This month’s That Mama is Dutch designer (and mama to three boys) Anouk van der El
One of the most fun parts of our monthly ‘That Mama’ is getting to see what a range of truly beautiful homes there are in Singapore. Not only does this month’s That Mama, Anouk van der El, live in a gorgeous black and white, but her stylish design background has rendered the space extra colourful and cool. We loved hearing how Anouk’s three sons – Wessel, 9; Faas, 7; and Otis, 2 – have inspired the kid-friendly products in her shop, Make History, along with the down-to-earth Dutchwoman’s practical advice for balancing work and home life. Get ready to read and scroll with envy, mamas!
Can you tell us a little about yourself, your career and your family?
I’m a Dutch designer from Amsterdam, I came to Singapore four years ago with my husband and (then 2, now 3) sons when I just started a new company, my design studio Make History. With MAKE HISTORY we like to make pretty, contemporary products that help people save their best memories in style. Items like a Time Capsule that keepsakes all your kid’s childhood memories for them to open when they turn 21, an Art Bag for little Picassos, a Little Quote Jar to remember all the funny stuff kids say, and more…
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
Ever since I can remember I wanted to be an inventor. An inventor of concepts, of products, of solutions. I studied Marketing & Innovation at the University of Groningen (a tiny town in the far north of the Netherlands) and started my career at the marketing department of Heineken, then the movie company 20th Century Fox and other media companies. I founded my own creative agency a few years later and developed new concepts, campaigns and products for various companies like the Red Cross, T-Mobile, KPMG. Then, when my two sons were born, I noticed a lot of the gifts we received were of temporary nature (baby clothes, cuddly toys, etc).
I’d heard of the Andy Warhol ‘Time Capsule’ legend where he put stuff from a certain time in his life in a carton box and sealed it up to be opened exactly 25 years later. I thought this was a pretty neat idea for newborns, weddings and other milestones so I created a crisp TimeCapsule. And many other keepsake concepts followed after that.
I now spend most of my time working on my own designs, but I still do some exciting creative projects for clients in Amsterdam, Berlin and Singapore. Singapore assignments include brand strategy, concept development and design for these brilliant women, moms and entrepreneurs: sock brand Manitou, party shop Glittering Eyes, interior design studio Rockett Studios, and kids fashion + lifestyle shop Tiny Crab Stories.
How did you get back into the swing of things after having kids?
After my first son was born I was back at the studio after three weeks. Crazy! New cool assignments were coming in and I thought I just had to take the momentum. You live, you learn and with my second son, I purposely took three months off and thoroughly enjoyed the time with the two boys. After that, I was super energized to go back to work and was much more efficient and productive than after the first. To each their own of course, but for me it was better to allow myself to take real down time and then hit the gas.
How do you maintain an identity separate from your children?
I honestly think I’m much more fun as a mother because of my career and social activities outside of the family routine. As I’ve always combined having my own company with kids I wouldn’t know any other way, but my work gives me a lot of energy, as do the creative people I meet around the world and of course, doing fun stuff with friends and my husband. As my kids grow older, they are more interested in what I do, love playing with colors, and want to ‘design’ stuff themselves.
How has having a child changed the way you define work?
I don’t define work any differently. The way I work has changed. Having children has made me work more efficiently in the hours I have, and put me more in touch with priorities.
How do you save time? What are your organisational tricks and tips?
Time management has never been my strongest suit, but I try to focus more. Be home and play when I’m home, and do the work at the studio. Where possible, I try to schedule around the kids. So where there used to be the long evenings at the office BC (before children ;-), I now try to work when the kids are doing their thing. My kids go to (pre) school so I try to do most of the work in the mornings, early afternoon and evenings after bedtime. And a BIG shoutout to my wonderful helper Lita who covers a lot of the caretaking when I can’t be there. Compared to our life back in Amsterdam, I have a lot more quality time with the kids here because of Lita.
I wish I had more time for…
More creative stuff with the kids. They love painting, creating and building stuff and because of work, activities and a little two-year old running around who loves to eat glue, paint and clay we don’t always get to do as much of that as we’d like. But the time will come!
I always feel saner after….
A good laugh; yoga, PT and Dorota’s workouts; and a good night’s sleep!
What part of Singapore do you live in? What do you like about it?
Wessex. It’s a lovely little green spot with tiny black and whites, 10 minutes from town, just off Portsdown Road. Our outdoorsy boys love to play soccer on the pitch or go on little adventures in the neighbourhood. The community is a vibrant mix of creatives, entrepreneurs and other relaxed folks that love the slow – not so fancy – vibe. You might know Wessex from its biannual ‘Art Walk‘ where artists in Wessex open their houses and show their latest creations.
Favourite kid-friendly activity in Singapore?
We love family days at the beach, visiting the ArtScience Museum, skateboarding at Somerset, a bike ride on Pulau Ubin, and Sunday on the Hill (Kult Kafe).
Favourite kid-friendly restaurants in Singapore?
Coffee/Brunch at Open Farm Community (with a great outdoor playground), Huber’s Bistro (again, outdoor playground), picnic at Botanic Gardens and our local relaxed gems around the corner, the Colbar and Pietrasanta.
Favourite family-friendly holiday spot in Asia?
Let’s keep this one between us (!), but Mû Bali is hands down the best place on earth for us to have a mini family break with the kids. A beautiful, laid back, green stretch in Uluwatu overlooking the sea. Massages, yoga, great food (French x Indonesian!), snorkelling and soccer for the kids. And our eldest boys have picked up surfing there and really love it. Everybody is happy and refuelled after a few days in this mini paradise!
Do you have any tips for keeping the romance alive in your relationship?
Haha. I’ve been together with my high school sweetheart for 21 years so we definitely try to keep the romance alive 😉 We’re both big fans of tasty food and discovering new places so we plan the odd city trip together.
Favourite date night restaurants?
Butcher Boy, Neon Pigeon, Burnt Ends and Como Cuisine (the latter also great for date lunch, must try the Tandoor Cauliflower!). And I got the Table Tales book as a Christmas present which is spot on with great restaurant tips for date nights or any night really. They test and visit all the great places and make an annual selection of 10 best restaurants in Singapore based on food, design and service.
Do you have any tips working mamas in Singapore?
I think that the days when the ‘juggling’ was just for the mother are over and that balancing the family life is a combined effort. If you’re starting a business, getting your own desk somewhere away from the home is nice. Whether in a co-working space or renting a cool space with a few friends. That way, home is home and work is work. Also, I like surrounding myself with women (and men) that buzz with energy and support and inspire me. And I’d suggest to stop feeling guilty for not managing everything to perfection. Above all, like what you do, and have a little fun along the way! Amen.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
A cool lady in my eldest son’s kindergarten in Amsterdam once said to me (when she saw me juggling the kids and work, steam coming out of my ears for missing a field trip), “It’s like on an airplane. You first put on your own oxygen mask and then put on your kid’s mask”. Meaning if you stay sane and happy yourself, your kids will be better off for it.
Give us your essential new mama advice that might never occur to other women.
I think this one should be a law in all countries: When you go back to work after having your first, second and so on baby, make sure that the first two weeks your husband is in FULL (yes, full) control of the family life. Older kid sick in school? He picks him up. Baby’s doctor’s appointment? He goes. It’s good to be able to let go a bit and that way you can fully focus on work and get into the new routine without having to worry about anything else.
As a mama I wish I were better at…
Cooking! I’m super spoilt with a husband and an amazing helper that both love to cook but I’m going to make it a mission this year to rise above the pancake queen status in my house… I’m working on a very cool project this year that will mean being around professional chefs and foodies frequently, so that will hopefully help.
What’s your favourite family ritual?
Our evening dinners together. Although total chaos is often an understatement. The youngest one being cheeky, the stories of the day at school of the eldest two, and a time to stop, sit and enjoy a good meal together.
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about….
That doesn’t happen to me… My secret super power is sleeping. Much to the frustration of my friends. Put me on a cement floor or a 12-hour flight (without kids…) and I will sleep the whole way.
My favourite moment of the day is…
Evenings! Preferably celebrated around a big table with food, drinks, family and friends. I think I must have lived in Italy in a former life…