Culture Vulture

Living with an incorrigible collector

Every square metre of our flat is packed with art, vintage furniture and LPs that my husband has acquired at galleries and fairs

I peek outside our overflowing apartment and eyeball the delivery men bearing a truckload of cling-wrapped, mid-century modern chairs, dressers and lamps.

"I can't believe you bought so much, where are we going to put all of it?!"

My husband brushes aside my shrieking like he would a fly, and throws the door open to his latest acquisitions.

Welcome to life with a collector. The scene repeats itself with dazzling frequency - if the delivery men are not bearing design-conscious furniture, then it is contemporary paintings.

Sometimes it is my husband himself outside the door, heaving a box of newly purchased vintage vinyl records.

Every wall and nearly every sq m of our three- bedroom apartment is packed with testaments to my husband's love of good design and art.

Prized possessions include original mid-century chairs by Scandinavian design greats Alvar Aalto and Arne Jacobsen, and paintings by emerging South- east Asian artists such as the Philippines' Victor Balanon and Singapore's Hong Sek Chern.

He is also an audiophile - think gizmos from a second-hand Rega turntable to huge honking Vandersteen speakers - and his books, CDs and LPs number several thousand, nestled on shelves and racks or stacked in vertical piles that rise dangerously towards the ceiling.

The house also contains miscellany such as back copies of one-time style bible Wallpaper, including its first issue in 1996, and two antique typewriters that previously belonged to my father-in-law.

Did I mention that we also have two young kids?

A risk manager by profession but an aesthete and adventurer at heart, my husband remains impervious to the usual exhortations to child-proof one's home.

So far, the only accident has been one broken faux Louis Poulsen table lamp - the originals are placed well out of reach of mischievous little hands.

On the upside, my daughter must be the only four-year-old to know the word "typewriter".

For my husband, collecting is not about deep pockets - though being in the financial sector certainly helps - but seeing the value in what others might miss.

His heroes are not the Charles Saatchis of this world, but Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, the postal clerk and librarian who amassed a staggering 5,000 pieces of modern art in a one-bedroom New York apartment, then donated all of it to museums and galleries in the United States.

The mousey-looking couple scrimped and saved to buy art and made friends with major figures such as conceptual artist Sol LeWitt while they were still young and their works relatively cheap.

An acclaimed 2008 documentary film about the Vogels, which my husband and I caught together on DVD, showed them and their eight cats in their simply-furnished flat, dwarfed by paintings papering over the walls and spilling out of their closets.

It was a riveting sight but I was also horrified.

Sure, I take pride in my husband and his various collections, assembled through many hours of research and bonding with equally passionate dealers.

The mid-century furniture, for example, tells the story of the streamlined aesthetic, new materials and themes ranging from molecular chemistry to science fiction that gripped post World War II utopian imaginations.

But I also have this nagging worry that we are living in one of those scary hoarder homes.

Each time I scream, "No more room!", my husband with his keen eye and skill for creating space out of nothing has proved me wrong.

It helps that he is built like an ox - a few hours of huffing and puffing later and the house's layout has been reconfigured to accommodate the latest acquisitions. Perhaps though, like the Vogels, the madness of our living arrangements is visible only to outsiders?

In her 1993 cultural studies tome, On Longing, Susan Stewart distinguishes between the California wood rat arranging random objects such as watches, knives and matches "in a symmetrical, fortresslike pattern around his nest", and the collections of humans. The latter are orderly worlds governed by "the invention of a classification scheme which will define space and time in such a way that the world is accounted for by the elements of the collection".

Can visitors to our home glimpse that sense of order?

Most people are just stunned by how much stuff we have, although one art critic friend correctly identified most of the artists behind the 20-odd paintings and proclaimed that we could sell them off one day to help finance our daughter's education.

As a risk manager, there is some calculation behind my husband's purchases, although mostly, he just enjoys pounding the galleries, art fairs and vintage furniture and record shops for the thrill of the hunt.

But above all, he collects to fill the domestic sanctum with his favourite things.

In that sense, gazing at Lyrnrd Paras' clear-eyed, blown-up oil painting of a street kid, the glistening surfaces of her skin a haunting palimpsest of other faces and graffiti-like words, is no different to him from listening to Bach on one of the seven or eight carefully chosen headphones hanging on the T-shaped rack near his side of the bed.

He delights in the sensory pleasure of the objects and has developed little rituals around them - leaving a spotlight on in the dead of the night to gently illuminate a painting; listening to his music before he sleeps, his bear-like body lax and eyes closed, cocooned by the inaudible melodies seeping into his brain through his headphones.

Love me, love our crowded house, is what I have learnt.

Now I just have to walk from one point to another without stubbing my toe on a chair leg or grazing my hip on a stack of LPs.

clare@sph.com.sg