Woods and whites

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 3, 2013.

Should drama school educator Julia Gabriel ever stage a lush, tropical version of Romeo & Juliet's balcony scene, she would have the perfect set right in her own home.

Despite not having a green thumb, the British-born founder and director of the Julia Gabriel education centres has managed to turn her balconies into green spots, overflowing with vines, pebbles and potted and hanging plants.

The 62-year-old, who lives in a rented two-bedroom apartment in Monk's Hill, says: "I don't have to go down to enjoy plants or the fresh air.

"The plants have grown well, taken off and found their own nook. They are happy plants, which are in the right place with lots of sunshine and good breeze."

She relies on her domestic helper and house guests to water the plants as she travels often.

Her current digs are a brighter change from her previous rented home in Holland Hill. That apartment, she says, was not as airy and came with tinted windows.

Step into her current 3,000 sq ft space and you are shut off from the hustle and bustle of town, despite being in the city.

With the windows thrown open, a cool breeze comes through. Birds chirp loudly and butterflies flit around.

Her apartment has a simple palette of wood and whites, with pops of colour from paintings, such as one of a trio of monks which she bought from a store in Holland Village and two of playful, fat cats, one of which was given to her by friends.

It is a look that is consistent across the two bedrooms, study and sitting areas.

The mother of two grown-up children says: "I actually like colour, but I think white is a nice canvas to show off my dark- wood furniture. It is also very soothing to the eye. Having too many colours might overpower the space. The overall feel white creates is tranquil and peaceful."

Son Mark, 38, lives in Singapore and works with her, while daughter Emma, 32, runs a health-and-nutrition centre in London.

Ms Gabriel has moved six times here but still keeps pieces from her previous homes, including a house in Bukit Timah where she lived for five years. She also salvaged pebbles from a pond in that house to create a stone garden in her current home.

"I would never dream of throwing things out because that would be wasting good pieces of furniture. My home is a work in progress. Everything keeps getting changed in a different way, so they never look old."

When she moved to live on her own after her divorce, she kept half of the four- seater sofa set as well as the chairs to the dining table. She also modified her existing wooden blinds and made additional ones, so that they would fit the size of the windows in her Monk's Hill apartment.

She credits her waste-not, want-not decorating philosophy to finding someone who has been able to rework her pieces beautifully.

Any time she needs to buy new furniture or modify an existing piece, she calls Ms Mimi Somjee, managing director of WTP - The Furniture Company.

The store has been around for more than 20 years and is in Kung Chong Road. Its speciality is custom-made furniture in all materials and fabrics such as leather and glass.

The two met when Ms Somjee's then five-year-old son attended Ms Gabriel's speech and drama class. Since Ms Gabriel started engaging Ms Somjee's services, the two women have become good friends.

In the 23 years that they have known each other, Ms Gabriel has always turned to Ms Somjee, 60, to fix up her place.

Familiar with Ms Gabriel's preference for the elegant, classic look, Ms Somjee has made some stunning furniture for her too.

The wooden legs on her bed were cut from a pillar in a 300-year-old house in Gujarat, India, that Ms Somjee found on her travels.

Says Ms Gabriel: "Whenever I needed something in my home, I call Mimi. She knows what I like and I trust her taste."

With a lease that comes up for renewal every two years, she is set on enjoying her space for as long as she can.

"I love my space and it's important to me because it's my sanctuary. After a long day at work or a night out, this is just so peaceful."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 3, 2013.To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to