‘80s Maisonette Turned Into a Minimalist White Haven for Two
While it has a sleek all-white look, this couple’s nest is anything but cold.
Minimalist homes, with their bare surroundings and clean-lined architecture, can sometimes come off as too sterile or even harsh. So, when Toke & Chen interior designer Julian Chen begun conceptualising the new look of this Hougang HDB maisonette with its owners – a couple in their late 20s – emphasis was placed on striking the right balance between “clean and cosy”.
Interior Firm: Toke & Chen
And as it turns out, taking the renovation in this direction was the right decision. “Our clients definitely enjoy the end result – there’s a nice balance between the style requirements that they gave us at the start,” says Julian.
“The plan was to have two distinct vibes [in the house] where the spaces on the lower level feel cleaner and more open while those on the upper floor have a warmer and cosier feeling to them.”
For instance, ground floor spaces, like the living room and kitchen, feature a minimalist, all-white look paired with industrial-style elements like cement surfaces. Conversely, the master bedroom and walk-in closet upstairs possess a much cosier vibe with wood accents and warm lighting to match the owners’ request for welcoming personal spaces.
Says Julian: “The whole intention was to create an impression that you’re stepping into a whole new space, so it definitely helps that this [house] is a maisonette.” Read on to find out what he means by this, and also to see what the entire home looks like!
About the design brief and the home’s new layout
Julian (J): Actually, renovating this maisonette was kind of an ambitious project because it’s very, very old. When the homeowners bought it, it was in a condition that you’d expect a home from the ‘80s to be in, so you can imagine the amount of legwork we had to do. Basically, things like running new wires, re-tiling as well as a lot of plastering and painting.
The home’s original floor plan.
Also, one thing that’s very prominent was the original staircase because it’s right in the middle of the first floor. It’s the first thing you see when you enter, so it was important for us to prioritise the impression and experience that it gives. But overall, the house definitely had potential – we just had to bring it out by revamping every aspect of it, including its flow and layout.
The new floor plan for the home’s first level.
For the first floor, one major change was the addition of the new mud room at the entryway. We built a partition wall between the mud room and the dining area to create a transition from a small, windowless area to a much more spacious one. Our goal was to introduce layers into the space and control the house's visual and experential sequencing, so that when visitors enter the bigger space, it would feel more impressive.
The dining area, which is separated from the mud room by a partition wall on the right.
The new floor plan for the home’s second level.
As for the second floor, we reconfigured its original ‘three-bedrooms-and-two-bathrooms’ layout to create a single master bedroom with a much larger en suite as well as a smaller study/guest room that also has its own attached bathroom. To accomplish this, basically what we did was hack away almost every single partition wall upstairs before building new boundaries to demarcate the expanded rooms.
The current kitchen entrance with the mud room’s exit beside it on the left.
About the kitchen’s makeover
Built-in cove lights cast a soft, warm glow onto the kitchen’s cold concrete laminates.
J: Regarding specific design requirements for the kitchen, the homeowners actually wanted it to have an open layout, but eventually, they decided to keep it as a closed-off space but with a larger entrance that has a recessed pocket door.
Also, right where one of the kitchen partition walls used to be, we built a new island that the homeowners can use as a dining table or a preparation counter; it’s placed neatly within the confines of the kitchen so that it doesn’t protrude into the walkway outside and isn’t too far from the rest of the counters.
Going further inside the kitchen, there are a pair of windows at the end. And to allow as much natural light to enter, all of the built-ins and appliances, including the refrigerator as well as the washer and dryer, were placed within nooks at the sides.
On the living room’s renovation
J: With the exception of the kitchen which has concrete-lookalike tiles, the entirety of the ground floor and the living area is covered in architectural cement flooring; it’s very different from usual cement screed flooring because it’s seamless and has a smooth, sateen-like finish, which makes it less likely to crack and release dust.
A pair of carousel doors were installed at the balcony for maximum ventilation and to create a unique look. “Functionally, they’re the same as sliding doors, but it’s all about the visual experience,” says Julian.
As for storage, there’s a concealed storeroom behind the TV wall; most people won’t notice the storeroom’s door because there’s only a thin seamline that’s barely visible, but it’s actually right beside the curtains.
The advantages of this low-key design are two-fold – on one hand, we’re able to create an almost unbroken visual flow in the living room and on the other, the whole space can be opened up without losing any of its storage functionality.
The original storeroom was located underneath the staircase, which is right beside the living room, but we demolished it, and had it replaced with the current one because the area it occupied could be put to better use as living space.
With the extra room, the owners were also able to get a long chaise lounge which helps in creating the illusion of a bigger space – the key here is elongation, elongation, and more elongation; the less visual breaks there are, the longer the room looks.
On making over the stairway
J: I’d say the overall intention that we had for the stairway was to turn it into a sculptural element which is able to anchor the entire first floor visually. But at the same time, we didn’t want it to appear too monolithic like a brutalist-style building, so we introduced a couple of breaks between the handles that ‘soften’ the structure.
In a way, these breaks are representative of the staircase’s role as a ‘bridge’ between not just the two levels of the home, but also the two different styles it has. It’s definitely easier to create such an impression in a maisonette because the physical action of walking up the stairs creates and reinforces the feeling that you’re entering a new space.
“Because this is a double-volume space, we added cove lighting as well to bring a touch of warmth,” says Julian.
About the study’s new look
J: Past the staircase, the study is the first room that you’ll see on the right, the renovation works done here were minimal and were mostly focused on balancing its functionality.
While the homeowners refer to it as a study, this room is configured to be a multi-purpose space that also serves as a home gym and an additional rest area for them. For example, the daybed at the side allows the homeowners to take a break after working at home or for them to utilise the space as a guest room when the need arises.
On the master bedroom and walk-in closet’s design
J: In terms of design elements, one of the biggest differences between the rooms upstairs and the ones downstairs is the abundance of wood surfaces. Because of its visual warmth, wood was an auto-include in the master bedroom to create a cosy feel, just like how cement screed surfaces are essential for the raw vibes of the communal spaces below.
Another noteworthy, but less noticeable feature of the master bedroom is its new false ceiling. I’d say it’s worth mentioning because one, it allows us to hide all of the exposed lighting cables, and two, enables a more curated lighting plan to be created, as opposed to having a single big ceiling lamp in the centre of the room.
In their brief to us, the homeowners also mentioned that they needed a space where it’s possible to both store and display their clothes. So, what we decided to build for them was a walk-in wardrobe that is its own room.
There’s a total of four see-through wardrobe units here, one in each corner of the room, plus a vanity that’s right smack in the middle. We felt this configuration works best in maximising the entire space, plus it also creates a symmetrical layout that’s consistent, regardless of whether you’re looking into the room or out of it.
On renovating the master en suite
J: What’s really special about the master en suite is actually the shower screen. Instead of designing it as a typical ‘four walls’ enclosure that cages you in, we created a vertical partition with a single piece of glass.
The reason for this unusual design is because we wanted the bathroom to feel big and open, but at the same time, it works perfectly because we actually experimented to see how wide the glass panel had to be so that it minimises the spread of the shower's spray.
Another feature that I’d like to draw attention to are the concealed windows. If you were to take a closer look at the floor plans, you’d see that there are actually three of them right where the vanity is. But to achieve the ‘hotel suite’ ambience, we hid them behind the bathroom mirrors.
There’s a tiny gap of about 20 – 25mm between the mirrors and windows – that’s where we installed ventilators to ensure sufficient airflow. And to complete the illusion, there’s cove lighting installed above the mirrors to disguise the access area.
To sum up
J: If you were to look at our portfolio, you'd notice that the design language of our projects typically leans towards the sleek, minimalistic side of things. We've received questions about why and how we broke away from our style to match the luxurious nature of this maisonette, but in our opinion, it still largely carries the same DNA as our other works.
To us, luxury doesn’t always have to be defined along conventional lines of being expensive or premium. Instead, it can also come from the richness of the overall living experience created. If what we’ve designed can better the lives of its users, then there’s value – and if there’s plenty of it, that to us, is luxury too.
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