Growing up in Singapore, Gladys Tay remembers how almost everything had to look the same at school.
"We had uniforms and if you wore hair ribbons, it could only be three colors" (black, white and blue), she said of her British style of schooling.
Tay snuck in whimsy whenever she could.
"My dad traveled a lot for work, so he would buy me things you couldn't find in Singapore. One of my earliest memories is when he got me this Hello Kitty pencil box that nobody else had and it was one of those [personalized] things that I could take to school," she said. "At a young age, I learned that it's OK to be different and that it was fun. That grew into me loving all things vintage because vintage is very unique."
That love for rare finds — combined with a philosophy that more is more — translates to Tay's professional and personal life.
The Shoreview home where she and her husband, Frank Foo, live is brimming with vintage finds. Tay has also made a name for herself in the vintage decor and furniture world as a designer and retailer (you also might recognize her from "Twin Cities Live," where she makes regular appearances as a style expert).
"I'm a maximalist," she said. "I think our homes are meant to be filled with things that we love and bring us joy. The more, the merrier."
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Bringing work home
Inside the couple's split-level home, the furnishings are on the colorful and lighthearted side, with some stately period pieces woven in. In the dining room, the wife-husband duo breathed new life into a ping-pong table, replacing the original legs with antique pedestals sourced from an estate sale and outfitting it with 1970s chairs in the shape of a hand they scored on Craigslist.
"We use it as a dining room table and, if we want, we can still use it to play ping-pong," Tay said. "It's a novelty and a fun, multifunctional piece.
Tay loves art in all shapes and sizes. A giant mural of the children's book character Babar the Elephant mingles with ancient European portraits as well as a giant Hello Kitty head and heart-shaped figurines.
"It fits my style — Old World meets modern with lots of color," she said.
The living and family rooms are further proof of Tay's maximalist vintage style, with pieces scored from local flea markets, estate sales and online markets. Also in the mix are what Tay suspects were store displays — larger-than-life Crayola crayons and an oversized Kraft parmesan cheese shaker, for starters. Then there's the giant candy container with the Snickers logo that the couple found on Facebook Marketplace and repurposed into a coffee table.
Still, such statement pieces would be hard-pressed to overshadow the giant camel that sits in the living room. Tay fell in love with the fiberglass sculpture after spotting it at an estate sale. It took some convincing, but Foo eventually came around — once they were able to talk the price down from $600 to $200.
"It's such a fun, artistic piece," she said.
The accidental vintage dealer
While Tay loves to collect throwback items, she knows that not everything she loves can fit in their home. And that's how the couple's retail business was accidentally launched.
At one point, "my husband said, 'We're running out of space in the house. You need to let some things go in order to bring in new things,'" said Tay.
With backgrounds in communications and retail, the duo launched an online market called Foo Shoppe specializing in vintage home furniture and decor. Five years later, the couple have settled into their roles. Tay does the shopping and selling, while Foo handles packaging and transport.
Foo said that specializing in vintage wasn't on his radar, but he admits that the couple's now full-time business has grown on him.
"I've always loved vintage cars so this was a good transition," he said. Plus, "I get excited about the hunt."
And as the business has grown, so have the services they offer. Tay is now a vintage-centric decorator and consultant. She found that customers often sought her expertise on the value of and on how to sell their throwback tableware, decor and furniture items.
"Everything just happened organically," said Tay. "Many people who reach out are ready to downsize. Their kids are off to college or they're getting older and they're looking to get rid of their things."
Others want her advice on how to style their spaces. Her approach is to let her clients know that there's more than one way to decorate with vintage. Because, as she knows firsthand, personal tastes can vary.
"Design is about experimenting and if you see something you love, it will probably go with other things in your home," Tay said. "Our homes are supposed to be a story and reflection of who we are. For me, I try not to take life too seriously and find humor in things. So if a camel brings me joy, it brings me joy."