise to the occasion with tremendous speed and a clarity of purpose to help the nearly one million migrant workers who were hardest hit. It was very stressful, and my usual outlet of travel wasn’t available. That is when I discovered that I get a sense of peace and satisfaction from reworking a space. Updating my home provides me with calm, and it “sparks joy”.
How do you fit your home interior work into your packed schedule?
I tend to potter around in the evenings after my evening shower and sometimes late at night when I can’t sleep. Often the planning happens in my head when I’m working out.
What tips would you give to readers looking to update their own houses?
Enjoy it! Visualise the space you want to change and think about what you’d like the outcome to be. Given that we can’t travel, it’s nice to change up the space that you’re in. Whether you own or rent your property, small tweaks can be done to provide a refresh. Let your imagination go!
Dipa’s Singapore Recommendations
WTP The Furniture Company 3 Kung Chong Road wtpstyle.com
Pita Bakery 29 Bali Lane pita-bakery.com
Madd Pizza 19, 20 & 21 Haji Lane maddpizza.sg
“Walking in Bukit Brown Cemetery, or walking the Lornie trail through the back of the SICC golf course all the way to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.”
“I love going out walking and taking photos of murals in places like Little India and Arab Street.”
Hotel Vagabond 39 Syed Alwi Road hotelvagabondsingapore.com
Villa Samadhi 20 Labrador Villa Road villasamadhi.com.sg
This article first appeared in the August 2021 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!