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February 2, 2019

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Relevance of history and importance of solid materials

AFTER having lived in 12 cities in three continents over the past 14 years, Neima Sitawi found it essential to be true to her old school values on solid materials and historic relevance. It was the principle that she applied to her current home in Singapore.

“I was raised by my parents to always value historic architecture and natural materials. Whether it be our palazzo home in Bologna, our lane house in Shanghai or our shophouse in Singapore, a period vintage home will always be my first priority,” the American fashion designer said.

In her opinion, living in conjunction with history makes for a genuine local experience, just as much as eating the local food or meeting the local designers.

“This particular property in Singapore has a very deep historical importance. Emerald Hill Road is one of the most famous roads in Singapore as it used to be a part of the rolling green hills of the spice plantations, particularly nutmeg,” she said.

After the insect blight that destroyed the crops, and consequently, the catalyst for the exit of the colonial European plantation owners, the structures were taken over by the Peranakan people. The Chinese traders and local Malay businesspeople worked hard to become an economically successful segment of the local population, operating out of their “shophouses” on Emerald Hill and other areas of Singapore.

“The architecture, in particular, combines European colonial style with intricate Malay wood carving detail as well as typical Chinese concept of co-living and co-working spaces.

“I was lucky enough to absorb the beautiful architectural renovation done by the Goei family, owners of the Conservation Homes group, who are responsible for the renovations and preservation of historic buildings in Singapore,” Sitawi said.

Sitawi’s interior design style is very eclectic and respectful of a few key elements — natural materials, modern vintage, rustic international, abstract art and fine ceramics. “My interiors tell the story of my family — as a mixed-race person, married to an Italian, living and working from the same environment.”

As a fashion designer, Sitawi receives her clients and hosts her design presentations in the “showroom” front room. The main living room is more of a showcase to visitors.

“I tell the story of a family who has traveled far and away, collecting artifacts from the various places. It shows non-pretentious and passionate art collections as well as an attention to genuine quality. It also shows an open-mindedness and a unique world vision: Asian, European and African art and artifacts throughout history — a harmonious mix of antique and modern without foregoing the functional design elements,” she said.

The dining room is more functional and is very minimal in design. “Food is a very important subject in our family. The table is where we unite, connect, argue, cry and laugh. Stories are told, troubles exposed and plans are made at our table. For this, it is imperative that we don’t take too much attention away from such an important ‘conference room,’” she said.

A few of her personal paintings and art installations pepper the walls sparingly. For example, her wall installation of pan-African basket designs — modern and ethnic at the same time.

The handmade, re-purposed train boxcar that is their dining table serves as the protagonist of their dining experience.

The master bedroom is very special. It is at the front of the house on the second floor and has its own balcony. “Every morning we wake up to the sun-kissed walls and the smell of massive frangipani tree outside our bedroom window. There is an authentic Indonesian Baldaquin, four-poster teak bed and an antique Peranakan wardrobe. The room truly feels noble and local.”

On furniture, Sitawi said they pick pieces that they like during their travels around the world.

“We buy the furniture in places we live and we tend to buy the décor in the places we visit. It is very hard to pick a favorite style of furniture. I guess I’m particularly fond of the intricacies of handmade Asian furniture, be it a Ming Dynasty Chinese cabinet, a Peranakan wardrobe, an ornate Indian mirror carving or a bronze Vietnamese rain drum.

“I think, in small quantities, there is great beauty in seeing the handicrafts of different cultures without overbearing the space,” she said. “If I were the inventor of titles for ‘styles,’ I would call my furniture style ‘curated, modern-vintage travel eclectic.’”

She is big on neutral colors because it allows space to play with contrast. She prefers cognac, cream, chocolate contrasted with sage, senape okra or salmon coral.

“The entire house is a highlight. Shophouses are all characterized by large rooms and open atrium in the center of the house, giving it a gallery effect. Shophouses also all have a ‘water feature’ to respect the ancient concepts of fengshui, bringing a sound of running water in the living room,” she said.

“Our home also has a small bubble fountain in the center of a large pond in the main room. The reflection of the sun on the water from the window 8 meters above gives a magical and peaceful effect any time of the day and that feeds my soul.”

Most paintings hung on the walls are Sitawi’s own works of art either acrylic or oil. “Each painting represents a nostalgia for the country I had lived in. For example, the coral and salmon painting I have in the living room is a painting I created while living in Shanghai yet based on my reflections and experiences in the terra-cotta city of Bologna, Italy.

“Many have shown interest in purchasing my work but I am very connected to each painting and would only consider abandoning to the right person — very similar to a parent parting with their child in matrimony,” she said.

In her opinion, what makes a home cozy is the care and genuine humanity that the owner breathes into their rooms with intent.

“It’s not enough to just collect items in life and throw them on a shelf. A cozy home is a home that tells a story; a home that expresses an intimacy, a secret. When you invite someone into your home it is a privilege. They are getting one step closer to your heart and thus it is our duty to provide them with another piece of our immense human puzzle.”

Ask The Owner

Q: What’s the best thing about living in Singapore?

A: Discovering the small, architectural neighborhoods that are peppered with authentic boutiques and unique dining experiences.


Q: Describe your home in three words.

A: Spacious, curated and authentic


Q: What’s the first thing you do when you get home?

A: Take off my shoes and take a deep breath to assess the vibe.


Q: How do you unwind?

A: I like having a glass of wine on the rooftop while listening to jazz classics or bassanova.


Q: Where do you spend most of the time at home?

A: In my design studio upstairs or in my living room


Q: What’s the view outside your window?

A: Frangipani trees and beautiful shophouse architecture


Q: What’s your favorite object at home?

A: My paintings


Q: Where do you source furniture?

A: France, Italy, China and Southeast Asia


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