Sunday, May 3, 2009

BTO: Kitchen talk

Business Times - 02 May 2009

Kitchen talk

For interior architect Selina Tay, the kitchen offers a delicious, nostalgia-ridden trail back to the past. By Clarissa Tan


SELINA Tay is offering salad for breakfast. The interior architect behind the new book Selina's Dream Kitchens, ensconced in her own elegant, expansive kitchen, gazes at you rather sceptically as you chomp a banana from her fruit basket. She looks as though she's worried it's not quite enough for your morning meal, and produces a fresh bowl of greens out of an impressive-looking Liebherr fridge.


'I always make salads for breakfast,' she says. 'I like a salad in the morning. I don't know why. I'm like a cow,' she adds, rolling her eyes in jest.


The salad, served in a light oil-based dressing, is very good, which is not surprising considering Ms Tay is almost as well-known for her love of cuisine, as she is for her passion for designing kitchens. She also offers you a variety of teas, coffee from a Nespresso machine neatly fitted into a sleek line of white cupboards, and some pink-coloured fruit juice. You hover round a gleaming black granite counter, which also doubles as a book ledge chock-full of titles such as Mrs Lee's Cookbook, Larousse Gastronomique and the Hamlyn Spice Book.


'I always design a house from the kitchen first,' says Ms Tay, who founded boutique interior design company Collective Designs in 1991. 'The kitchen is the heart of a family home. Everyone rallies round the kitchen. I have experienced people's lifestyles changing once they have a well-designed kitchen - they get closer, they spend more time together, they eat better.'


Friends and relatives certainly rally round Ms Tay's kitchen, where there's a get-together of some sort almost every week. She hosts a family gathering once a month in her two-storey Paya Lebar home, which she shares with three dogs and a parrot. A minimum of 30 relatives will troop in. (Mind you, with a kitchen of 180 sq ft that's connected to an equally spacious dining room, which in turn flows into the living area and an outdoor pool, they don't have to squeeze too much.)


Still, the kitchen is the nexus of the action, and her guests mill around the granite counter, generous Corian-topped surfaces, even a column into which Ms Tay has helpfully built a large flat-screen television, for those who can't bear to part with their football matches or the news.


Everything else is hidden - the wine glasses and water tumblers, when not in use, go into beautiful, starkly-grained cabinets of Australian red gum wood, the flatware is stacked into cupboards below the white work surfaces, cutlery into capacious drawers, appliances such as toasters and electric kettles into a storage space concealed by a scroll-up metal screen, and dry goods into a separate little room all their own. The drawers and cabinets are designed so that all their contents are in full view on opening, eliminating the need to fumble about for a bag of flour or a fork.


'Is your kitchen always this neat?' you ask, almost incredulously.


'Yes,' says Ms Tay, firmly.


The kitchen itself opens into a smaller area at the back, or the 'wet kitchen', where an industrial hob and oven takes pride of place, ready to roast up to four chickens or three turkeys at one go. This area also houses a commercial GE fridge and freezer, not to mention a giant sink. We are talking serious entertaining equipment here. Outside in the garden, there's a large Weber barbecue grill and a small plot of land dedicated to growing herbs and vegetables such as limau perut, ladies' fingers, rosemary, blue ginger and pepper.


For Ms Tay, kitchens offer a delicious, nostalgia-ridden trail back to the past. Raised in a family of eight children, she remembers sitting around a crowded dining table, digging into her mother's unbeatable Peranakan fare. Mum also made sure her youngest daughter did her share of domestic chores, and Ms Tay fondly remembers peeling taugeh for the household at East Coast Road. 'I loved organising the home for everybody,' she recalls. 'It's like I was born to do what I'm doing now.'


So what was her mother's kitchen like? 'Wah, messy,' says Ms Tay, laughing. 'It wasn't a kitchen per se, like so many cooking areas of that time. I remember that everything - the counter tops, the tables - was laminated in green. We also had those foldable wooden tables, you know, with the laminated patterned tops. And the floor was mosaic, though not like the mosaic we have now, which is of a better quality.'


She spends a few minutes reminiscing on old Singaporean kitchens, with their net-fronted food cupboards and general makeshift air. In fact, she once designed a kitchen with the kind of apple-green work surfaces that reminded her of her childhood. This kitchen is one of the 28 featured in Selina's Dream Kitchens, a 132-page coffee-table tome published by Epigram Books and written by financial adviser and Ms Tay's client, Monica Gwee.


The book is about modern kitchens, but has a short section in front on the evolution of the Singapore kitchen, noting how it has changed from the days when its main feature was a ventilated wooden cabinet, with legs raised on stone cups filled with water to deter ants. Pots and crockery, the book continues, were stored in the upper shelf and live chickens in the lower compartment. It also remarks that despite the dramatic changes, most local kitchens are still divided into 'wet' and 'dry' areas, the former for the wok and deep frying, the latter for the microwave and oven.


The book also makes interesting mention of a client who did not want a dining table because she doesn't cook (Tay designed her a table-height marble counter instead), another kitchen owner who wanted to arrange the 'wet' and 'dry' areas according to geomancy rules (the sink and the hob had to be swapped for feng shui reasons) and a pet-lover who had a dog hatch installed between her kitchen and the rest of the apartment to prevent her pooch from entering while she was cooking.


Ms Tay's kitchens today are as sleek as you please, almost like an antidote to the more chaotic cooking spaces of yore. She says she would like to do 'country-style' kitchens, with warm, earthy colours and a more rustic feel, but she feels that cool hues and smooth surfaces make more sense in tropical Asia, where the kitchen is something of a refuge from the hot weather.


'Imagine if you have a kitchen that was all oranges and reds,' she says. 'It would be like walking into an oven.'


Ms Tay's kitchen definitely makes a welcome sanctuary, but you realise that there are other spaces in her home, and ask for a tour. She whizzes you into her living room, waiting room and TV room, all of which are done in the same clean, elegant, monochromatic manner. Lots of art adorn her walls, with the living area displaying several Salvador Dalis and a Miro, and her entrance-way sporting two figurine sculptures in red and grey by XieAige.


Out in her garden, apart from the spruced lawns, herb plot and barbecue implements, there hangs a punching bag - 'Yes, I kick-box' - and a bicycle pole with several mountain bikes.


Still, you get the feeling that the kitchen is where her heart is, just as she feels the kitchen is the heart of every home. The interior architect clocks in 10 to 12 hours a day, visiting clients' homes and overseeing her factory which manufactures the materials she uses, in a job she feels she is meant to do.


'I ask so many questions before I design a kitchen,' she says. 'How many people live here? Are they old or young? How often do they cook and entertain? What kind of cooking do they do? Who cooks it? How do they go about their day?


'It's about people. It's about the life of a family.'


Selina's Dream Kitchens, by Monica Gwee, is published by Epigram Books (132 pages, $40)

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