Icons of the Past

Collectors of mid-century designer furniture and quirky decor, here’s how Zhi Yi and his wife Minlin transformed their BTO flat into a nostalgic haven.

First introduced to vintage furniture and collectables by his father, you could say that Zhi Yi has been refining his design sensibilities since he was born. He now spends much of his free time hunting down designer furniture and decor from the 20th Century, filling his home—which he shares with his wife, Minlin—with iconic and peculiar vintage finds.

While you may expect this eclectic couple to work in design or something similarly creative, they actually both make their living in the finance industry. Furniture and interior design are personal passions they pursue in their free time, sharing their interiors via their @kohlony account on Instagram.

“Both of us enjoy visiting flea markets and antique stores and admiring iconic architecture when overseas,” Zhi Yi shares. “That certainly inspires us more!”

When they’re not travelling, they draw inspiration from books and magazines. “We have plenty of interior design, furniture and architecture books that provide a good source of inspiration,” he adds. “For magazines, it’s mostly Japanese publications.

We can’t read Japanese, so funnily enough, all these magazines are just for their visuals!”

Why choose books and magazines in Japanese, then? “The Japanese really do it best,” Zhi Yi explains. “The way they arrange and style their interiors with the often small spaces that they have… we draw a lot of inspiration from them.”

Careful curation

Sourcing vintage furnishings isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes time to not just deep-dive into the world of Carousell and flea markets but to also do the research and develop a keen eye for value and authenticity.

Having done their fair share of collecting and curating over the years, timelessness is now an important consideration for the couple, opting for pieces they intend to love for many years to come, so they don’t get tired of their space too quickly.

Some of their current favourites include the collection of vintage McDonald’s lamps and the matching dining chair from the 80s, which Zhi Yi took a long time to source. Other lights in the house include the Teti lamp by Artemide, as well as lamps by Poul Henningsen and Jean Prouve, one of which was designed for Vitra in collaboration with Virgil Abloh. “The latter was a limited release and I was lucky enough to find the piece numbered #1,” Zhi Yi shares proudly.

While lights are Zhi Yi’s passion, Minlin loves the USM Haller system, which the couple uses as a kitchen island. It’s a great spot to not just prep meals but gather loved ones too. It’s fully modular, meaning that “it can be configured for multiple uses, as you can see in our house—TV console, kitchen island, cabinet, work desk and planter.”

Another one of Minlin’s favourites is the couple’s collection of tableware and ceramics, sourced from places like French design studio Astier de Villatte and pottery shop Aoon in Bangkok, Thailand. Vintage tableware from Japan and Europe is in the mix too.

A tribute to Prouve

One design icon the couple keeps coming back to is French designer and architect Jean Prouve, particularly enamoured with the way he worked with iron and steel. The sliding porthole panels enclosing the kitchen are precisely inspired by Prouve’s work with these industrial materials.

“Credit goes to our designers, Edmund and Sheena from Shed Studio, who share our appreciation for Prouve and designed this panel with us,” Zhi Yi points out. “As they had not done this before, we took a few iterations to get the right materials for the three different elements of the panel— glass, steel and wood. We went through a few rounds of prototyping to determine the dimensions, fit and alignment.”

It’s certainly a one-of-a-kind feature in the house, not just eye-catching but also entirely functional as it slides shut to keep any fumes and smells contained during cooking sessions.

Panel

Intuitive collecting

Shopping vintage and second-hand means that planning your interiors to the last detail is almost impossible. You’ll never know what treasures you’ll come across in your search, and falling in love with an unexpected piece may mean throwing your design plans out the window.

Zhi Yi and Minlin have learned to keep an open mind over the years. Even when there’s a corner of the house that needs a little something, finding the perfect item to fill that space is never the owners’ top priority. “In a way, we look out for designs that appeal to us and just let the space find itself.”

The couple actually purchased quite a few of their favourite furnishings before even collecting the keys to their BTO flat, including the modular Kai Kristiansen shelf in the dining area, which they discovered at local furniture shop Noden.

Buying things for the home before stepping into the space or engaging a designer can be tricky, however, and it doesn’t work for everyone.

“We certainly don’t recommend it if you’re not sure what theme you’re going for or if it’s your first time sourcing furniture,” Zhi Yi advises. “Seeing the completed space will help you better visualise what kind of furniture is suitable, which will lead to better buying decisions.”

If you’re itching to start ticking items off your list, he recommends starting with “non-design” pieces like the fridge, washing machine and so on. As these are quite bulky, just make sure you have a storage plan that won’t cost you a fortune!

As for the future of @kohlony, these two treasure hunters are definitely not done tracking down iconic pieces for the house. Currently on their wish list: a new sofa. Not because the current one needs replacing but because “sometimes there’s an itch to scratch.”

“We did see some nice ones by Hans Wegner, Poul Kjaerholm and Børge Mogensen. We’re just yet to find the right one with the stars aligned!”