A splash of colour and family photos are the key to turning this rental house in Clementi into a real family home for these expats. The family shows us around and shares their recommendations for living in Singapore!
If ever there was a home that captured a family’s personality, it’s the McPhail home. Walking through the front door, I’m always struck by the playful colours used in such a mature way. There’s a certain ease and structure all at the same time. And that’s just how I’d describe my dear friend Sarah: she’s got an easy-going personality, yet you know she has a handle on things.
“I’ve always loved this house and I feel privileged to live here – we were very lucky to get it,” says Sarah of their house in Clementi where they’ve lived for three years. “There are just so many architectural features that make it special. It’s nearly 50 years old, yet so modern in design – it just doesn’t feel old. We’ve lived in Singapore for 16 years and this is my favourite home yet.”
Those older architectural details actually made designing the main room a bit challenging. Sarah worked on it with designer Isabelle Walsh.
“It was really hard; I couldn’t get my head around the pole right in the middle. My husband Shaun and I gave Isabelle very different briefs – I said cool blues; he said the room had to feel warm. So Isabelle designed the Air Force blue seats (my favourite items in the house) and married them with the bronze topped console and the use of teak.”
Isabelle sectioned the room into four distinct areas: a dining area; a seating area for entertaining; a family spot for watching television; and a table where the chessboard can always stay out.
“One of my favourite travel memories is watching Quillan learning to play chess with Shaun in Sri Lanka. He’s loved it ever since, so we wanted to leave it out to encourage him to continue playing.”
Sarah added her own bits and pieces, including a playful copper light from HipVan and a beautiful blue textile they picked up in Yangon on a trip to celebrate her 40th birthday. Other bits, such as the vintage wood pieces, were purchased years ago from Originals. The coffee table is from Crate and Barrel, and the circular wall art from Soul & Tables, one of Sarah’s favourite stores.
“My dad made the sideboard in our entrance and I brought it with us when we came to Singapore. I love having something special from him in the house. Also, the white display cabinet was my parents from the 70s; it was dark wood, so it didn’t go with the décor. Isabelle arranged for it to be painted, and added new handles and a cornice on top. It’s completely transformed. We love it now.”
The master bedroom is also structurally different than most rooms, with a wall at an angle and wooden floorboards that go in different directions, meeting at an odd V-shaped angle. This actually made it easy for Sarah to figure out how to lay out the room, with the bed against one wall and a sofa on another. Some things came from back home in the UK, such as the squiggly tall chest. The end tables were a wedding present from Shaun’s uncle and aunt. The bed is from Courts, the leather chair from Crate & Barrel, and the sofa from Ikea.
Sarah loves Ikea; if you juxtapose the pieces with other pricier items, she says they can not only look great but also keep your budget down. She has a lot of Ikea items as well as rugs from iRugs interspersed throughout the house. She appreciates them now more than ever.
“It’s funny, really. We’ve had this sofa in here for a long time now, but we never really used it. During the Circuit Breaker, I found I just needed a quiet place to myself and a place to play my guitar sometimes. This sofa served that purpose.
“In fact, we used every space in the house more fully during the lockdown. Shaun used the guest room as an office. Phoebe used the dining table. And Quillan used the hallway landing as his spot for eLearning; this was an area that before lockdown I’d just thought of us a place to get from Point A to Point B. During the Circuit Breaker, though, it became the heart of the home. And now I see my home in a whole new light. I’m really so thankful we lived here during the pandemic.”
The landing is decorated with photos and art done by the children – 12-year-old Phoebe is quite the artist. Some of the items are framed by Daniel’s Frame Shop on the East Coast, one of Sarah’s favourites.
“Using photos and children’s art makes this rental house feel more like our home. It personalises the space. And it also shows the children how proud we are of what they make.”
The furniture in both children’s rooms came from Piccolo House on the East Coast; smaller pieces such as the nightstands are from Ikea; Sarah dressed up the nightstands with hand-painted knobs. The bedding is from Pottery Barn, which has fantastic stuff for tweens such as the fun, furry bean bag chair covers.
To paint or not?
Colour is important to Sarah and that goes for the kids’ rooms, too. Phoebe’s room is a beautiful turquoise and purple, and 10-year-old Quillan’s room has a bright green wall that brings in nature from outside.
“This is the third home where we’ve painted, so we’ve got quite a bit of experience with colouring walls. It really brightens the home and makes it feel less rented, so I love doing it. You have to get permission from your landlord and then return the walls back to white when you leave. Shaun and I usually do the painting ourselves, but with this last move, I was so exhausted and busy that we hired a painter. It cost us $200 to have the kids’ rooms painted – so worth it.”
Isabelle designed the family room, too, charged with making it a cross between a study and an art/ play room with easy access to materials for all. Before the pandemic, the kids used the family room a lot. It was Phoebe’s sanctuary where she spent most of her weekend doing her art and her Zoom classes with Centre Stage. Since then, Sarah has used it as her office. She jokes that it could now be called the Zoom Room.
There’s an Ikea couch in there, too, but she ordered a velvet cover from Comfort Works, a vendor she found online, to give it a more custom feel. The walls are covered with photos in Ikea frames – a homage to favourite travels: Quillan with a kangaroo in Australia; snow monkeys in Nagano; monks in Myanmar and more.
Again, the photos make the home feel more personal and permanent. But the bookcases are the real star of the room. Sarah had them built for the space, but they’re modular and can be made shorter so that if they move house, the bookcases can come with them.
They chose Clementi to be closer to Dulwich College where Phoebe and Quillan go to school. It’s a very quiet area, but there’s a great sense of community, with a good park nearby that hosts Tuesday night Zumba classes and more. The house is very close to the river, which is a great place to walk their dog, Holly. There’s a friendly neighbourhood restaurant called Jovis Café that serves international food and a yummy chicken curry. Baker & Cook will open here soon, too.
The quiet nature of the neighbourhood is why Sarah really appreciates their massive yard and pool, something that took on all the more meaning during the lockdown. In the good ol’ days before COVID-19, Sarah threw a few dinner parties outside and hosted big events inside, too. Having spent Christmas with her, I can tell you that she’s quite the entertainer – and the house really lends itself to a good bash.
Some might think doing so much customisation to a rental home is extravagant, but Sarah doesn’t see it that way. “This is our family home – a place to make childhood memories for Phoebe and Quillan. I want this to be a home that they will remember later and feel comfortable in now. The idea was to give our children the same sort of permanence and feeling they would have if we were living back in the UK. We don’t think of the home as temporary. We think of it as ours. This is our permanent life, even if it’s in a rental house.
Isabelle W Design
Jovis Café (“our neighbourhood café”): joviscafe.sg
Soul & Tables (“a great furniture store”): soulandtables.com.sg
iRugs (“lovely, inexpensive rugs”): irugs.com.sg
Daniel’s Frame Shop: framemaker.com.sg
Pottery Barn (“for linens and more”): pbteen.com
Crate & Barrel (“for larger pieces”): crateandbarrel.com.sg
Comfort Works (“covers for Ikea, Crate & Barrel, West Elm, Pottery Barn and Muji furniture”): comfort-works.com
Sarah’s “Circuit Breaker sanity-savers”
Gerard Govind, guitar teacher: 9182 2327
Centre Stage for the Arts (“they’re continuing to run online classes”): centre-stage.com
Art Grain (“at Bukit Timah Plaza but also offering online classes during the CB”): artgrain.com.sg
Salt and Light Archery: slarchery.sg
ESPZEN (“continuing with virtual football training”): espzen.com