Interior designer Suraya Yeop Jr on creating meaningful and purposeful spaces

Interior designer Suraya Yeop Jr.'s design philosophy is to create meaningful and purposeful spaces that tell a story. — Photos: SYJ Interior & Design

Suraya Yeop Jr has always had a keen interest in interiors.

As a child, the founder of SYJ Interior & Design would rearrange her parents’ furniture and redecorate her home, continuing to explore and nurture her interest in design as she moved from one rented apartment to another as a college student and when she started working.

In the past 14 years, the interior designer and her husband have moved six times to accommodate their growing family, which Suraya always saw as an exciting time as she felt that each new home gave her the opportunity to experiment with new ideas, accumulate technical knowledge and flex her design muscles.

Every home became a reflection or her evolving tastes and developing skills, she says, describing them as her “design labs”.

Suraya opens up to Life Inspired on how design became her career, what inspires her and how her business is doing.

What led you to choosing a career in design?

The idea of turning my passion in interior design into a career never crossed my mind. It just didn’t occur to me that I could utilise my skills, my eye for detail and turn it into a business.

Instead, I started off my career in public relations soon after I graduated.Suraya stands in front of a beautiful mural in a client’s home, created by her team. Suraya stands in front of a beautiful mural in a client’s home, created by her team. And surprisingly, when I was attached to Media Prima, I was given the opportunity to be a TV presenter. The first programme I hosted was on TV3’s Wanita Hari Ini. I’ve been hosting on and off ever since. I guess from then until recently, I’ve always been juggling two different careers, and I love it.

Anyways, it was my mother-in-law who sparked the idea. One day, she said, “You should decorate other people’s homes since you have the talent.” After lengthy chats with friends and my hubby, I mustered all my courage, started my company SYJ Interior & Design nervously and have never looked back.

What would you say is your signature design style?

I feel my designs are clean, simple, subtle, uncomplicated, uncluttered. But interestingly, I’ve had people telling me they are sometimes bold. I guess they are sometimes, when I work with clients who are unafraid to experiment with something different. So when presented with the opportunity to push my design boundaries, I jump at it.

When I design, I don’t believe in sticking to a certain style. Instead, I prefer to mix different concepts to bring out the best out of my client’s spaces. My concept is: make it beautiful.

What is it about your style that appeals to clients?

My design philosophy is to create meaningful and purposeful spaces that tell a story. I try my best to study, read and understand my clients and reflect it in their home design.

A beautiful space in one of Suraya’s client’s homes.A beautiful space in one of Suraya’s client’s homes.

Where do you get design inspiration from, and how do you balance your design vision with the client’s requests?

My head is filled with ideas and inspiration from years and years of admiring beautiful designs everywhere I go, from a friend’s home to the latest It restaurant, from flipping through design magazines and hours of scrolling through Instagram and Pinterest, from stays at local boutique hotels to my travels around the world.

One of the most memorable travels was to Morocco in 2019, just before the pandemic loomed over us. The places I had the privilege to visit and lay my eyes upon were awe-inspiring. Even the desert tent in the Sahara where my husband and I stayed was truly unforgettable.

When a potential client reaches out to me, they’ve usually done their research on my portfolio of work. Thus, both parties usually start on the same page. From experience, when clients understand our mutual design goals, and see the bigger picture, it is possible to meet somewhere in the middle. At the end of the day, what’s most important is the client’s happiness and satisfaction.

What is your favourite way to maximise spaces like nooks, under the stairs and hallways?

Redundant spaces sometimes pose as a challenge but they are a great design opportunity. I like to convert negative space under the staircase into something practical and functional by adding stylish built-ins like storage, shelves and benches and turn it into a reading nook.

For walls, I like to keep it simple with beautifully designed wall panels or a cluster of frames arranged in a grid or randomly. If the space allows for a console along the hallway, creating a beautiful vignette would be my go-to.

Do you have a favourite type of space to style, and why? (bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchens etc)

I love creating vignettes! I love the thrill of grouping objects together to make a beautiful statement. There is a certain satisfaction in nailing the perfect vignette, where I get to experiment with shapes, scale and colour. It’s interesting to see how a certain object on its own looks completely lost, but when placed with another object, they completely complement one another, and together they look outstanding.

Keeping it simple for walls with beautiful panels or a cluster of frames.Keeping it simple for walls with beautiful panels or a cluster of frames.

How has your business fared during the pandemic, what have you learned from it? What do you feel you have accomplished during this period?

When we went into the first movement control order last year, I thought there was no way I could survive it. I assumed that no one in their right mind would be investing in renovating or beautifying their homes since there was so much uncertainty that everyone was facing on some level at that point in time.

I was very surprised when inquiries continued to pour in during this time. It was really shocking initially, but a huge relief of course. I realised that people were spending so much more time at home, that they found it a necessity to have a makeover, to kitchens especially!

I guess people are also putting their holiday funds into upgrading their homes instead. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities that have come my way during this challenging period where every other industry has been so badly effected. I don’t take these opportunities (which have sustained my business) for granted!

What was your inspiration for the design of your own home?

A home is an extension of one’s personality. And my home is a reflection of mine (and my family just lives in it, no choice haha). The style and decor of the house began with my navy chesterfield sofa, and the entire house developed around it over time.

I played and explored, with what works and what doesn’t. I experimented with what arrangement works best and carefully put together what is pleasing to my eyes. I love the oriental-inspired pieces in my home. They are my favourites. I set them against something modern, something traditional, something new, something old, and sometimes, something completely unfamiliar.

What are some personal elements from your childhood/family/past that you have incorporated into the design of your home?

My home is an accumulation of pieces that I’ve customised, collected and curated over the years that my husband and I have been married. What I love about my home is that most pieces hold a story or a beautiful memory. Anywhere my eyes land, serve as a reminder of someone I love, or my memorable travels around the globe with my little family and of course from my annual trips with girlfriends.

I love collecting family heirlooms as well. I have on my walls century old tekat benang emas, a Perak heritage, from my late grandmother. When my mum (bless her!) gave me her old school Singer sewing machine and even her mother’s Nyonya tray, I squealed!

My favourite pieces in my home without a doubt, are a mirror my late father gifted me as a house warming gift many years ago and a simple yet beautiful framed Quranic verse I took from his office after he passed on.

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