There is a danger, in our contemporary, perfection-obsessed world, that we lose sight of what is real, and lived and lovely. I'm certainly guilty of sharing only the prettier parts of my home and life on digital platforms. Unfortunately, I think this quest for aesthetic perfection means we don't get to peek inside the beautiful spaces created by everyday people like us.
I have been to so many gorgeous homes that reflect the individuality of their owners, but these lovely spaces are not the kinds I see featured in magazines. Whilst I love to see editorial content, I also want to see inside homes that are cherished and loved by the special people who created them. More importantly, I want to know why the homes have evolved as they have, and what they mean to the people who live there.
My family have agreed this may be an interesting journey, and to share their homes here. We were all in various stages of lockdown when we put together these stories, so please forgive the limitations of the photography. They also live thousands of miles away from me, and from each other, so these homes are interesting examples of how different environments shape different interiors.
First up, my brother, who lives in KL. Shortly after we collaborated on this story he and his family moved into a new place, so it's poignant that these images capture a particular time of their lives.
This Mont Kiara apartment is home to Michael and Sarah, who work for IKEA, and their teenage son, Charlie. It has four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a large open-plan living area and a wraparound balcony. Mont Kiara is in the heart of the Klang Valley in northwest Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
As expats living overseas, Michael and Sarah have learnt the importance of creating a home, wherever that may be. Expat accommodation is usually a rental property taken on a relatively short tenure, which means all the interior magic must come from possessions, rather than a transformation of the fabric of the building.
Sarah and Michael have made beautiful homes in many different places: a flat on the coast near Newcastle upon Tyne and a Northumbrian farmhouse in England, a Georgian townhouse in Leith, Edinburgh, and a large apartment in Kobe, Japan. Each place has influenced the next as they learnt what works best for them and their son, Charlie.
‘When we looked at this apartment, we were under a lot of pressure; we viewed several places in half a day and had to make a decision quickly,’ Michael reflects. ‘What instantly struck us about this apartment was its quality of light. Many of the rooms open on to the balcony, which makes the rooms feel very open.’
Having lived in an apartment in Japan, they were determined to find a home in Malaysia that had a better connection to the exterior. ‘We loved the living space in our Kobe home,’ says Sarah. ‘However, the balcony didn’t get much sunshine and we didn’t use it a great deal. Living there could sometimes feel claustrophobic.’
Malaysia enjoys an equatorial climate, so the weather in Kuala Lumpur is hot and humid all year round. Being able to use the large balcony has been critical to the family’s sanity during the Covid19 pandemic; they have spent most of the past 12 months working and studying from home. The balcony has room for lots of plants, seating areas and a much-used barbeque spot.
‘Having that outdoor space has been so useful during lockdown. It separates us,'' says Michael. ‘When we are inside at night time, we like to leave the curtains open and to look out on to lamp light and candles. It feels cosy and stops us feeling closed in.’
The apartment has a modern, Scandinavian feel. The main living area contains a lounge space, a dining area, the kitchen and a study area. While it flows seamlessly from one area to another, Michael and Sarah were keen to create separate zones for different functions.
‘The rug in the dining room creates a focal point for that space. We also added the floor to ceiling shelving unit to the edge of that area as a way of partitioning off the study area without losing the flow of light,’ Michael notes. ‘It separates the space and gives us the opportunity to display some of our favourite pieces, too.’
Sarah and Michael both have a keen eye for design and style, and love to pair contemporary pieces with vintage finds. They use occasional pops of intense colour and darker accents to punctuate an otherwise white, bright, and neutral palette.
‘We have a lot of IKEA furniture, mixed with older pieces,’ Sarah observes. ‘Most of the antiques or vintage furniture weren’t hugely expensive, but they have interesting stories to tell. They remind us of special places in our lives. Almost everything has a sentimental value.’
Michael adds, ‘We have a lot of Asian finds…some of which we gathered before we left the UK. We were already influenced by Japanese and Chinese style before we came here.’
The couple concede to a mild chair obsession. ‘We are at the ‘one chair in, one chair out’ stage,’ Sarah laughs. ‘Michael has a tendency to impulse buy, so we had to put a cap on it!’ Having said that, many of the chairs are links to previous lives and precious memories.
The scarlet chair that underpins the gallery wall is actually an antique commode that Michael painted. ‘We found it in the back lane of our Tyneside terrace,’ Michael says with a smile. ‘I love that we found it, that it was free, it’s old, and that it’s also a bit like a throne!’ The pot that the chair contained is now housing a plant on the dividing shelves.
1. What do you want this house to say about you?
Michael: Even though it’s not a forever home, it’s super important that it feels like home. I want people to think, ‘this is a cool place. It’s interesting.’ I’d like to inspire people a bit.
Sarah: Most of our possessions tell a story of who we are and where we have been. We have lots of family photos around us—probably more than if we lived near our family.
2. Which is your favourite room in this house and why?
Michael: I like the living room, a space with the big ‘L’ shaped sofa. I like lounging on that with Sarah and Charlie, relaxing, watching TV, while having candles and the dimmable lamps on.
Michael: We had an impromptu cocktail night here a while ago. It started at 6 pm and didn’t finish until 2 am…the spaces worked really well together. Some people stayed out on the balcony, others sat at the breakfast bar. It was a fantastic evening.
Sarah: I like the interactive aspect of the kitchen…even though the storage is badly designed, I like being able to see the whole living area while I’m busy at the breakfast bar. This space is so much better than the Japanese kitchen we used to have, which was tucked away around a corner. It didn’t have a window and cooking in there felt like being in a prison.
3. Which domestic luxury can’t you bear to be without?
Sarah: We both love candles, and we always have a special fragrance in our essential oil burner. Our favourite is ‘Catherine’ by Aesop, which is made up of orange, cedar and clove. Scent is one of the most important ways we create a sense of home. Christmas, for example, will forever be associated with ‘Noel’ by Crabtree and Evelyn, which Michael’s Mum used each year until it was discontinued.
Michael: Lighting is crucial to making a home feel special. Looking at apartments in Japan and Malaysia, I’ve noticed that many people are satisfied with cold, blue overhead lighting from a single light source, which is not cosy or comfortable. We like to use lots of different lighting to change the mood of a space. Warm, white light from overhead downlights is practical, but it can be harsh if it isn’t diffused by other lighting. We have used a lot of floor and table lamps to create gentle pools of light at different levels.
4. Tell me about your favourite piece of furniture or decorative object. Sarah: I love the Balinese cabinet and all our big plants, both inside and out.
Michael: My Dad’s Leica camera, and the three box cameras he collected. I also love the three turquoise blue Thai temple dogs on the dividing shelves. We have some lovely Japanese artwork that we collected when we lived there. With each of these pieces it’s not about their financial value. It’s about beauty and sentiment.
5. If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would it be and why?
Michael: I’d choose an old cottage in the Scottish Highlands. I’d renovate it so that it looked traditional from the front and add a huge glass wall that overlooked hills or a body of water to the rear. I’d open the contemporary space on to decking to embrace the outside.
Sarah: I’d love a Georgian townhouse in Edinburgh, close to the city centre. It would have three stories and a big staircase. On the ground floor I’d have huge bi-fold doors opening on to a garden.
The last word
Michael: Making a home comes naturally to us. It’s a passion. Some people find it a chore or uninteresting. For us, the joy that our objects bring us is so important; they are like the clothes you choose or the watch you wear. Once your house is in a good place, your mind is in a good place. Home is the place that keeps you alive.
Sarah: My Dad died recently. When I went back to England to be with my Mum, she wanted to make some changes to her home. She wanted to change it to reflect how she lived, and how she felt about the future. They were quite simple changes, but they made a big difference. Creating a home is also about control. It can set your mind and the tone of your mood.