Text Charmaine Chan / Pictures and styling John Butlin


Some couples keep Christmas presents for each other a secret until the wrapping comes off.

Not Jennifer Barba and husband Daniel. Last December, they decided on a gift for her that would be exactly what she wanted … and would make him happy as well.

“I didn’t ask for a handbag,” Barba says, laughing.

“I asked for a decorating budget.”

The pair, who met and married in New York in late 2010, were relatively new to Hong Kong and homemaking when they moved into their two-bedroom, 900 sq ft flat in bustling Star Street, Wan Chai.

Because the apartment was a rental, Barba had to be careful not to overspend in creating a nest. So she visited design-savvy websites for inspiration and DIY ideas that would transform the standard flat for HK$20,000.

“I’m obsessed with pinterest.com and houzz.com,” she says, explaining that although she trawled those sites interminably, most of her purchases were made at bricks and mortar shops in Hong Kong.

“I also look at etsy.com a lot but I knew it would be a hassle shipping things here,” she says. “I like to see what I’m buying.”

Barba is equally clear about what she likes in other areas of her life. A spa and beauty-treatment junkie, she says she found it difficult knowing where to go for weekly pampering sessions when she arrived in Hong Kong about two years ago.

So she started her own “beauty finder”, prettybooked.com, which tells users who does what and for how much, as well as facilitating online bookings for everything from a manicure to a make-up session.

Barba’s online business was also behind her decision to turn one of the bedrooms into a dressing room.

“I’m in the beauty business and you have to dress the part,” she says. “When I get dressed it’s a process: I potter; I do my make-up; I think about what to wear; maybe play some music and have a cup of tea. It’s nice to do a walk as well before you go.”

That explains why the spare room is fitted not with a desk or guest bed but open cupboards and shoe racks as well as a dressing table, tall mirror and chill-out sofa. Not surprisingly it is Barba’s “boudoir” that she has spent most of her time decorating. Giant black spots the size of basketballs bounce off one wall; another appears to have been covered in bold wallpaper bearing geometric shapes. A third, behind open shelving from Ikea, has broad yellow and white stripes.

“I got the idea from Pinterest,” she says. “I used painter’s tape to make [the back] stripy so it doesn’t look like Ikea.”

The rest of the budget was eaten up by improvements made to the living room, which enjoys broad sea views.

“I wanted something to make the room cosier,” she says, explaining her decision to paint two white walls indigo blue. “At night, it’s nice to have the contrast of the lights outside, because we’re looking over the harbour, and the dark walls.”

But finding a painter within her budget range was trying. “It was excruciating,” she says of the estimates she received for the job of painting two walls. “Someone quoted me HK$15,000 and Dulux said they’d do it for HK$7,500. I was like, ‘Are you joking?’” In the end, through a recommendation from a friend, Barba hired someone who charged a daily rate of HK$1,000.

“It took him a day to paint two walls and they were given three coats each,” she says.

The total, including materials, set her back HK$2,500.

Having spent HK$30,000, 50 per cent more than she had budgeted for, Barba left the bathroom, kitchen and bedroom much as they were. And by then, she says, work at prettybooked.com was taking up more of her time, as was a side project organising an app jamming workshop for teenage girls keen to create computer applications.

When it all gets too much, however, at least she has a retreat of her own.

“I come in here,” she says, sitting on her yellow sofa in her girl cave. “I put some candles on and call it a day.

This is my little haven.”





Dressing room Barba fitted wardrobes from Ikea into her boudoir, including a Pax corner unit (HK$1,985, without door). The chandelier cost HK$2,300 at a shop on Morrison Hill Road in Causeway Bay. The Velare small sofa was HK$5,800 at Franc Franc (2/F, Hang Lung Centre, 2 Paterson Street, Causeway Bay, tel: 3427 3366). The floor mirror (HK$1,190) was from Ikea, as were the Hopen chest of drawers (HK$1,690) and Hampen rug (HK$499). Billy bookcases (HK$1,450 in total) from Ikea were installed to accommodate Barba’s shoes.



Living room The glass pyramid candleholders came from Allure Living (1/F, 54 D’Aguilar Street, Central, tel: 2153 1022) and the owls from Home Essentials (33 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central, tel: 2870 1400). The coffee table (HK$1,990) and television unit (HK$1,740) came from Ikea (various locations; www.ikea.com.hk). The XLBoom Metro Cubes four-piece shelving set (HK$3,250) in the corner was from Homeless (1/F, 19 Yun Ping Road, Causeway Bay, tel: 2890 8789). Jennifer Barba and her husband, Daniel, brought with them to Hong Kong Michel Ducaroy’s Togo sofas, which sell at Ligne Roset (16 Blue Pool Road, Happy Valley, tel: 2891 0913) for HK$33,500 (for a three-seater). Instead of regular shelving, Barba bought a variety of shapes that she affixed to the blue wall for effect. The Lack shelves in high-gloss grey (HK$159.90 each) were from Ikea and the oak Collapse shelf (HK$2,350) and Conceal L shelves (HK$178 each) from Homeless. The photograph, by John Butlin (arcfoto@netvigator.com), is of the moat around Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Bedroom The oak bed (£750/HK$9,000) was bought at Habitat in London, Britain (www.habitat.co.uk). The rug (HK$1,390), floor mirror (HK$399) and Malm bedside table (HK$419) were from Ikea. The Lamborghini folding bike came from MM/H (15/F, Windsor House, 311 Gloucester Road, Causeway Bay, tel: 3168 2098). The photo of flats in Mong Kok was by John Butlin.


Dining area The couple brought with them to Hong Kong the Margaret Howell-reissue Ercol plank table (about £1,000) and Ercol stacking chairs (£175 each), all of which were bought at Heal’s in London (www. heals.co.uk). The white console (HK$1,600) came from Ikea. The Elena lamp, by Max Vivian from Evaluz, cost HK$6,160 at Zodiac Lighting (70 Morrison Hill Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2882 9082). The photo, by John Butlin, shows Taipei 101. The Kimono teapot set came from Townhouse (Prince’s Building, Central, tel: 2845 0633). The teapot was HK$445, the creamer HK$280 and the cup and saucer HK$145 a pair.




Taking the cake A multitiered ceramic cake stand makes the perfect receptacle for keeping keys, memory sticks and other doodads in one place. It cost HK$1,200 at White Contemporary Homewares (156 Queen's Road East, Wan Chai, tel: 2907 5338).