It was first a sausage factory. Then it became a photography studio and post-production office, then went unoccupied for a while before Matthew Elton and his partner Mark spotted the "For Lease" sign and turned it into a stunning shophouse that they call home now.
"We've been here for just over a year. We moved to the shophouse in May of 2014.
Before that we were staying in a condo, which was very boring," says Matthew, who just recently launched HotLotz, an innovative new auction house that offers Singaporeans an exciting new way to buy, sell and collect premium furniture and interior decorative items (HotLotz has a weekly live auction every Saturday morning at 10am offering an eclectic range of internationally and locally-sourced items.).
Condo living didn't suit these Western expats who wanted to live like the locals.
"If you are going to live in someone else's country, you have to get down and meet people. When I was living in the condo, I didn't even know the people living on our floor. Our place could've been anywhere. If you are going to live in someone else's country, you have to explore and integrate," says Matthew.
And what could be more Singaporean than settling down in an old shophouse?
Just like what the couple wanted, their shophouse on Everton Road is at the cross-point of Singapore's signature old-meets-new living...it has a view of the Everton Park HDB, the towering The Pinnacle@Duxton, and is surrounded by other Chinatown shophouses.
"Everton Road is an amazing street. That's why we decided to lease it. We have a great landlord, and he gave us a fair rent. He also agreed for us to do the renovation," Matthew says.
Matthew and Mark had one month to renovate before moving in. Because the shophouse was a commercial establishment before, there was no kitchen and bathroom, and it was divided into small spaces with jet-black windows.
"There wasn't anything really," Matthew points out. And the shophouse is big. It measures at 5,500 square ft., making renovation a gargantuan undertaking.
"The challenge was, this place is huge, and I wanted to open the spaces up," says Matthew.
"Another challenge was to keep it cheap. It's only a rented space, so it made sense to renovate on a budget," Matthew adds. The couple set a $65,000 budget for renovation.
Fortunately, the renovation was a smooth process.
Their contractor was like a gift-he understood the space and made all the necessary renovations. "They're fabulous. I would draw pictures and they would do it," Matthew recalls.
They built the bathroom and kitchen on the ground floor first, changed all the windows, painted the walls and the ceiling beams, carved out spaces on the second floor.
They also peeled all layers of wood on the floor to reveal decades-old tiles, which Matthew decided to keep. A practical choice, since there was 5,500 square feet of floor area to deal with.
Without any interior designer to guide him, Matthew worked his creative mojo and trusted his gut and made the place personal and homey.
The result? A spacious and stylish area that now stands as the home for the couple and their rescued cat affectionately named "Baby Thing," and doubles as the default get-together destination for the couple's friends.
The ground floor-which Matthew refers to as the "public" part of the house-holds the spacious dining room that is the first thing that welcomes you when you enter the shophouse. Here, you see the round dining table right smack in the middle of the room, jutting forth like a centrepiece.
An entryway from the dining room leads to the open-plan layout that reveals the living room and kitchen. The open and undivided space and the retained original structure of the ceilings and the floor hint at the New York warehouse feel that Matthew was gunning for. Such big spaces call for big items, which explains the presence of a huge console table and a projector TV in the living room, and the oversized kitchen island and feature wall in the kitchen.
"The thing with a big room is you need something big to jump at you," says Matthew.
Upstairs is a different story. "The second floor is the private floor," says Matthew. What was once a massive open layout is now compartmentalised into various intimate spaces: the den, the home office, the tropical-style bathroom, the bedrooms, and the balcony-turned-guestroom.
Here is where you fully grapple Matthew's eclectic taste, thanks to the mix of styles all over the space: the Rajasthan door, the Oriental-style console table, and African paintings set against the wall.
Even the bathroom has a hint of Balinese influence. Matthew affirms, "It's an eclectic house. It's a hodgepodge of styles. You have a midcentury table in the dining room and Peranakan feature wall on the ground floor. Upstairs, you have Indian, Chinese, African, Balinese," says Matthew.
"To make a quite clean interior in this very old building…[this was my purpose]. I can't say that this is art deco or American…it's a hodgepodge."
Geometric styles (" I like clean lines but I like historic buildings") and patterns also figure largely in his home, all beautifully complementing the interplay of colours and textures.
Matthew is proud to admit that "all our furniture is secondhand, all came from the auction house. We made the most out of Ikea cabinets by putting different finishes over them. Plus, we use a lot of plywood, concrete, paint. All materials are cheap. There's no marble in this house...nothing fancy at all."
What mattered to Matthew was building a home that is cosy.
"I didn't set out to create a feel. I just made a house that's comfortable using a very small budget," says Matthew."
"We like living in it. It's not perfect, but you have to accept the limitations of living in an old house as well. I love the fact that there's light everywhere, there's people wandering, there's always something to look at out the window."
This shophouse was a far cry from his condo living-a fact that Matthew appreciates the most. Here, he and Mark are part of the community, integrated into a neighbourhood that suggests true Singaporean living.
"We definitely feel like we're part of the community here. The nicest thing about living here is we don't feel like a bunch of stupid expats living in this town. I hated that. We're so lucky to have this home. I just feel that we're just taking this amazing building for another experience. The building will outlive all of us. We're just its caretakers during the time we're here. And hopefully we've renovated it in a way that keeps true to its bones but makes it more relevant for 21st century life," Matthew beams.
Type of property: Shophouse
Total space: 5,500 square ft.
Duration of renovation: One month
Cost of renovation: $65,000
Matthew's Renovation Tips:
Have a big picture.
"I think you have to have the big picture. Don't think about the small things.
You have to get the big stuff right first, and the little stuff will just come. You have to look at the space and understand how to use that space. Like our kitchen, our kitchen is a strange kitchen.
But if I have two kids and I am constantly moving between the sink and the dishwasher, I would have a different kitchen. So you have to design for your life."
"If you see things that you like, follow your gut. Don't go away and mull over it forever. Just go with it. Trust your instinct."
"I think if you're relaxed about renovating, everyone is relaxed around you. At the end of the day, no one is going to die if [there is a mistake]. It's all about communication."
"Renovating is all about good planning and making sure you have what you need on site so it can be done. There's no magic trick here-you just have to be organised."
And finally … consider buying at auction.
"You'll be amazing at the pre-loved gems you can discover!" HotLotz holds a regular 'Antiques & Interiors' Auction at 10am every Saturday. For details, visit www.hotlotz.com.