KARIN RYSGAARD, owner of Cocoon Styling and co-owner of Island Living, chats about her different homes in Singapore, including this East-side house in Lorong Kembangan – plus some budget-saving tips!
Tell us about your journey to living Singapore
I arrived in Singapore 17 years ago, originally from Melbourne. I’d lived in Copenhagen for three years previously. My daughter was just three when we arrived, so at first I was a full-time mum, doing playdates and baking cupcakes.
About her island living home
Style & size: 3 bedroom, semi-detached, approximately 1,800 square feet
Location: Lorong Kembangan, near Kembangan MRT
Who lives here? Karin, long-term helper Sheron and rescue cat Athena (daughter Sophie, 20, is studying at university in Sydney)
Initially, we lived in a short-term rental apartment while I found something that I loved. The first home I found, just off Sixth Avenue, was rather run down – but it was a great space. The landlord was considering selling, but after some gentle arm-twisting I convinced her to rent it and allow us to renovate. We pulled the whole back of the house off and extended the kitchen into a lovely garden space. It was this project that led me to formally start Cocoon Styling 12 years ago.
How did you find your current house in Lorong Kembangan?
After living in three different rented landed properties very happily on the Bukit Timah and Thomson side of town (all of which I partially renovated), my daughter Sophie and I decided to move to the East. She had been a student at OFS since pre-K, and the school had relocated to Pasir Ris. One sleepless night, I had the epiphany: let’s move! I jumped into action immediately and trawled Property Guru at once, even though it was 2am.
I was looking for a much smaller space. Our previous bungalow was wonderful, but a large home and garden requires a lot of maintenance, and with my work getting so busy, I didn’t have time for something so big. My non-negotiables were: walking distance to an MRT, room for a small pool, and some outdoor space.
How did it look when you moved in, and what have you changed?
I knew straight away it was the one, but some serious creative vision was required – it was completely brown, for one thing, with dark and dingy tiling! But the landlord was happy to rent on a longer-term lease and at a good price – and he gave me free rein to do pretty much whatever I wanted.
Some clever use of paint and printed wallpapers helped the downstairs area a lot; I also replaced some windows, removed the grills and covered the flooring with a neutral vinyl. Repainting the whole house gave it a big lift too.
I also put in a free-standing kitchen, and created an opening between the wet and dry kitchen spaces. This facilitates a great flow, so we can live without air-con in the downstairs level. We also gutted the two bathrooms and re-did them – all in a very neutral style with simple, clean lines; my wonderful contractor Raj played a huge part in the transformation. And I put in the little plunge pool and made it lovely and private with the garden.
How would you define your home style?
I’m guilty of changing things around and bringing in new bits and pieces – with access to products through Island Living, I’m spoilt for choice. However, I’ve always been focused on creating a welcoming, comfortable home. I love to entertain and cook, and I want people to feel great when they visit. I’m not too precious; yes, you can drink wine on the sofa and if some ends up on the coffee table, I’m not that fussed. Bringing the outdoor natural elements indoors is another priority – adding timber, textured rugs and textiles, and lots of natural colours helps to achieve this look. And plants are a must.
Favourite part of the house and why?
Outside at the front is a lovely covered area. I’ve furnished it with a rattan daybed, Malawi armchairs and coffee tables, and it feels more like an outdoor room and an extension of the indoor living area. Being able to squeeze in the little dip pool in place of the parking spot was a bonus. Especially in recent times, being unable to travel, coming home each day to this little oasis has saved us. I’ve included loads of potted palms and plants and added accent cushions.
What three items would you save in a fire (god forbid!)?
Being practical, I would say my passport, my computer and myself! Oh, and my reading glasses, I would need these to get out the door! For a sentimental item: my daughter’s artwork from when she was young. Everything else I could replace.
Favourite thing about Singapore island living?
It’s a melting pot of culture, it’s super safe and it’s organised. I just love living here – it’s a real privilege. Some people say Singapore can be a bit boring, but I don’t feel that way. It’s a gateway to most places in the world and Changi Airport runs like clockwork. We’ve all been feeling a little stuck these past couple of years, but this will change soon enough.
What would your advice to newcomers to Singapore be?
Immersing yourself as soon as you can in some local culture is a good idea. And don’t be afraid to show some vulnerability; it’s okay to have a bad day now and again. Reach out when you need to – in my early years, there were no Facebook groups that offer the amazing help they do these days.
Starting a new chapter can be daunting, but one day you wake up and there has been a shift. Suddenly Singapore really starts to feel like home. For me, I can’t imagine being anywhere else right now.
About Karin’s Brands
As someone who wanted to create the perfect nest, I was surprised by the way expats were decorating their homes, especially those who were renting. They would arrive with a container of furniture – a mishmash of treasures collected on their journeys – and desperately try to make it work in their new tropical environment, in a home they didn’t own. A mad dash to Ikea would follow, to fill in the empty gaps. It’s still a familiar story.
I started Cocoon Styling with the aim of creating spaces that reflect the people who live in them; they should also be functional and easy to live in. There’s so much you can do, even as a renter. Budget is often a concern, but with professional guidance you can do more than you think (see my tips over the page). People sometimes avoid upgrading out of fear their next home will be very different. We’re also all more mindful of sustainability – buying too many items for a short time can seem wasteful.
One solution is to identify your style and carry it throughout the home; that way, you can pick the whole package up, so to speak, and reuse it in your next place, even in a different layout. However, deciding on your style can be the biggest challenge. I call it “picking a team” – once you choose your favourite sports team, you don’t chop and change. Similarly, stick with a solid foundation of dining tables, sofas and consoles. Then, when you add new items here and there, you’ll see how the space feels cohesive and well considered. If the foundation is solid, you can change up your accent pieces, pillows, lamps and rugs as your tastes change. It feels like a complete makeover without having to replace the big items.
As the years went on, I met more local suppliers and contractors, who were incredibly helpful and supportive. This enabled me to expand, offering contractor projects and larger renovations. The business grew organically.
As my design projects got bigger, I started to become frustrated when sourcing furniture and homeware – there wasn’t enough variety when it came to well-priced items. I was introduced to Denise Vrontas by a former client of mine in November 2018; she was interested in importing products from Southeast Asia and, with two young children, wasn’t keen on returning to her corporate role. After several phone conversations, the concept grew. We got excited about the business idea and decided to jump in. With plenty of blind faith, hard work and lessons learnt along the way, it all seems to be paying off.
The aim of Island Living is to offer a laid-back approach to furnishing and homeware for customers to style their homes, with products that are on trend and affordable. We focus on natural textures and fibres, using recycled and sustainable materials where we can. With her marketing background, Denise takes charge of that side of the business while I focus on the creative elements. It’s a perfect pairing, in that sense, and we’ve also cemented a wonderful friendship. And slowly building a great team from different backgrounds to back us up has allowed us to keep growing.
4 budget-saving tips
Karin outlines ways to make money go further when styling your home.
#1 Invest in the best dining table you can afford
The dining table is often the heart of the home, used to eat, entertain, work or do homework on. Pair it with cheaper dining chairs, then you can always upgrade the chairs once the toddlers are out of highchairs and the puppy is housetrained.
#2 Don’t stress about curtains!
Aside from in the bedroom where you need to sleep, take down any daggy curtains to allow more natural light to come in. Heavy drapery in this climate weighs a space down and feels hot and dusty. If privacy is an issue, simple low cost sheer curtains will do the trick.
#3 Opt for multi-functional furniture
For example, choose chairs that you can move from an indoor to outdoor living/entertaining area when needed. Work-from-home solutions are still a hot topic, too – try a simple, beautiful U-shaped timber console as an additional workspace. It can double as a sideboard you can style with a lamp, photos and more down the track.
#4 Lighting makes a huge difference
If you’re renting and stuck with super-bright overhead lights, try adding lamps. A combination of standing and table lamps gives a cosy vibe; I often buy a simple base and have a custom lampshade made for a pop of colour. Tie it all in by having a few custom cushions made in the same fabric.
Sandrine Capdouze (“I love this artist – a great addition to your home if you want a special piece”)
Giovanna Photography (“I’ve admired her photography for many years”)
The Shade Society (“bespoke lampshades online, including home delivery”)
Affordable Style Files (“the girls have given me such great service with design projects over the years”)
Simone Irani (“Simone’s kaftans are my go-to throw on items, with sandals or dressed up with heels”)
Olivia (“I’m totally in love with this restaurant, for lunch or dinner!”)
Woohoo Seafood Market (“best place for fresh fish – great customer service”)
This article first appeared in the April 2022 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!
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