How do you mix colonial with modern furniture in a contemporary home? This is a question that many who appreciate older, finer, more stately pieces grapple with when moving into the ubiquitous modern living-spaces available in Singapore today. Padmaja Rajagopalan has found the answer by combining old with new, colonial with modern, in her own inimitable style.
Within five minutes of entering Padmaja Rajagopalan’s home, a shophouse on Cairnhill Road, just a stone’s throw from the modern consumer mecca of Orchard Road, she points out the century-old Flemish sideboard in the corner of her immaculate living room. Her enthusiasm about the Moorish influence in the dark mahogany piece is infectious. “I’m not sure of its precise history, but it’s a very old piece which we bought at auction in the UK,” she explains.
Settling into a comfortable sofa with a coffee, I find it impossible not to stare at the international collection of furniture, art and curios amassed by Padmaja and her husband, Pramod. Every piece is unique and seems to have a story to tell. I ask Padmaja how she collected such a treasure trove.
“We bought some pieces including the couches and sideboards with us when we moved from the UK three years ago, and then I gradually added pieces sourced in the region,” she says.
Padmaja and Pramod were living in a serviced apartment down the road when they stumbled on this house, the day the previous tenants were moving out, and moved in shortly afterwards. On a break from her banking career, Padmaja focused her attention on decorating the shophouse. “While it remains authentic on the outside, it’s been given a contemporary interior makeover, so the challenge was to make it look cosy,” she explains.
“I was always interested in decorating and furniture, and I enjoyed going to auctions, buying old things and seeing them restored. Moving here, setting up my home and living in Asia gave me the opportunity and confidence to further this interest.”
Her trademark flair is to incorporate furniture of different periods, styles and colours into any household setting. “If you like something, ultimately you will find a place for it. You have to trust your instincts, otherwise it’s no fun,” she says. “People are nervous about blending old with new, and combining contemporary and modern furniture. It’s a challenge many shy away from.”
Friends started asking her where and how to buy the kind of furniture they saw in her home. “Gradually, I started sourcing furniture for friends and building a client list, and our business, Artful House, grew from there.
Born and raised in India, with strong links to Kerala, Padmaja grew up with an appreciation for the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial influences on the region. “I travel regularly now to source old furniture from the many stately old houses in India and Sri Lanka. In the course of modernisation, many are being pulled down; no one wants the bulky furniture anymore, or they can’t take large items if they’re moving on.
“We do a lot of work on restoring the pieces, stripping the layers of garish colour back to the natural wood, and uncovering the grain. Many of these pieces have not been used for years, so we work with local restorers in India and Sri Lanka who have the indigenous skills needed for this intensive and sometimes painstaking work.”
Padmaja has volunteered at the Asian Civilisations Museum, and taken the intensive training course to learn about the museum’s world-class collection.
“While the museum exhibits important historical artefacts, the pieces in my home and for sale at Artful House are heritage items. I like to offer information about the history of a piece and its possible uses; for example, a dowry chest can be re-purposed as a bar – a quirky and fun use. People just need a little encouragement, confidence and inspiration. My advice is to fill your home with truly unique pieces, otherwise it will look like everyone else’s.”
See all of the photos – and Padmaja’s comments on what furnishings and colours she selected and why – in the gorgeous gallery above…
Fun Fact: What is colonial furniture?
Furniture designed according to Western styles brought to Asia by colonial settlers and intermarried with local craftsmanship, design and function. Items were skilfully handmade made with good quality tropical hardwoods like mahogany, teak and ebony.
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Da Paolo – Gastronomia (“handy for picking up snacks and quick meals”)
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Want more home inspiration? See our home decor section!