IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Hipster decor 101

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 8, 2014

By now, a decade or so into the movement towards things retro and indie, you might have developed the ability to spot a hipster from miles away.

Buddy Holly geek glasses? Yup. Old-school fixed-gear bicycle? Yup.

Hangin' out in droves, but careful not to be too much in droves, in cafes of a particular sort? Oh, yeah.

These cafes, like their patrons, often also conform to a certain look. Raw industrial finish, recycled furniture, naked lightbulbs and, of course, a well-placed bicycle or two - for the owners to run errands nearby.

As early as 2010, hipster cafe culture has sprung up in Singapore and has been thriving since. Well-known ones include Papa Palheta now in Tyrwhitt Road, Loysel's Toy in Kampong Bugis and 40Hands in Yong Siak Street.

They are often fronted by other hipsters - young urbanites who reject consumerism and mass-made products in favour of all things obscure and indie.

With dreams and passion sometimes bigger than their budgets, these cafe owners keep set-up costs down by eschewing fancy fittings. Even torn fabric on a couch can be overlooked, if it saves its new owners $30.

November 8 Coffee & Company's co-owner Wiltian Ang's answer to its $10,000 decor budget was simply: "Tight."

Others that Life! spoke to worked with budgets of between $10,000 and $20,000 to do up their interiors. In true hipster fashion, some owners went the do-it-yourself route.

Hipster cafes often give customers the sense of hanging out at someone's home, just as their clientele are being inspired to decorate their pads to look like their favourite new old coffee shop.

Life! offers a tongue-in-cheek Hipster Decor 101, with seven must-haves for a credible crib.

natashaz@sph.com.sg


Whimsical

Beyond good food, the hipster cafe must also offer numerous appealing spots for clients to pose for Instagram-able pictures.

Cute or whimsical often scores well with the shutter-happy crowd.

Step into The Brew & Bake Company in Clementi and you will feel like a child among your favourite things in this three-month-old, 32-seater cafe.

Sit on diamond-tufted chairs and sofas in primary colours, some of which were brought in from Thailand. A striped awning in the same colours hang over the entrance, as though you are entering a circus or carnival.

Upping the aww-factor, co-owner Louis Huang, 31, has filled display cabinets with toys and figurines, such as Care Bears and My Little Pony. There are also coasters and crocheted rabbit merchandise on sale at between $5 and $38.

Part of the proceeds will be donated to the House Rabbit Society of Singapore.

Mr Huang, a self-taught baker who has a silent partner, says: "It just puts a smile on our customers' faces when they see such child-like surroundings. They feel like they can chill out."

And while Kovan is not exactly hipster central, cafe Hatter Street there has diners going down the rabbit hole in its 800 sq ft Alice In Wonderland- themed interiors.

Chef-owner Yvette Chua, who declines to give her age, enlisted the help of interior design firm Pebbletree Designs to conceptualise and draw images on the wall of the two-month-old cafe.

Her older sister, a psychologist, also pitched in to help hand-draw motifs on the wall and a lampshade with Sharpie markers.

Ms Chua, a former teacher at Cedar Girls' Secondary School, says: "It all started when I wanted the cafe to look like the Mad Hatter had decorated it. But it morphed into a cute version of Alice In Wonderland, with the pink colours."

Before you leave, snap a shot of the yummy dessert table, lined with artificial grass and decorated with a macaron tree, bird cages and stuffed rabbit toys.

Similarly, La Marelle Cafe & Boutique in Baghdad Street may induce diabetic shock in you, thanks to its saccharine, whimsical decor - from a pink stairway dotted with coloured raindrops to lantern lights.

Find the look: The Brew & Bake Company, 28 Clementi Road, tel: 9235-2276; Hatter Street, 212 Hougang Street 21, 01-333, tel: 6988-4591; and La Marelle Cafe & Boutique, 25A Baghdad Street, tel: 8138-7654


Obscure location

Any hipster joint worth its sea salt, artisanal brew or bespoke cocktail must be well hidden - lest the unhip masses wander in and, gasp, make the place too mainstream.

That is why you must hunt high and low for them in the unlikeliest places: industrial neighbourhoods, warehouses, old sports halls or camouflaged among tour agencies or budget hotels.

The thirsty and hungry must be thrown off the scent further. Hence some have no shop signs or public contact information such as telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, although a Facebook page is a common option.

Wheeler's Yard is in the industrial estate of Balestier and hidden among factories, while Backstage Cafe is also in a similar area in Kallang. Brawn & Brains is tucked away in the Old Badminton Hall in Kallang.

The folks behind two-month-old coffee house Ronin in Hongkong Street take the cake for being elusive. You need to remember its unit number and hunt for the pillar around the corner of its doors, which has a stencilled sign with "17 HKST", to give you a hint of its location. Miss the sign and the doors will just look like a mirror. And there is no number to call or a Facebook page to check out.

Find the look: Ronin, 17 Hongkong Street; Wheeler's Yard, 28 Lorong Ampas, tel: 6254-9128; Backstage Cafe, 158 Kallang Way, 01-06, tel: 6743-6893; and Brawn & Brains, 100 Guillemard Road, 01-07, tel: 9771-1610


Going D-I-Y

The hipster-chic look should not cost much. Why buy a new chair when an old one, at half the price, looks as good as new after a scrub and new upholstery?

The owners of 50-seater cafe Working Title in Arab Street know this. The two best friends, Mr Mustaffa Kamal and Mr Calvin Seah, both 29, stretched their limited budget of about $8,000 by rescuing old furniture and rolling up their sleeves to sand and repaint the pieces.

They salvaged wood from discarded planks, pallets, boards and crates, then sanded and varnished them to create tables.

With no prior know-how, they went online to sites such as YouTube and Pinterest to learn to use tools and paint properly. It was a crash course on how to make furniture, says Mr Seah, who had "never even picked up a saw before this".

They also scoured used furniture shops to buy items and checked out dumpsters for seats they would refurbish. A prized find was an unwanted powder-blue bench in the Ubi Industrial area. It now has pride of place in the middle of the cafe.

Find the look: Working Title, 48 Arab Street, tel: 9734-4187; November 8 Coffee & Company, Thomson V Two, 11 Sin Ming Road, 01-30, tel: 6554-4388; and Hatter Street, 212 Hougang Street 21, 01-333, tel: 6988-4591


Mismatched

Matchy-matchy is a no-go when it comes to achieving the hipster vibe. No buying of identical chairs in bulk because mismatched ones give off a casual, creative yet devil-may-care attitude.

If you must buy a set, then at least paint them in different colours. Anything that looks too regular or straight off the mass market is anathema.

Different chair styles painted in the same colour help make for a more uniform look, if that is what you desire. Otherwise, go the whole hog and have a bold selection of unique seats at the same table such as those at Cups N Canvas and Working Title.

For individual beauties, rummage around Hock Siong & Co at 153 Kampong Ampat, which sells furniture cast off by hotels in Singapore.

The company's inventory has items such as sofas, lights and silverware. At least three of the seven cafes Life! spoke to had found some of their furniture pieces there.

Or check out dumpsters to yield prized finds, especially in the spring-cleaning lead-up to festive seasons.

Lastly, forget about arranging your mismatched furniture in individual nooks and cosy configurations: Communal is in. Many hipster cafes have long benches at 12-seater tables - all the better to meet and mingle with newfound kindred spirits.

The Marshmallow Tree has a 3m-long, suar wood communal table. The 20-seat eatery mixes wooden benches and vintage pencil-leg chairs too.

Find the look: Working Title, 48 Arab Street, tel: 9734-4187; Cups N Canvas, 139 Selegie Road, tel: 6884-6855; and The Marshmallow Tree, 46 Telok Blangah Drive, 01-85, tel: 9852-1210


Old name, new place

A sick man once walked into this 60- seater cafe in hipster motherland Tiong Bahru and ended up yelling at its owners. He was looking for traditional Chinese medicine to soothe his illness but, instead of ginseng and herbal concoctions, they could offer him only cupcakes and coffee.

Who could blame him, though, given that the place is called The Dispensary and was indeed a traditional Chinese medicine hall in its past life?

The new cafe was started about four months ago by Mr Fred Wee and his wife Claire, both 54, and another partner, Mr Joel Lam, 49. After renting the 2,200 sq ft shop unit last September, with its medicine cabinets and shelving still intact after 10 years of neglect, they decided to build a cafe in it.

They even left the original painted signage on a pillar outside the shop and a wooden sign of the medical hall's Chinese name inside - taking a leaf from another hipster cafe, Chye Seng Huat Hardware in Tyrwhitt Road, which named itself after the metal and hardware shop that used to be on that street.

Mr Wee, who also owns a cafe in Johor Baru, says: "The name works both ways for us, that people could be mistaken by our identity, but it still draws them in. As long as people are coming by, it works for us."

These days, the medicine chests behind the counter hold coffee powder. Regular customers can even keep their own beans there.

And never mind that it does not serve any healing herbs. Its classic carrot cake with rich cream cheese frosting ($6) is so good, it is therapeutic.

Find the look: The Dispensary, 69 Tiong Bahru Road, tel: 6536-0225


Industrial, vintage or quaint decor

The naked brick is every hipster's crush.

A wall of exposed bricks, with visible cement fillers, is the hallmark of the hipster's lair.

Hipster cafes often use such brick feature walls when designing their spaces. The industrial look has been adapted from Manhattan lofts, where other must-haves include raw, concrete flooring; naked lightbulbs dangling by long looping wires from high ceilings; and exposed piping.

Wood, too, features heavily. The organic material's grain and patterns as well as dark rich hues go well with concrete walls and floors.

At November 8 Coffee & Company in Thomson, owners Shawn Neo, 36, and Wiltian Ang, 32, have paired brick and wood, using the bricks as bench legs and plywood for seat tops.

Mr Neo, who used to run western restaurant Barbacoa in City Square Mall, says of their D-I-Y, exposed-brick aesthetic: "It's not well done or smooth on purpose."

Describing the cafe as "a casual hangout and not a high-end restaurant", he adds: "We don't want it to be too formal."

Similarly, Lowercase in McNally Street has a heavy wood influence. The cafe is decorated with industrial pallets and has exposed pipes on the ceiling.

If the industrial look is too harsh, you could opt for a quaint, vintage look, without becoming kitsch or overwhelming visitors with old items.

OZ Specialty Coffee, also in Thomson, has gone for an all-white scheme, making the 291 sq ft cafe look bigger and brighter. With stairs that lead to a tiny storage loft, coffee bags and brewing paraphernalia for sale, and framed pictures of scenery, it has a homely feel. Co-owner Will Leow, 21, who started the cafe with Mr Peh Li Hao, 22, says: "It wasn't that we were trying to be hipster... We just went with what we liked for the cafe."

Find the look: November 8 Coffee & Company, Thomson V Two, 11 Sin Ming Road, 01-30, tel: 6554-4388; OZ Specialty Coffee, Thomson V Two, 11 Sin Ming Road, 01-13; and Lowercase, 1 McNally Street, Block D, 01-01, tel: 6337-5581


Retro Singapore

Hipsters love to reminisce eras gone by in which they wish they had been born - preferably in authentically renovated settings. For that reason, the hipster cafe has thrived.

Ripping off grandpa's style, these cafes recreate the look of Singapore and Malaysian coffee shops of yesteryear.

Case in point: Penang Street. With its Peranakan tiles and metal grilles, the two- month-old cafe opened by Minor Food Group Singapore brings back memories of the 1960s on the laidback Malaysian island.

Similarly, The Dispensary in Tiong Bahru, which opened a few months ago, has kept its history as a Chinese medical hall. Sinpopo, an eatery styled like an old-school coffee shop, is named after a notorious nightclub in Tanjong Katong Road in the 1960s.

And what do hipsters eat on in these cafes? Why, enamel crockery, of course - while they graze on suitably old-school decor items.

Cafe owners found the ubiquitous, classic enamelware - pale yellow, blue, green or pink, rimmed in dark blue; mostly made in China - after scouring mom-and-pop shops in Tanjong Katong and Joo Chiat. There are also flower- and animal-motif enamelware and all come in different sizes and depths. They can cost from 80 cents for a small plate to $5 for bigger ones.

To dig up vintage paraphernalia to replicate the hipster cafe look, a pilgrimage to Bangkok is a must.

Sweat it out in flea markets to unearth gems such as vintage transistor radios and television sets.

Check out Rod Fai Market, an open-air bazaar beside an abandoned railroad track, or Ratchada Night Bazaar, at the junction of Ladprao Road and Rachadapisek Road, where you will easily find old records, an old dentist chair or a vintage scooter.

Find the look: Penang Street, 1 Lower Kent Ridge Road, One@KentRidge, National University Hospital Medical Centre, 01-09 and 01-19/20, tel: 6334-6023; The Dispensary, 69 Tiong Bahru Road, tel: 6536-0225; and Sinpopo, 458 Joo Chiat Road, tel: 6345-5034

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 8, 2014

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