Outram's furniture shop

From the outside, it is hard to tell that the 15-storey Tan Boon Liat Building (below) in Outram Road is actually a hot spot with local furniture hunters.

The building is a no-nonsense light- industrial complex, with the uniform design of old HDB flats.

Inside, it is a different story.

There are more than 10 boutique showrooms, selling well-curated pieces from modern, European luxury to one-off pieces sourced from a junkyard in northern India, earning the building the reputation of being Singapore's unofficial "Furniture Mall".

For contemporary furniture, lighting and home accessories, you could go to Pomelo and Make Room.

Vintage-lovers can browse shops such as Singapore Trading Post, which has a century-old Rajasthan mirror with a carved frame for $1,900.

No wonder that customers from all over the island are driving there to check out the eclectic mix of shops.

Ms Constanze Hohmann, 43, a former customer who now runs FairPrice Antique on the ground floor, offering products with a touch of chinoiserie, says Tan Boon Liat is a good alternative to mainstream furniture shops.

The German expatriate, who bought over the store in January, says: "These brands cater to different tastes and budgets. Home owners often go to furniture chain Ikea for basic furniture, but they'll come here for the highlights."

Furniture brands are attracted by the cheaper rental and spacious units which can range between 2,000 sq ft and 6,000 sq ft.

While tenants declined to talk about their rental rates, Mr Eugene Lim, key executive officer at real estate firm ERA Singapore, says "asking rents are $3 to $3.50 a square foot a month" - much lower than the monthly $20 to $30 a square foot at the nearby People's Park area in Chinatown.

The attractive rental is continuing to draw newcomers.

New tenants include Singapore Trading Post, which was previously in Pasir Panjang and moved in last November.

Bode Fabrics & Furnishings, a fabric store that used to operate out of owner Jenny Lewis' home in Eng Neo Avenue, will open at the end of next month with a space for rug specialist Vantage Concept.

Mrs Jo Harrison, 47, who started Singapore Trading Post with business partner Rob Pendergrast in 2013, says she was drawn to set up the 1,200 sq ft shop because of the growing group of similar businesses there.

"Coming here is like going on a treasure hunt. You have to start on the 10th or 11th floor, then make your way down.

On some levels, you might find something interesting; other levels, you might find nothing at all. It's not like going to a mall. It's kookier and more fun."

Apart from furniture and accessories labels, The Providore draws foodies to its 4,500 sq ft retail-cum-warehouse space on the fifth floor, while creative- technology lab The Ching Chong Group on the 11th floor and design studio imajin one level above lend a creative vibe to the space.

Details of the building's origins are scant. The land owners received permission in 1971 to build a flatted factory with offices and stores. It drew furniture stores early on.

For example, back in 1994, Straits Curious, which offered colonial and ethnic South-east Asian antique furniture, set up a showroom there.

Later, in 2009, five shops moved out of the Dempsey Road enclave, following a huge jump in the rental there, into Tan Boon Liat Building. Of the five, three have stayed put.

They are Jehan Gallery, an Oriental carpet and rug store; Journey East, a vintage, recycled teak and outdoor furniture shop; and Red House, which sells antiques and does custom-made furniture.

Mrs Winnie Chua, 55, managing director of Red House, has stayed partly because of manageable rental.

Her showroom has a 6,000 sq ft space on the ground floor.

It offers a wide variety of products ranging from a $30 glass ornament to a $200,000 dining set of six chairs and a table, all made of the highly prized huanghuali wood.

But the days of cheap rent may not last much longer.

When the Havelock MRT station on the upcoming Thomson-East Coast Line opens, likely to be in 2021, rental prices are expected to go up too, given that Tan Boon Liat Building will be more accessible to foot traffic, says ERA Singapore's Mr Lim.

Increased interest from other furniture shops may also drive up rents.

Already, some brands are feeling the heat.

Wood & Wood Flooring, a manufacturer, supplier and retailer of wood flooring on the 11th floor, is moving out in August as its landlord wants to raise rent prices.

Its director of sales and marketing Brendon Goh, 31, says: "Demand has grown a lot from lifestyle stores who want to open up here. The rental is attractive and is hard to get for this amount of space compared with, say, a shop in town.

"We were one of the first few in the building and have seen visitor traffic increase, especially on weekends.

"But the rent increase is a huge jump for us. It doesn't make business sense for us to stay," says Mr Goh, who has been there for seven years. Wood & Wood Flooring will move to an industrial unit in Henderson.

For now, however, the stores are banding together to help visitors navigate the building.

They have come up with a store directory indicating the floor each showroom is on. Owners even direct customers to other stores if they do not carry a particular item.

Ms Anita Sam, 50, who owns Journey East, one of the first few in the building, says: "I'm not worried about competition because you'll do as well as your product offering.

Plus, we've had a good clientele base even before we moved here, so they know where to find us."

Ms Apple Koh, 29, a relations manager for a non-profit organisation, gives the stores at Tan Boon Liat Building two thumbs up.

Through a recommendation, she made a trip down to visit Pomelo, but stumbled on other showrooms there.

She says: "I'm not after a designer replica or generic furniture or styles, but rather pieces with a distinct point of view, which I think the shops here have.

"I find the sellers here are able to tell you about the history of the piece well. Their products also gave me a lot of ideas about things I thought wouldn't work, but actually did."



This article was first published on April 18, 2015.
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