Interior designs and furnishings done the Malaysian way 

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Where to look, what to do and how to spend

By Vignswar Rajasurian vignes@thestar.com.my

A modern take on a chillout corner inspired by the rattan furniture that we are so used to growing up in Malaysia. Image by The Makeover Guys.

A modern take on a chillout corner inspired by the rattan furniture that we are so used to growing up in Malaysia. Image by The Makeover Guys.

It hardly needs to be said that Malaysia is a rich melting pot of various ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity. A blend of local Asian cultures, Middle Eastern influences linked to religion and western remnants from its colonial past can be seen in the local cultures, cuisine, language and even architecture. Interior design should be no exception.

Yet think of interior design today and the most common go to options that crop up here are contemporary, mid-century modern, minimalist, industrial or Scandinavian themes. If these themes suit your abode, then consider tastefully blending it with local influences to infuse a unique Malaysianesque vibe. Alternatively, you may opt to splurge on a more singular Malaysian look such as a Baba-Nyonya themed interior.

Choosing a concept, finding inspiration

Defining what embodies a Malaysian concept of interior designs and furnishings drew varied responses. Fittingly so, given interior design as an art form, should not be confined to narrow interpretations and Malaysian culture may be construed as an amalgamation of various ethnic influences.

A modern interpretation utilising Baby-Nyonya elements, done by Docs Interior Sdn Bhd.

A modern interpretation utilising Baby-Nyonya elements, done by Docs Interior Sdn Bhd.

That being said, a dedicated Malaysian design theme is found thanks to the Peranakan culture, or fondly known as Baba-Nyonya. The Baba-Nyonya culture features hints of Javanese /Batak and European (Dutch, Portuguese and British) influences. Still, customs and traditions are mainly attributed to interracial marriages between Chinese immigrants settling down in the Straits of Malacca and the Malay community.

A unique blend of East meets West, an eclectic Baba-Nyonya interior space exudes a rich heritage, charm and opulence - befitting of scenes of the Young family ancestral home at Tyersall Park from the movie Crazy Rich Asians.

“Heritage mansion and shophouses are a great example to refer to for the Eclectic Baba Nyonya design style. The design and architecture are like a living book for everyone to study. Everything from floor tiles, wooden furniture and valuable antique decor collections,” said Ong Wei Shen, creative director of Docs Interior Sdn Bhd - an interior design studio based in Penang.

Ong suggested applying local cultures to interior design.

Ong suggested applying local cultures to interior design.

Other segments of the community may prefer a Malaysian style entwined with Islamic design styles. An Islamic design is typically derived from Arabic or Middle Eastern origins. Still, it may arguably be said to evolve locally to suit Malaysian preferences when infused with elements of the Malay culture. Inspired to bring these design languages into their homes, some combine Islamic geometrical motives with Khat calligraphy or batik textures.

Depending on preferences, these interior spaces can range from more traditional looks or be modern and luxurious. Sharifah Azlinda is the vice-managing director of Cantikwall, a company that provides interior design consultation, furnishing options and flooring solutions. She offers a few pointers in achieving an Islamic inspired living space.

A mini-surau at home with lasercut partitions, wainscot and geometric rugs made by Cantikwall.

A mini-surau at home with lasercut partitions, wainscot and geometric rugs made by Cantikwall.

“Structure wise such as for builtin furnishings, the application of lasercut panels on walls or as a partition is an option. Geometrical design for rugs, especially Moroccan pattern, offers a soft touch, but ultimately create a focal point and wow factor (with right materials and colour selection).

“For cabinetry, a good balance of carving finishes, glass and stones would create the Islamic identity in the home. Soft furnishings such as vases can go for multicolour geometrical design of pastel colours, while for textiles of the sofa, can go with fabrics such as velvet. Calligraphy can be used for walls and some other places like on the cabinet,” she said.

“If we’re talking about traditional Malaysian themed home, a tropical element is a crucial part of the home furnishing,” said Aina Syafiqah, a decorator and visual merchandiser at Ruma Home Sdn Bhd. Ruma Home specialises in designing contemporary and home furniture that ideally represents the urban, modern and cosmopolitan flavours. For example, complement pieces of wooden furniture with the natural texture of rattan and elements of green plants can be part of the decoration. These elements combined will create the look and feel of a Malaysian home.

“The prestigious architecture of Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad, the beautiful traditional home of Minangkabau, authentic shophouses in Melaka and Penang, unique colour and ornaments of Pasar Seni in KL or intricate colours and patterns of our own Malaysian’s handicraft Kain Batik or Songket: Each has its own story to tell and own unique character, and so will your personal home,” she said on seeking design cues.

Mix and match different wood tones and textures into your selection. (Image by Ruma Home)

Mix and match different wood tones and textures into your selection. (Image by Ruma Home)

The Makeover Guys founder Gavin Liew echoes her sentiment on drawing inspiration from our surroundings. The Makeover Guys specialise in quick and cost-effective makeovers for properties to ease rentability. The process includes an area analysis along with tenant profiling to predict which interiors work best for which properties. On the other hand, its sister company Easyhome focuses more on personalisation and owner preferences since the homes will be owner-occupied as opposed to being rented out.

“My take on the first step of drawing inspiration for a Malaysian themed interior design is to decide on our own interpretation of what represents Malaysia,” said Liew. “Art is about expressing our imagination. How would you imagine a Malaysian themed interior to be? What defines a Malaysian theme? Is it a widely used symbol, or a subtle nostalgic representation of things we experience growing up as a Malaysian. There are no hard rules.

“Some might express the Malaysian spirit with the Hibiscus. Some with our Wau Bulan. Batik prints? Nasi Lemak? Lat comic strips? Our multicultural, traditional clothes? Our sports legends? There are many things unique to our beautiful country and each of these can lay the foundation of our creative direction,” he said.

Makeover for rental properties

“Long gone are the days when four walls and roof is all that’s needed to rent out your properties. In today’s era where people crave instant gratification, the demand for good rental properties is on the rise”, said Liew. The abundant supply of properties available make the market more challenging and landlords need to drive a value proposition to differentiate from the competition.

Subtle touches such as a snack bar filled with nostalgic snacks Malaysians grew up with lend to the look. (Image by The Makeover Guys.)

Subtle touches such as a snack bar filled with nostalgic snacks Malaysians grew up with lend to the look. (Image by The Makeover Guys.)

The problem is exacerbated in investment properties that have recently undergone vacant possession and rental units flood the market. Rather than competing in a price war with landlords offering similar units, a smarter alternative would be to offer better value and differentiate your unit. From a tenant’s perspective, a furnished unit requires less cash outlay.

Besides the rental and utility deposits, tenants would have to fork out an upfront cost for furnishings and transportation for unfurnished units. However, the need for a makeover of your investment property is not a ticket to go crazy with furnishings and designs. Designing and furnishing your own home may be up to personal preferences, but when it comes to rental properties, the key is to predict what people want and need successfully.

He believes there are four prime factors to consider when designing and furnishing rental units - design, cost, time and risks. “What you’re designing today may be home to many different people over the next few years. What’s really important here is to choose designs and colour tones which are generally deemed ‘safer’ and have mass appeal.

Liew believes people buy with emotions.

Liew believes people buy with emotions.

“Neutral tones work best as they are evergreen and widely accepted. Different colours can have a different meaning to various cultures over the world, so it’s best to avoid it unless you’re pretty certain who you are serving,” he added. Since these homes are investments to begin with, everything is also costsensitive, Liew said.

The key is to find a good balance of aesthetics, costs, and practicality. Each day spent on furnishings is also lost revenue for the owner because the unit is left vacant and is not generating income. In general, four to six weeks spent on makeover is reasonable. It is also undeniable that there are risks involved with rental properties.

Liew recommended engaging a service provider for insurance coverage for negligence and malicious damages to your property and furnishings. If that isn’t an option, then find cheaper alternatives for furniture as even pricier and more sturdy furnishings will be prone to negligent use and tenant abuse.

Budgets and priorities

A simple budgeting checklist to help break down the complexities of furnishing an entire home.

A simple budgeting checklist to help break down the complexities of furnishing an entire home.

It’s easy to get carried away when embarking on interior designs, so setting a budget would be prudent unless you
plan  to amass a collection of decor and furnishings over a long period. “Baba-Nyonya design style definitely requires a higher cost to achieve compared to other design styles. We would say it is equivalent to some of the design styles that require genuine designer collections.

Be bold by combining traditional and modern pieces for your own unique personal style. (Image by Ruma Home)

Be bold by combining traditional and modern pieces for your own unique personal style. (Image by Ruma Home)

“Time and cost of collecting antique wooden furniture are always unpredictable. There might be an additional cost to refinish old wooden furniture too. The process of accumulating those gorgeous and suitable antique decor furniture will be a great treasure hunt,” said Ong.

“Traditional furniture, in general, is usually at a higher value because of the quality and craftsmanship. Each one is different and unique as compared to other mass-production furniture. But here in Ruma Home, we put our best effort to give the best quality of product at an affordable price,” said Syafiqah.

On working with interior designers, Azlinda explained that the budget has to be separated into design fee and construction cost. “Design fee could be expensive depending on various factors such as floor area, the complexity of design, and client expectations,” she mentioned. Liew concurred under ordinary circumstances, people tend to shop for furniture and decor over a year or more.

“Inspiration is everywhere,”  said Syafiqah.

“Inspiration is everywhere,” said Syafiqah.

When you work with an interior designer or a makeover company, you need to get all these products all at once, and they add up real quick. “There are just so many things to buy to turn each of these empty dead spaces into usable spaces. The key is to dissect all these and plan ahead with a budgeting checklist and separate them based on priorities,” added Liew.


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