An interview with homeschool mother, folk singer-songwriter, and organiser behind Singapore’s annual Homeschool Convention:
Liz: Right off the bat, what is your top design tip?
Homeschool Mom Dawn Fung: Light and nature are very important elements in a home because they come from a place where you come from as well.
You need light to see, you know, but light is also about life; it’s dark only when you’re dead. It symbolises a lot of life and activity. Nature, because you were made to be in harmony with nature–there’s something very dissonant about a place that’s all plasticky. You don’t feel rested because, maybe, that’s not the life you were made for.
My faith as a Christian brings me back to the Bible. In the origins of creation, there was a garden made for man’s dwelling. A garden is a pruned, tended place. It is not a wild jungle. The garden of Eden was man’s first home. I believe there is a connection to that idea in our lives today. We still want nice, tended homes. But homes with only concrete slabs, and little greenery, make us dull and tired. Greens become greys. We might be called a garden city but is there a garden in every home? Human beings need rest, and to rest, we need that connection of nature. We see vendors that sell us natural, organic products for natural, organic living. Why? Because there’s something in us calling out for that deep connection. So if you can bring in elements of nature and light you will be a lot happier. And that mood has a direct bearing on how you relate to the rest of the family.
As a homeschooling parent you are with the children all the time so you better be happy! Everything is within reach, everything is happy, everything is as harmonious as possible… It doesn’t solve your problems but it does give you a better environment. And when you’re in a happy environment where there is very little to clean, you don’t get overwhelmed.
When you think about nature and before we had such nice things and people were living close to nature, nature does the waste disposal for you. But when you’re in an artificial environment where nobody does the waste disposal, you have to throw things out yourself. And when you don’t throw things out they pile up and you get overwhelmed. Because that part of the cycle is missing. So you gotta make yourself really attuned to what it is you really don’t need, stick to what is necessary. And you can create a very easy, budget friendly environment you can feel proud of.
Liz: Speaking of environment, because it’s Singapore, things get dusty easily. How do you deal with that?
Homeschool mom Dawn Fung: Yes, things get dusty, so you have to really know yourself as a family–can you live with dust? I can because we have no dust allergies, but if you’re somebody who’s allergic to dust this is a terrible living room; it doesn’t make sense. People who cannot take dust need closed shelving. Your space can look very marvelous with closed shelving, it’s just a matter of design and aesthetics.
Liz: Hot question, how do you decorate on a budget?
Homeschool Mom Dawn Fung: When you have no money, make do. Maximise everything. I will show you examples as we walk around.
Liz: Ok! As we walk, could you tell me about your approach to designing and decorating your home?
Homeschool mom Dawn Fung: Home organisation has elements of design to it. You have to find the right reference for the task at hand. A lot of
homeschoolers go to Pinterest to get ideas for their homes, but it’s not necessarily the right image they pin. Gorgeous little nooks and crannies are beautiful vignettes, but when you think about a home, are you thinking about what the space looks like in a small corner or the entire home? So your references would be very different.
If you’re thinking about “lets cover a space; what is the philosophy of the space about” then you should look at architecture references, not vignettes. If you’re looking at huge spaces like “how much light do you want, and what are the materials of a new home you’re going to have?”, you need to look at architecture references because they are about space. When you look at pictures of architects’ work you will see very little embellishment because all the photographs are to show space.
So when you even think about designing your homeschool environment it starts with the architect (what is this space about; what is this home about; what are the materials of this home?) before you even move on to the next thing.
So how I did my home, was–if you want to be very concrete–I started with light, and I started with nature; light and nature are very important because you’re going to stay for a long time, and you want to feel happy in the place you’re working in. For homeschoolers, our home is our workspace; we don’t switch off the moment we come home, we’re picking something off the floor, we’re doing that… so this is a work.
So my workspace has to be very happy, and has to calm me down, which is why I use bamboo flooring. This is pure bamboo floor, I don’t use unnatural/artificial elements like vinyl or laminate(?)– not because they don’t work, I mean they’re practical in Singapore–but I really need a sense of calm, and natural materials do that for me. I even painted the window frames white just so that everything is very clean. So light and nature surround the whole space, so that’s my canvas.
Your canvas is so important; once you have a blank canvas, whatever you put on it will [either] be accented, or made worse by it; so my whole canvas is light and nature, and almost anything you put in the space, really, is very nice already. So I play with these two components.
Then you break up your space into functions; what’s the function of this part of the home? That’s when you look at interior designers for references.
[For] Interior designers, their role is to make the space functional–there’s a difference between [an] architect and [an] interior designer; once you understand the differences you’re able to find the right references to help you–and interior designer will think what is the function of this? Is it a living room, bedroom? What are the pieces of furniture [I] need?
If you’re living in a terribly small space like an HDB, you will need a multifunctional room; your living space is your workspace/sleeping space; whatever it is you need as a family you make it work–that’s your function.
Everything in this living room is modular because this living room is also my bedroom, and my workspace as well. Everything can be folded up, rolled away, so I can shift this space [accordingly] very quickly. The master bedroom I give to my girls because it has an attached [bathroom], and I wanted my kids to grow up not sharing a [bathroom] with strangers because we host much. So, I turned this into my bedroom, my bedroom has an attached kitchen and attached bathroom, that’s the way I think about it because my needs are also important.
Of course, this is a shared space for the family as well, so there’s a lounge chair, there’s little things for them to lie down; being a living space there must be comfortable spots, but also in an HDB area we’re talking about a very cramped space, so personal spaces are also very important.
We demarcate a lot of personal spaces; almost every part of this house has space for you to sit down. Sitting down means you are resting here, and also allows you to keep company with people because relationships are important, but when you don’t feel like talking to people you can switch off, and there are enough spaces for you to just hide; so that’s very important for me.
So once you decide the function, the space, you can now spend on all the décor, the correct furniture, and that’s where you watch your budget.
A lot of times people work backwards: I want this so far for this space. But what’s your space about? What is the function of this space? Then you choose. Always leave the choice to what is most necessary.
For this lounge chair, its function is definitely something for us to relax [on], but it’s also enough bum space for the kids that come over so I can accommodate them, good for old people who need somewhere a bit more levelled out, it’s long enough for my children if they want to sleep with me sometimes. So it has to perform many, many functions. Whereas if I just have a single chair, it can’t do that for me.
This is an example as well: this is a table top where I can shift it, I can sit here, I can read a book on one..
Even the curtains, these are cordless blinds from IKEA, it’s only like $60, it’s so, so easy. So, when you know what you want; modular, easy for everybody in the house to use–children should find it easy and not have to struggle with [it]–so because I lift curtains up and down it must be cordless, so going to IKEA and finding what I need is extremely important–and of course you can choose from different colours.
So there are lots of things you can do and it’s inexpensive because you’ve already figured out the functions of the space and what the space is like. Because I need something airy and light and natural, I choose wood. I know my materials, and where else to find cheap wood but IKEA?
Another way of keeping to budget is DIY everything yourself; do your own carpentry, your own tools; all these things are very expensive in Singapore and they don’t necessarily offer you what you want, so learning how to use tools is a very good way of saving costs.
I drilled almost everything in [this] house myself, [including] this; I drilled this, and then just put it together since I paid for the floorboards. So you can upcycle furniture.
These are literally book-shelves that I made; $5, just nailed to a book, these are brackets from Daiso, $2. So we don’t have expensive furniture; we have a nice floor, and that accentuates everything. The floor is the most expensive thing in the house, it doesn’t feel plasticy, so that’s important, as well.
All my clothes are hung there. Another way of cost saving is having very [few] things, avoiding unnecessary things. The more things you have, the more costly the time: you need to look after things and why would I want to spend time looking after things? I want to spend time looking after my family, so the [fewer] things I have to look after the better it is for me.
Again, I choose my wardrobe; all the colours are neutral colours so I just pick them up for any occasion and I’m done. As you see, I’ve arranged it from white to dark.
This one I found in IKEA, this is where I usually hang my cables, and bags. Another way of budget saving it to have everything out; nothing in the cupboards; so that I don’t hoard, and I can’t say “Oh I don’t have this, need to go and buy..”, I can see everything I have, and If I don’t use it, I either throw away, or I use it. So budgeting is not buying anything unnecessary that you don’t need. Currently, there’s a shelf here, it’s got everything we need; tools, games, shoes; and it allows me to see maybe we’ve got too many shoes–anything that doesn’t fit, we have too many, then we have to figure out how to use it.
This is a standalone I bought from IKEA, it’s only $100 odd dollars–because we didn’t have a lot of money when we first had this house so we looked according to our limitations. Again, it started with what is this space about? So, this space is about company, it’s about family, fostering relationships–so of course I didn’t want wall-to-ceiling cabinets, because it doesn’t give you that–so, the function is to keep company and do cooking. We have a cooking corner, but we also have enough space so that we can sit around and chat.
This comes from somebody else’s IKEA table; I took it and added legs, so if we want, sometimes we play board games here together. So even the chairs have to have a few functions. If you look at the chairs, the ones I picked–you see the wood again, it’s got to be natural–it swivels so I don’t have trouble turning if I want to talk to somebody; it can go up and down which means my children of different ages can accommodate–the ones who are taller go lower, the ones who are shorter go higher.
The kitchen’s also my workspace, and then I have my coffee corner, I can do my work; it’s high enough so that the baby can’t get to the things. So everything again is modular, a lot of things are on wheels. This is where we keep all the food, and this is dish-drainage; just line it up with a cloth. And again, it’s about the function: this trolley can be used for anything, so in this season it’s a dish-drainer, I just use extra dishcloth–I don’t have to buy a dedicated dish-drainer. So it’s very simple, life is very simple; everything is open shelf, again, I can see what I have and don’t have, it allows me to declutter and it allows me to take things easily.
The entire kitchen is an air-dry kitchen. Because there are no cupboards, [I] don’t have to clean; I can immediately take something wet and put it up and it will dry; so it really saves on equipment in the long run because you don’t have rotting things, and saves space so that you don’t have to wait for something to dry to go and get [it], it dries very quickly.
Except for two pieces of glass, I usually use mostly wood or plastic stuff because of the kids; If they take something out I don’t have to worry that it will crash. So choosing materials is very important–again it goes back to function and who’s living [there].
So [here in] the service area, I took out the window panes and spray painted. HDB will give you windows and doors but I didn’t want that, [now] if it rains, I can still use this space–space is a premium. So, [you] can things do for cheap? Yes, if you know exactly what you want, if you think along the way, and you think very creatively; it just goes back to why you need this space–once you figure out the whys, you can pick and choose materials very cheaply available but still look nice; I put a lot of wooden frames up.
Liz: “You can fit the very décor parts in the nooks and crannies so it doesn’t take up so much space,”
Homeschool mom Dawn Fung: Exactly! People are obsessed with decoration but those things should only be your last bits.
Liz: “even your dustbin is aesthetic”
Homeschool mom Dawn Fung: Yes, yes, absolutely.
Liz: You pay attention to the very small details; if you have a very nasty dustbin, it’s already a dustbin so it’s even more..”
Homeschool mom Dawn Fung: Yes! People don’t understand because they have different priorities in mind; if you’re a very, very good cook your kitchen will not look like this. Any cook would know this is a terrible kitchen to cook in because it is not a good kitchen for people who love food–we’re not a foodie family. Every homeschool family has their own uniqueness; I don’t have a helper, and we’re not cooks, so we cook very minimally; we order in a lot. So if you’re asking “Is this ideal for every family?”of course not, but it works for my family.
So it goes back to your function, your “why”. I want to spend a lot of time with the kids, I want to play with them, so a lot of this space is for play and relational building. You can see books are everywhere–nobody puts books in kitchens except me.
So when we lived here and we didn’t have money for reno, we couldn’t afford to knock down things, I was here everyday, whatever I wanted to build I could build on the spot, because I could. I could drill, I wanted a shelf so I did it on the spot. You need a luxury of time for this, so a lot of families who don’t have time, they would hire an interior designer, who of course would give them a very different look–this is not so polished, but I prefer not polished. It’s very personal, very organic, like the pictures on the wall–I use walls for visual diaries, so things keep changing, it’s like whatever I want to look at now they can give me ideas–every other space you can use, and tiles are extremely good for ideas! Sometimes I would be teaching and I would be jotting down ideas on tiles–you can use tiles, glass.. We are all teachers in the Homeschool community, so use your entire space for teaching.
All [of this foyer] has to do with geography; this part of my home has to invoke travel, like we’re going to go out, what do we need on the way out? We need shoes, we need things… So I like visual reminders around, and that’s why my space keeps changing; you get all these ideas, once you’re done with interior design you decorate non-stop.
Liz: Awesome! Thank you so much for allowing The Homeschool Gazette to step inside your home!