Ever wondered if anyone actually lives in that old, white house on the corner of Devonshire and Grange roads? Helle Espersen invites Verne Maree into her home.
During the four years I lived in nearby Oxley Rise and regularly passed that mysterious white house at 7 Grange Road, I never thought I’d get to see it inside. At last, here’s my chance: I’m going to meet Helle Espersen.
Nothing much has been done to the house since it was built in the late 1940s. That was confirmed by a friend of Helle’s, who got hold of the original plans when she was doing the final project for her interior design course – converting it into a children’s library, in case you’re interested. (It would be perfect for that purpose, I think.)
When Helle, her husband John and their two boys, Oliver (now 20) and Caspar (18) moved to Singapore ten years ago, their first home was a spacious apartment in The Arcadia, next to Adam Park. From there, they moved to one of those huge Pandan Valley penthouses with the enormous roof terraces. “It was so cheap; we should have bought it,” she says ruefully.
Four years ago, in 2008, one of Helle’s customers told her that the house at 7 Grange Road was available. “I knew it would be perfect for us,” she says. Not everyone would have taken the risk, though. Standing as it does on such very, very valuable land, the house is clearly destined to be knocked down and replaced with an upmarket condo development – or, conceivably, another shiny Orchard mall or another luxury Orchard hotel; two other plots to the rear of this one belong to the same owner.
Not only did the landlady not want to do anything to the house, but the tenancy agreement allows either party to give the other just two months’ notice – most unusual in Singapore, where a two-year lease is the usual minimum.
As you go in, the first room is a smallish entrance hall; beyond that, a corridor is flanked by two big reception rooms: the dining room to the right, the living room to the left. Next comes another, square-ish room that looks like a central entrance hall.
“Yes, it’s a strange house,” agrees Helle. “To start with, we used this central hall as a dining-room; what is now the dining room used to be a sort of playroom. I move things around a lot!”
Deciding to paint the original but by then badly marked wooden floors white lightened up the whole interior. There was no kitchen at all, so there was nothing for it but to call in a carpenter to install a basic one; when it’s not your house, you’re not inclined to do more than that.
But what about the large pool and exterior decking? It looks as though it must have cost a fortune, but no: “It’s all rented!” Helle tells me. “We just called in Mr Ong.”
This famous individual, I have been told, is responsible for most of the pools, decking, gazebos and so on that grace the various colonial black-and-white bungalows so beloved of expats in Singapore. These houses come more-or-less bare; you pay for whatever additions you desire, and when you leave, you bear the expense of having them all removed – unless the new tenant agrees to take them over from you.
Helle’s home is an advertisement for her furniture business, and I mean this in the best possible sense. Mainly featuring the eclectic assortment of Chinese antiques and reproductions that she’s been shipping in for the best part of a decade, it’s nevertheless a welcoming, comfortable and unpretentious sort of place.
“I like things; I like stuff,” admits Helle. “Furniture, soft furnishings, candles, artworks, knickknacks of all descriptions. And I love to mix old and new; that way, you get to see each piece.”
Her living room is proof of the effectiveness of this design philosophy. The oversized contemporary sofa is softened with cushions and throws, highlighting a couple of older, distinctly European pieces from Denmark: a curvy wave-front cabinet with drawers and a delicate display cabinet with glass doors.
To the left, the earth tones of an abstract painting from Bali warm up the neutral space; opposite, a whimsical composition of butterflies and flowers by local artist Idris Johor. Idris also painted the two mannequin forms displayed in the dining room; each of them is an exquisite work of art.
A cityscape by Danish artist Larsen dominates the dining room, and Helle herself painted the red abstract opposite it. She took painting classes about five years ago, and various examples of her work enliven the plain white walls of the house.
Galanga Living supplied much of the furniture for the expansive outdoor entertainment area, she says, but the ceramic stools and other items are from FairPrice Antique. She found one of the tables and a lamp in Bali: “Whenever I see anything portable on my travels, I bring it home.”
And the table-tennis table gets a lot of use, she says; “Caspar and I are very competitive!”
How does one go about establishing a business like FairPrice Antique? I imagine that having done a degree in sales and marketing back in Denmark must have stood Helle in good stead.
It took her family a little while to settle properly into Singapore, she remembers, not least because the boys were not fluent in English when they arrived here. To overcome that hurdle, they chose the Overseas Family School (OFS) mainly for its programme of integrating students who have English only as a second language; Ollie was in the first grade, Casper in the fourth grade, and after a mere six months they were able to enter the main stream.
With her boys thriving at school, their mother felt able to take up a new challenge. So when Lulu Tian, another tenant at The Arcadia, proposed that they start up FairPrice Antique together, Helle thought: “Why not?”
Lulu was mainland Chinese and had a contact in Beijing. “We both went to Beijing,” recalls Helle, “and we simply chose what we ourselves liked. We thought that if the business did not make it, at least we’d have imported some gorgeous furniture for ourselves.”
They did make it, of course. At the start, they shared the contents of each container between their two huge apartments, and during the weekends their respective sons would be on duty to guide potential customers to the “showrooms”. Before long, they had set up a website with pictures and prices; much of the business was done, and continues to be done, through that portal.
After a while, the URA came knocking at the door; running this sort of outfit from a condo was a no-go, apparently, and they had to find a more appropriate place to keep their stock. An old house in Andrew Road was their next address, followed by five years in a warehouse at Henderson Road. Lulu’s husband was relocated in 2006, and Helle bought her share of the business. “I’m really happy to be on my own,” she says.
After the rent shot up by 120 percent, she found her current Outram Road premises, on the ground floor of Tan Boon Liat Building. “It’s working very well,” she declares happily, noting that her neighbours include Journey East, Jehan Gallery and Eastern Discoveries on the third floor, “a lovely quilt shop on the sixth floor, a knife-seller and sharpener on the ground floor, and a great organic shop on the 11th floor.” What’s more, there’s plenty of free parking.
Since October last year, FairPrice Antique has been hosting regular Eclectic Evenings that feature an assortment of vendors and service providers. Underground Wines, Layard Art Consulting, ceramics from Laytana Poterie, Sigrid Handmade Jewellery, BODE home furnishings and florist Stacy Holcroft’s The Blue Leaf were at the February event.
They came here in 2002 for three years, or possibly a maximum of five. Before that, Helle and John had been back in Jutland, Denmark for eight years, after three years in Sydney and four years in Holland, where the boys were born.
“I’ve been very pleased each time our stay has been extended,” says Helle. “When you have boys who are in high school, Singapore is a very hard place to leave.” But it’s now definite that the family will be moving home to Denmark next year. John retires soon, Caspar has finished high school, and Ollie is already back in Denmark, planning to study hospitality management in Switzerland.
As she says, it’s nice to know in advance and to have time to plan for the move and for the future of her thriving business. But what, I ask, will she do with all the lovely stuff that she has collected around her?
“Fortunately, our home in Denmark is big enough to hold all of it!”
Want more home inspiration? See our home decor section!