He makes the coffee, she makes the space.
This is a story about boy meets girl over coffee and architecture, leading to matrimonial union, a baby and a very cool work partnership. If you’ve been to Chye Seng Huat Hardware (CSHH), the HQ of Papa Palheta, you would have seen and experienced the Californian-Tropicana-meets-secret backgarden outdoor courtyard, replete with giant cactus. It’s the work of Elita Ong, the architecture-trained founder of multidisciplinary design studio Untitled Projects, in-house designer for CSHH (she was also co-designer of the establishment) and also wife of the coffee house’s owner Leon Foo.
By the time you read this article, Elita would have already given birth to a bundle of cuteness that is little Cooper. Always a fan of Elita’s cool sense of style—those volumetric, architectural accessories always work—I met up with her when she was eight month’s pregnant to have a chat and poke around her office at the top floor of CSHH—a haven of quietude overlooking the dusty-rusty Jalan Besar neighbourhood where she works on her designs.
Hi Elita, with your office situated within Chye Seng Huat Hardware, you’re surrounded by coffee everyday! How have you been able to resist since you became pregnant?
I usually can’t go without a cup or two of cold brew coffee everyday, and I thought that would be the number one thing I’d have to really sacrifice when pregnant but the first three months’ morning sickness hit me pretty bad, and (fortunately I guess) put me off of coffee—I couldn’t palate anything strong.
Pregnancy can be difficult and exhausting. What were some of your splurges?
Travelling and online shopping. Travelling for sure because I felt that I should travel more often before the kid comes, and before I get to that ‘no-travelling’ stage of pregnancy. So I planned for trips to the US, Melbourne, Seoul and even short ones to Bali were squeezed into my schedule. For the latter, online shopping, it was just the ease of trigger-happy clicking of the mouse and convenience, especially during the last few months of carrying the additional beach ball of a tummy!
I love your sense of style. During pregnancy, what staples could you not live without as you went about your day?
My trusty Converse sneakers! It was just the most comfortable and neutral [item] to match with anything. I also started wearing more statement necklaces since clothes were getting more limited in choices as I grew bigger.
How did you get into architecture/design? Is there anything from your childhood that inspired you onto this path?
I would definitely attribute that to be my parents’ background—my dad being in the interior design industry and my mum being in the arts—definitely made me lean towards the creative side. I remember as a child playing with my dad’s drafting board and stencils, drawing up make believe floor plans; I think I might have destroyed his drafting pen nibs too without knowing it! That got me interested in interior design, but when it came the time to choose my career path, my dad recommended me to take up architecture, as it’s a professional degree. I did not regret it at all as it formed a strong foundation to what I do now.
What is your role at CSHH and what’s a typical day for you like, from morning to night?
I started my own interior design company, Untitled Projects, and it’s just above CSHH. I think my role in CSHH would be being in charge of the aesthetics. We just renovated and gave the place a little sprucing up, mainly making the courtyard more habitable with planters and seating. I also help with the collaterals, from the menu design to signage. I guess I could be considered their in-house designer too.
I love how you integrated the plants with the hardscape elements in the courtyard design. Can you share with us more about the design?
Thank you! Making the courtyard more inviting and habitable was always in the plans; we just had to do it up in phases. My main inspiration for the design was plants and greenery and how best to have the customers engage with them. Also with the tight budget, I started looking out for pre-existing materials to cut cost, and here I ended up using the large concrete pipe sleeves as planters. As they come in standard diameters and heights, they provided a fun challenge as to how furniture could be built around them. I played with simple timber-decking construction to form a communal table, bench and bar counter, playing with the different heights, and using the pipe sleeve planters as support.
I love your dedication to your pottery classes and the pieces you make that you show on your Instagram account. When and why did you pick up this skill and how far along are you?
Thank you! You should try pottery too! I picked it up with my husband, Leon, about two years ago. We were just looking around for something to do together that is outside of coffee and design, and we were hooked. I played around with pottery when I was really young under some of my mum’s artists, but that was a long time ago. I think what got us hooked was the idea of creating something with your hands. We started straight on the wheel, which usually isn’t the case. Beginners start with a few cycles of pinching and coiling as a foundation before embarking on the wheel. We went through a few months on the wheel and now I’m doing coiling, but I still prefer the wheel and will go back to it when I have the time. Currently, Leon and I just got a small wheel and some glaze at home and started making cups for our brew coffees at CSHH. We like how the tactility of handmade pottery is paired with drinking hand-brewed coffees.
Being a designer you must have had fun decorating your baby’s room. Can you share with us some details? What are some of your inspirations?
Monochrome—although some might find that boring. I try to stick with black, white and greys. I find that easier as you can get lost in the crazy amount of baby things you can buy! I stuck with such neutrals too so it can work with either a boy or a girl. Sticking to this colour palette (or lack of) also allows room for me to play with patterns, which I’m a sucker for—stripes, prints etc. Currently I keep looking at this one Instagram account @dancewithdirtyfeet; she makes monochrome so effortless.
What are your passions and how do you aspire to share them with your child?
Anything in the creative side. I would probably follow how I was brought up by my parents with the constant exposure to design and arts. They always brought us to exhibitions or signed us up for random classes in pottery, music, even chinese painting. And Sunday afternoons was always spent painting at home. My dad would set up easels and poster colors for us to paint anything; our study wall was filled with art block paper doodles, which he still keeps in a box in storage. I should pull it out someday to show my kids next time!
Please continue this sentence: play to me is:
Letting go of any inhibition and always being curious.
+ photo credit: Playground