Such a workaholic is Mimi Somjee, founder of furniture retailer WTP, that the day after she threw open the doors of her home for a staff party, a job sheet landed on her desk. “It read — Client: Boss; Job: 1) Reupholster sofa, 2) Get cushions…and so on,” she recalls with a laugh. “I was too busy with all our projects to think about my own cushions, so the staff took matters into their hands! They said to me: ‘Please sign off, so that we can start work today.’”
“It’s a little like being a tailor’s child. A tailor’s child always has clothes that are incomplete because the parents are too busy tailoring clothes for others. Similarly, I’d start on my place, but then I’d get too busy to continue,” says Somjee, a member of the illustrious Jumabhoy family who has spent the last 20 years sourcing far and wide for unique furnishings and dressing countless homes and commercial spaces for her clients.
Of course, none would actually be the wiser when they visit her artfully decorated Bukit Timah bungalow which she shares with her adult daughter Naazli. (She also has two sons who live abroad.) Home for the last five years, the three-storey residence is a veritable emporium of family heirlooms, artisanal finds and culturally rich objets d’art — exactly what one might expect of the granddaughter of one of early Singapore’s best-known spice traders and businessmen, but refreshingly, with no loud overtures of wealth.
The front door alone says it all. Discovered in an old haveli (mansion) in India, it is 300-years-old, features pinwheel-shaped wood carvings and is now paired with suitably antiquated handles picked out in Indonesia. “I had 20 such doors and the one I originally saved for myself was very ornate. But it wasn’t me. So I ended up taking this simpler one,” says the 60-year-old, who on top of her WTP projects, has lately joined brothers Iqbal and Asad Jumabhoy in developing Raffles Park, a 61-villa residential project in Bangalore.
Not one to be swayed by fad and fashion, Somjee has instead turned each of her living spaces into artfully curated vignettes, resulting in a home full of multicultural charm. The foyer, with its Saudi Arabian hookah (smoking pipe), backgammon board from Syria and beads from Lebanon, may well be described as the home’s Arab quarter — Somjee lived in Dubai for a decade — except that it also houses a collection of turquoise Chinese porcelain figurines, Louis XVI-inspired chairs and a pair of antique Malaccan cardboards.
The adjacent living room, with its WTP-designed settees, heirlooms (such as the bejewelled silver elephant from her father or her mother’s Great Gatsby-esque lamp) and Peranakan furniture is perhaps the most revealing of Somjee’s aesthetic influence. “This was my first Peranakan collection,” she says pointing to a pair of black wood armchairs inlayed with mother-of-pearl. “I was 13 when I saw someone selling them, and I said to my mother: ‘Please buy them for me.’ Thank god she did.” Her second buy was an original marble top table, which she purchased right out of a kopitiam (coffee shop) at age 16 and which still sits tucked away in a corner.
“My mother made us interested in our heritage and taught us that as Singaporeans, we should know our culture,” says Somjee, who grew up in a British colonial mansion (decorated by designers from department store Robinsons) before moving into an apartment that was “absolutely avant-garde in a 1960s art deco style”.
“Our homes always had beautiful things in them. My mother entertained very well. I picked up a lot of things from her, but my style is simpler. I’m straightforward and earthy,” says Somjee.
Specifically, it was her love of Straits Settlements heritage, which was inculcated and indulged by her mother, that lured the Oxford Physics graduate into the world of furniture and interior design. “When I returned from Dubai where I had been a full-time mom, I found that all these Peranakan furniture which used to be so readily available was fast disappearing and I worried that my children would grow up with no heritage.” Motivated, Somjee held an exhibition-cum-sale of Peranakan and British colonial furniture in early 1992.
“My mother had asked if I would be selling the furniture pieces at the exhibition because she was convinced that people would want to buy them. Initially I said no, but I did in the end and she was right. We sold out by the second day of the three-day exhibition.” (Sadly, her mother never got to hear the tills ring, having passed away suddenly just days before the exhibition.) A couple more events later, Somjee morphed her heritage project into a full-scale business, launching Window to the Past (now WTP). Originally a wood furniture specialist, it is now known for its rare finds and original furnishings whether in metal, glass or fossilised lava rock.
“The rest is history. Yes, it is a job, but it’s a lot of fun. And in the process of giving my clients beautiful homes, I’ve learnt that I myself am a very unavaricious person,” she says. “As you can see, my house is very simple and warm. It’s not over the top. Maybe I chose this job to cure myself of avarice!”
“I can’t explain it to anybody,” she says, bringing our grand tour of her private sanctuary to an end. “When I walk in, I feel comfortable and happy, and I love having people over.”