Mary and Agnes Fong of Sisters’ Dream. Photography: Marc Khoo

Like the rest of the retail landscape, furniture shopping has undergone tremendous changes in the last decade. The digital era has disrupted conventional business models, with online sales continuing to gain momentum through e-commerce platforms, social media and technological innovations like augmented reality (AR) apps.

Then there are the traditional and independent home goods companies that keep to brick-and-mortar stores. Imparting a nostalgic charm and with unique, often one-of-a-kind pieces that tell a story, they bring both a human connection and tangible experience to the furniture shopping journey. But the pandemic, months of shutdown and looming uncertainty have also taken their toll on shop owners, especially those who haven’t jumped on the digital retail bandwagon.

Sisters’ Dream is one of them, a little furniture store along Jalan Pari Burong that sells custom-made teak furniture, vintage lamps, homeware and other curios. It has been operating since 1999, and is helmed by sisters Agnes and Mary Fong.

They open up about the challenges of the fast-changing retail industry, how the pandemic has impacted their livelihood, and moving forward to adapt to the new normal.

Photography: Marc Khoo

How and why did you start Sisters’ Dream?

Agnes: Inspired by our holidays in Australia and its vintage curio shops, Mary and I dreamt about opening a business but with our own take. We first started weekly ‘garage sales’ in Mary’s home along Upper Changi Road, placing ads in the newspapers. The response was great, and we realised the potential for a homeware and furniture shop. It was daunting at first – starting a business from scratch and with no background in the industry. Mary was a property agent and I was a school teacher.

Eventually, we found a little shophouse with affordable rent, and opened Sisters’ Dream in 1999. Slowly, we learnt how to design furniture instead of buying ready-made pieces, and found reliable carpentry workshops in Java and Solo that use recycled teak or those from responsible farms.

Mary: I actually moved out of Sisters’ Dream in 2000, and started Echoes of the East with a friend. But when operating costs such as rent grew too high, we closed it in February 2018 and I moved back to Sisters’ Dream. Even while running different shops, Agnes and I would continue to source and brainstorm ideas for new furniture designs.

Where are your furniture and accessories from and what do you look for when curating items for the store?

Mary: Now, our furniture is made in Indonesia with the occasional ready-made pieces from India. Home furnishings like lamps, sculptures, art and vintage pieces are sourced globally, including Eastern Europe, France, U.K. and the U.S.

Before Covid-19, we often went on sourcing trips overseas. My daughter would also help in sourcing and build relationships with suppliers from the Internet.

We don’t carry much inventory or own a warehouse space – what you see in the showroom is what we have. We believe that this is more sustainable than buying in bulk, and ending up with excess. When curating items, we consider what our clients like, and their feedback on what they look for. Interior decor trends often come and go, so we go for classic designs as well as vintage pieces that are one-of-a-kind and grow in value over the decades.

Tell us more about your custom-made furniture and the process

Agnes: Many of our customised pieces are designed in collaboration with our customers. It usually starts with a consultation and dimensions provided by the customer. Then Mary or I will draft a design. Once that’s approved, we’ll submit it to our Indonesian suppliers.

It usually takes about two months for the furniture to arrive in Singapore. Our in-house carpenter will then put the finishing touches like sanding and staining. The Indonesian workshops use a traditional wood joint-and-screw technique that reduces the dependency on nails. This creates stronger, longer-lasting heirloom pieces that can be passed on to future generations.

Photography: Marc Khoo

“Singaporeans have a lot of emotional connection to items that represent their childhood or an earlier generation. Many have kept their mothers’ or grandmothers’ Singer sewing machines, ice kachang machines or old radios.”

Agnes Fong, co-owner of Sisters’ Dream

What are the most memorable pieces you’ve sold or have interesting stories behind them?

Agnes: One of them is a big teak and wrought iron shelving unit that I designed for a customer’s antique sewing machine collection. Another design I loved is a 3m-long outdoor shoe cabinet, with tropical fern leaf carvings against blue Peranakan stained glass.

Our shoe cabinets come with unique open slates at the back, allowing for ventilation, which means less smelly shoes! We often incorporate Peranakan influences, such as coloured glass screens or even stools inlaid with genuine vintage Peranakan tiles.

Mary: Agnes and I also upcycle vintage and antique items to make them relevant for today’s homes. Singaporeans have a lot of emotional connection to items that represent their childhood or an earlier generation. Many have kept their mothers’ or grandmothers’ Singer sewing machines, ice kachang machines or old radios.

We’ve helped several customers upcycle these vintage mementos into usable furniture pieces. For example, we turned an antique ice shaver (or ice kachang) machine that was in our mother’s house into a sleek side table. Its height can even be adjusted by the machine’s swivel. We have also converted sewing machines into side tables for restaurants, cafes and customers’ homes, as well as old French oak dining chairs into wall shelves!

How has the impact of Covid-19, an increasing demand for mass-produced goods, and e-commerce affected the business?

Mary: I find it increasingly difficult for independent retail shops to survive in today’s environment. The cost of running a business has grown tremendously, from labour costs to commercial rents. Landlords can decide to raise commercial rents with each new lease, and there is no cap, which leaves small businesses suffering. I had to fold my own business, Echoes of the East, in 2018 because it was just not financially sustainable.

Photography: Marc Khoo

“We have always run things traditionally and without fuss. We don’t even spend money on branded packaging like paper bags, and reuse all our paper bags, even those from other stores. It’s more environmentally-friendly this way.”

Mary Fong, co-owner of Sisters’ Dream

Agnes: The restrictions introduced during the Circuit Breaker came as a shock to us as we don’t utilise e-commerce. That meant we were closed for two months with zero business. When we first spoke to our landlord prior to the Circuit Breaker about reducing rent for a few months, he flatly refused. It was only after the government’s announcement for property tax remissions to be passed on from landlords to tenants, that he agreed to lower our rent for a few months. We also received financial aid from the government as part of the Covid-19 business support measures.

Mary: At Sisters’ Dream, we rely simply on word-of-mouth, and repeat or walk-in customers. My daughter taught us how to use Instagram and Facebook, and how to create a digital persona. But Agnes and I are not digital natives. We are part of the baby boomer generation. Agnes doesn’t even know how to use a computer, and we still have a fax machine in the shop. So, sometimes it’s a bit tricky for us to understand the many social media features, like insights and hashtags.

The rise of e-commerce and mass-produced furniture giants has definitely hit traditional shops like ours, because we haven’t migrated to digital channels. We have always run things traditionally and without fuss. We don’t even spend money on branded packaging like paper bags, and reuse all our paper bags, even those from other stores. It’s more environmentally-friendly this way.

Are there any plans to move to an e-commerce platform?

Agnes: We have no plans to move to an e-commerce platform, as our items are usually one- of-a-kind and we don’t have a warehouse, so we don’t carry much stock. Also, with e-commerce, I find that ideas can be easily stolen and copied. Now, we have started reaching out to a wider audience through Instagram and Facebook, so customers can see our products first before coming to the shop to physically see the items. Social media has definitely helped us increase our shop’s presence.

Photography: Marc Khoo

Do you still see a demand for handcrafted or vintage goods, especially amongst the younger crowd?

Mary: For the past ten years, we’ve brought in vintage kitchenware like coffee grinders and vintage lamps, such as traditional Dutch brass and porcelain lamps. Recently, we’ve been sourcing 1930s and 1940s vintage lamps from Europe with the old-school clicker switch. We’ve found that these lamps grow in value as the years go by. There is definitely interest among the younger crowd, but not much as these lamps are quite expensive.

At Sisters’ Dream, we believe in artisanal and handmade products, and have for many years championed local handicrafts that we source from around Asia as well, such as handprinted batik, hand-woven wool carpets from Afghanistan, silk cushions with hand-hammered silver or Sumatran beaded dowry boxes and hand-loomed textiles from Myanmar.

Unfortunately, a growing number of people don’t appreciate these crafts, opting instead for the mass-produced. I understand why as it is more affordable.

Photography: Marc Khoo

What do you think the next decor trend or movement will be?

Agnes: The bohemian style is very much in trend now, with furniture made from natural materials such as cane and rattan. At the same time, I’m also seeing monochrome colour palettes and a combination of minimalism and brutalism, with heavy use of concrete materials and clean lines that direct the eye to a focal point. I think that an upcoming trend is the complete opposite, and that is the use of contrasting prints and colour. I’ve been seeing a lot of this even in furniture, wallpaper, carpets and other finishings.

I’m most impressed by homes that reflect the aesthetics of the people who live in them, homes that don’t feel too perfect. You can’t go wrong if you stay true to your own taste.

David Nightingale Hicks, an English interior decorator, summed it up succinctly when he said: “The best rooms have something to say about the people who live in them.”

And this is exactly how we curate for the shop.

Sisters’ Dream is located at 28 Jalan Pari Burong. Instagram: @sistersdreamsg @echoesoftheeast