Foreigners set up furniture stores selling lesser-known brands

Jane Warner.
Jane Warner.
Out with the rules: Modern Eclectic Living aims to help home owners combine furniture pieces from different styles for a unique feel. -- PHOTO: MODERN ECLECTIC LIVING
Out with the rules: Modern Eclectic Living aims to help home owners combine furniture pieces from different styles for a unique feel. -- PHOTO: MODERN ECLECTIC LIVING
Out with the rules: Modern Eclectic Living aims to help home owners combine furniture pieces from different styles for a unique feel.
Out with the rules: Modern Eclectic Living aims to help home owners combine furniture pieces from different styles for a unique feel.PHOTOS: MODERN ECLECTIC LIVING
Accessories (left) inspired by Singapore's past are the highlights at Singapore Trading Post, opened by Mr Rob Pendergrast and Mrs Jo Harrison (both left, below). The shop also carries furniture from sofas to screens (below).
Accessories (left) inspired by Singapore's past are the highlights at Singapore Trading Post, opened by Mr Rob Pendergrast and Mrs Jo Harrison (both left, below). The shop also carries furniture from sofas to screens (below).ST PHOTOS: MATTHIAS HO
Accessories (left) inspired by Singapore's past are the highlights at Singapore Trading Post, opened by Mr Rob Pendergrast and Mrs Jo Harrison (both left, below). The shop also carries furniture from sofas to screens (below).
Accessories (left) inspired by Singapore's past are the highlights at Singapore Trading Post, opened by Mr Rob Pendergrast and Mrs Jo Harrison (both left, below). The shop also carries furniture from sofas to screens (below).ST PHOTOS: MATTHIAS HO
Accessories (left) inspired by Singapore's past are the highlights at Singapore Trading Post, opened by Mr Rob Pendergrast and Mrs Jo Harrison (both left, below). The shop also carries furniture from sofas to screens (below).
Accessories (left) inspired by Singapore's past are the highlights at Singapore Trading Post, opened by Mr Rob Pendergrast and Mrs Jo Harrison (both left, below). The shop also carries furniture from sofas to screens (below).ST PHOTOS: MATTHIAS HO
Luggage (above) inspired by those from the old days can be found at Chillal (left).
Luggage (above) inspired by those from the old days can be found at Chillal (left).PHOTOS: CHILLAL
Luggage (above) inspired by those from the old days can be found at Chillal (left).
Luggage (above) inspired by those from the old days can be found at Chillal (left).PHOTOS: CHILLAL
Eight-month-old Artful House sells colonial furniture (above), while the Slagbord Table (left) will be among the European and Scandinavian items up for auction when Swede Emelie Heden starts her business here.
Eight-month-old Artful House sells colonial furniture (above), while the Slagbord Table (left) will be among the European and Scandinavian items up for auction when Swede Emelie Heden starts her business here.PHOTOS: ARTFUL HOUSE, EMELIE HEDEN
Eight-month-old Artful House sells colonial furniture (above), while the Slagbord Table (left) will be among the European and Scandinavian items up for auction when Swede Emelie Heden starts her business here.
Eight-month-old Artful House sells colonial furniture (above), while the Slagbord Table (left) will be among the European and Scandinavian items up for auction when Swede Emelie Heden starts her business here.PHOTOS: ARTFUL HOUSE, EMELIE HEDEN
Founded by Ms Irene Hoofs (above), Bloesem has myriad offerings including footwear (top) and stationery (right).
Founded by Ms Irene Hoofs (above), Bloesem has myriad offerings including footwear (top) and stationery (right).ST PHOTOS: MATTHIAS HO
Founded by Ms Irene Hoofs (above), Bloesem has myriad offerings including footwear (top) and stationery (right).
Founded by Ms Irene Hoofs (above), Bloesem has myriad offerings including footwear (top) and stationery (right).ST PHOTOS: MATTHIAS HO
Founded by Ms Irene Hoofs (above), Bloesem has myriad offerings including footwear (top) and stationery (right).
Founded by Ms Irene Hoofs (above), Bloesem has myriad offerings including footwear (top) and stationery (right).ST PHOTOS: MATTHIAS HO

The absence of furniture that foreigners here have grown up with has spurred them to set up shop selling such pieces

Ms Emelie Heden is in the midst of starting a business - one that will operate nearly 10,000km away from her.

The Stockholm-based Swedish citizen wants to run an auction-style business selling European and Scandinavian vintage and antique furniture.

Guests would be invited to viewings before furniture lots are hammered off to the highest bidder. And it will all take place in Singapore.

The Republic was an obvious choice for Ms Heden, who lived, studied and worked here for six years before returning home last December. She had worked at furniture store Dream Interiors in River Valley Road as a marketing manager for two years.

"Having worked in Singapore in the furniture industry, I think I know the market better than my hometown in terms of what prices would work and what type of furniture people would prefer," says Ms Heden, 31. "There's a market for such furniture here and I see the trend of people wanting to mix new furniture with old ones, so it's an idea which could work here. This is also my passion so I wanted to do it."

She will source her furniture from flea markets and drive out to smaller towns for farm auctions in Sweden during the summer to get these one-off pieces such as chairs, small ornaments and plates in retro, Gustavian or Rococo styles.

Hoping to hold a first auction in September, she is now looking at venues such as art galleries.

She will run the business by shuttling between Sweden and Singapore: Once she fills two 40-feet containers with wares, she will ship them to Singapore, then fly over herself to start marketing the auctions.

She hopes to organise four auctions a year.

Ms Heden is part of a growing trend of foreigners making their foray into the furniture market in Singapore - be it opening a store after moving here or running one remotely with the help of local managers.

Early examples are Originals and The Past Perfect Collection - both at the Sime Darby Centre in Dunearn Road - as well as Fred Lives Here, which opened in an Emerald Hill shophouse in 2012. Now located at Orchard Central, it is owned by Ms Angie Pasley, 31, who is from New Zealand.

In the last few months, at least five such furniture and accessories shops have opened: Artful House in Tan Boon Liat Building, Chillal in Haji Lane, Singapore Trading Post in Pasir Panjang, Modern Eclectic Living in Lower Delta Road and Bloesem in Eng Hoon Street.

Briton Jo Harrison, 46, who co-owns Singapore Trading Post with New Zealander Rob Pendergrast, 57, says: "If you go to the shops in the malls, the prices for furniture are obscene.

"The shopping culture here is dispiriting because, if you're looking for good pieces to decorate your home with, there're very limited options for people who don't have thousands of dollars to spend."

Mr Amit Chillal, who opened two self-named stores last year, sees Singapore as a good test bed before launching other stores internationally. His stores have furniture and home accessories which he personally sourced.

"Singapore is the best place to experiment what works for a furniture store because there are so many nationalities here," says the 37-year-old. "Home owners here don't mind trying new things."

One reason for the proliferation of these stores is this: With many expatriates moving to Singapore, there are bound to be those who want to decorate their homes with the same kind of furniture they are used to back home. Those who cannot find what they want then take to bringing them in themselves, and others start asking where they got the items, and a business idea is born.

Take, for example, Originals' owner Geri Murphy, who moved to Singapore in 1995 when her husband relocated here for work. Originals, which first opened in 2003 in Gillman Village, has items from Europe, India, Indonesia and Thailand.

"Every expat experiences having to create a home away from home," says Ms Murphy. "In most cases, people come minus the physical homes they had. They need to rebuild.

"So the desire for furniture and accessories resonates strongly as a constant demand among their friends and acquaintances in Singapore."

While she initially catered mainly to the expatriate crowd here, she says she now gets a "healthy mix" of locals and foreigners.

"Creating something new, fresh and different is a great reason to start a business. People bring influences from around the globe and see their tastes under-represented, so that drives them to introduce their picks to this receptive marketplace."

These owners say they are in the business for the long haul, even if their stay might be temporary.

Ms Padmaja Rajagopalan, who is in her 30s and whose eight-month-old Artful House sells colonial furniture, says: "It was a conscious decision to open here and I looked hard for places to open.

"It's never easy to open a business but Singapore's a good place to start."

natashaz@sph.com.sg


Bloesem Creative Space

Where: 59 Eng Hoon Street, 01-79, tel: 6689-0146, open: weekdays, 9am to 6pm, weekends, 11am to 6pm, go to bloesem.blogs.com

The blossoming of Bloesem can be traced back to a Kate Spade window display in New York City. In 1999, Bloesem's founder-owner Irene Hoofs saw a merchandise arrangement of the well-known fashion and accessories brand's stationery line at its SoHo store. "Looking at that, I wanted to start my own stationery line," recalls Ms Hoofs, 42. "I learnt how to use computer programs to design my own line and sent samples of cards to places such as Barneys."

The high-end department store loved her work so much that it commissioned a line from her, which included wedding and congratulatory cards.

The break led to other opportunities for the Dutch former banker who, among other things, started a design blog in 2006. Bloesem, Dutch for blossom, made it to No. 4 on London's The Independent newspaper's The 50 Best Interiors Websites list last year.

Ms Hoofs and her husband moved to Toronto in 2004 when he took up an MBA there. They later moved to Kuala Lumpur for six years, where he worked for a private equity firm. Last March, the couple and their two boys, aged eight and five, moved to Singapore as his company has an office here.

While strolling through hipster enclave Tiong Bahru last year, she saw a 60 sq m store up for rent. "My dream of opening a studio became a reality."

She says Bloesem Creative Space is more of a showroom for people who want to check out the products she sells on her online store, including items from designers around the world and jewellery she makes. Others featured include Brita Sweden, a Swedish company which makes rugs (prices from $279), and Malaysian designer Lisette Scheer, whose stationery brand nala also has books and totes bags (prices start at $22).

"I approach designers whom I have a connection with," says Ms Hoofs. "It's partly personal taste because their products must fit into my house. I don't charge high prices because if I do, these designers aren't going to find a market here."

Ms Hoofs, who uses money she gets from advertisements on her website to fund its shop, says: "I just want to get more people excited about design... It's really an evolving process."


Chillal

Where: 9 Haji Lane, tel: 6299-0365, open: 11.30am to 9.30pm daily, go to chillal.com

Nothing in Chillal is made by a machine - the shop's owner Amit Chillal makes sure of that when he goes furniture hunting around the world. "I make sure I visit the small businesses and see how they make their items," says Mr Chillal, 37, who opened the first store bearing his surname in Orchard Central last year.

Chillal's second store, in Haji Lane, opened late last year.

"Whatever I want to sell at my store should not be available anywhere else," he adds. "These are one-off pieces, so you can be sure no one else has the furniture you bought."

Opening a furniture store seems like an unlikely move for Mr Chillal, who works in his family business, Parampara Spices Mixes, a company based in Pune which packages and distributes spices.

Mr Chillal, who is also based in the western Indian state but comes here every month for about 10 days, explains: "Food might be my line of work, but art and furniture are my passions."

He scours flea markets in Europe, South Africa and Australia for quirky items which make it to his shop floor.

Items include rusty steel luggage and retro cooler boxes modelled after old Coca-Cola chillers. The store also has furniture such as cupboards and bedside tables. Prices range from $10 for ornamental boxes to $3,000 for a wardrobe. New items arrive every four to six weeks.

Mr Chillal says his wife Rupal, 35, is his curator, often reining in his purchases. "I can go overboard with the shopping," he adds. "So she's like my guardian, telling me when to stop buying."

He has plans to expand his business, despite having to operate from thousands of kilometres away. He stays connected to the store via WhatsApp and e-mail.

Chillal in Haji Lane will move a few doors down the street to 49 Haji Lane by the end of this month, expanding from a 1,000 sq ft store to a 1,200 sq ft store.

The 250 sq ft store at Orchard Central, which Mr Chillal says he opened to test the market, will close around the same time. He invested about $150,000 to get the shops started.

Says the father of two, whose wife helps with the export and marketing in the family business: "We've gotten a good response from the Singapore market. I'm looking at other locations which have a vibe like Haji Lane's, where you get a good mix of locals, tourists, expatriates and the arts crowd.

"I've even gotten requests from Indian expatriates in Singapore saying I should set up a store in India because it's hard to find such pieces there."


Singapore Trading Post

Where: Citilink Warehouse, 102F Pasir Panjang Road, 02-04, tel: 6274-0511, open: Monday to Friday, 10am to 5pm, Saturday, 10am to 6pm, Sunday, 11am to 4pm

Talking to Mrs Jo Harrison and Mr Rob Pendergrast about their new venture is a little like listening to modern-day Indiana Joneses. The two friends, who set up Singapore Trading Post seven months ago, regale you with their adventures sourcing for colonial furniture and accessories in the region.

One tale involves them driving 12 hours to get to Moradabad, outside New Delhi, only to be caught in a human traffic jam as devotees were crossing a bridge to head to the River Ganges to bathe in and collect water on a full moon night.

"I used to own three antique shops about 30 years ago in Auckland," says Mr Pendergrast, 57, a New Zealander who moved to Singapore four years ago when his wife was posted to Ericsson Singapore as a vice-president of marketing and communication. "I had to search for things to stock the stores. I can't help hunting, collecting and going down back alleys to look for things."

He met Mrs Harrison in 2010 when he bought Expat Auctions, the auction house selling second-hand furniture where she worked. The auction house, which started six years ago, still holds weekly sales in a unit below Singapore Trading Post every Saturday at 10am.

The two became fast friends and decided to start a shop offering things that are very different from the items that pass through the auction house.

At Singapore Trading Post, they carry homeware and furniture inspired by Singapore's colonial past, while the auction house sells items from furniture to barbecue grills and pianos, on behalf of expatriates, locals and shops with excess furniture stock.

The 1,000 sq ft shop commissions original designs from regional artisans, which are then branded with the store's name. These include newly painted reproductions of vintage Singapore posters, such as one for the Government's anti- long hair campaign for men in the 1970s; vintage colonial lamps; and leather sofas.

Other items, such as dial phones from Myanmar, and Jodphur keys and locks which can be used as decorative pieces, are one-of-a-kind real deals.

The duo started sourcing for their products by visiting the outposts of the British East India Company, a powerful trading company started in the 1600s, making trips to places such as Rajasthan in India, Vietnam and Myanmar.

Mrs Harrison, 46, who used to work as a film producer and moved from Brighton to Singapore seven years ago when her husband got a job in advertising here, says: "Many people see the colonial era as a time which was romantic and classy. We loved it so we decided to go find some of such items."

Mr Pendergrast adds: "It's also a hip thing at the moment... where the younger generation is reowning Singapore.

"They want to have things from the past, so we see a lot of young, local couples coming here to source for items for their homes."

Most items are priced below $1,000. The co-owners put in about $350,000 as their initial investment and plan to set up similar concepts in cities such as Melbourne.


Modern Eclectic Living

Where: Cendex Centre, 120 Lower Delta Road, 01-14, tel: 6273-2204, open: Monday to Saturday, 10am to 6pm, closed on Sunday, go to www.moderneclectic.com

Back in the late 2000s, freelance florist Jane Warner was living in Kent, dreaming of setting up a small homeware, gift and floral boutique. But her plans were thwarted when her husband, 44, landed a job at an international brokerage firm based in Singapore and she had to move to accompany him.

That was 41/2 years ago. Five months ago, she finally fulfilled her dream when she opened Modern Eclectic Living, a 2,500 sq ft store.

After a chance meeting two years ago with a Danish woman who sold unusual antique furniture in Singapore, Mrs Warner had been inspired again and revived her shop-owning dream.

"The Danish woman was looking to sell her business and I remember telling her how happy I would be doing something similar," recalls Mrs Warner, 42. "I considered taking her business on but, after some thought, I decided I would like to do something a little more diverse, like my original plan for a store in Britain. I had already done a lot of research and groundwork for that store."

Modern Eclectic Living carries furniture and accessories such as bedding from Egypt and vases from Poland. It also stocks furniture from Beijing-based Van Thiel & Co. The 16-year-old Dutch company also manufactures the Ralph Lauren Home Collection and supplies furniture to Restoration Hardware in the United States, a chain of home furnishings, hardware, and outdoor and garden products.

"Modern Eclectic is a style movement that emerged in the 1990s in reaction to minimalism," says Mrs Warner of her store's name. "It is very much about combining objects and styles in exciting ways, throwing out design rules and not conforming to set ideas or themes.

"It offers the opportunity for more individual expression. This is very much the emphasis I want the store to demonstrate and inspire in customers."

She travels often to pick up items for the shop herself. Prices range from $10 for a handwoven rattan basket to $10,000 for a Van Thiel & Co classic tufted settee, and the store is aimed at mid-tier to high-end home owners.

Mrs Warner honed her eye for design decorating her own houses, which included a 16th-century cottage, a country house in England and a beachfront apartment in southern France.

The mother of three children, aged between two and 20, says: "Every project was a learning experience and offered the opportunity to experiment.

"I learnt so much about the use of furniture, wallpapers and fabrics. I found it incredibly rewarding to see the spaces transformed and a vision brought to life in ways that worked for the whole family."

She hopes to offer something different from the local home decor scene. "There are a lot of furniture stores selling similar contemporary furniture, but I believe consumers are increasingly looking away from the mass-produced to something a little more individual. I hope I can provide that."

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