What do expatriates do when they want to live in a house in Thailand that reflects their own style? Designer Kristina Zanic and her husband Brian found the answer: find a house that has potential, and negotiate for reduced rent in return for you footing the renovation bill.

Nearly three years ago they found a four-bedroom, two-storey home in the Sukhumvit area that fitted the bill. "They call it tropical architecture. It’s basically a Bauhaus modernist style, with lots of concrete and brick work," says Kristina. "What’s good about this style is that it’s spacious."

From the start, Kristina, who took charge of the project, knew she’d be in for some serious work. "Everyone said ‘Oh my god! You’re not going to tackle this!’ The house was in disrepair. There were fluorescent lights, snail trails of wiring across the ceiling. There was really no kitchen, and the bathrooms were pink with blue, brown, green tiles."

Their budget kept in mind that they didn’t own the house, but nevertheless they wanted to create something comfortable and homey to live in.

First step was to replace the asbestos ceilings. Next walls were altered around the kitchen, before putting in white ribbed cupboards, black granite benches and a functional island holding recipe books. A ceiling to floor cupboard on one side couldn’t be built as Kristina wished, so instead, an alcove area was created to display a pottery collection. Wooden blinds and a few rugs keep the atmosphere warm.

"I love my kitchen. We like to entertain western-style, so when people come over for dinner, they like to hang around the kitchen. Creating the island in particular keeps that in mind."

In the spacious living area, everything was painted white. Downlights replaced the fluorescent lights, and fans were put in.

Kristina says the bathrooms are not necessarily something she’d have chosen for her own house. "But for whoever moves in here next – isn’t it best to have a white bathroom? I’v just put black granite on the floors and vanities. You can accessorise to make them really nice."

Upstairs they knocked out the walls to the bedroom closest to the stairs, only to find that the old balustrade was still in the wall. In this space they’ve created a cosy TV-room, lined with a huge collection of Brian’s books.

The guest room has a Thai-theme. It features a magnificent wooden bedhead, carved in Chiang Mai to Kristina’s specifications. The deep red curtains came from material bought at Chatuchak.

The main bedroom has yet to be tackled, but the next plans are to paint the corridor wall upstairs. "I love colour, but we’ve kept it quite neutral here. I’d like to paint the corridor wall a burnt orange red, just to give it new life, add some depth." There are also plans to paint the study a deep green.

Outdoors, the carport was closed in to become Kristina’s studio. She has views from three sides: a stone carving mounted on the wall outside can be seen while she works at her desk, a huge wooden carving faces the glass doors, and the garden can be seen out the third side.

The concrete areas in the garden were repaved, a jungle-like garden planted, and wind bricks were covered with plaited bamboo. The living area looks out onto this, creating a green environment perfect for entertaining. A few uplights make this a dramatic area at night, and a great place for barbecues and lounging during the day. "We love entertaining, and this house lends itself to that," says Kristina. "I bring a lot of clients here. It’s the sort of place you can relax – it’s not a show place."

The house is decorated with an eclectic mix of things. The couple have travelled extensively, and their collection of beautiful objects – including Indian silver bangles, Burmese lacquerware and Thai furniture reflect this.

The work certainly bears the mark of a professional – but in fact Kristina’s main design work is focused in the corporate world. Australian-born Kristina arrived in Thailand from London nine years ago, with the design company she worked with then. She first worked on designing both houses and corporate offices.

"I’d never worked so much in my life," she says. "The industry was very primitive – there wasn’t very much to source and there was a lot to find out. We had to do everything from scratch, so it was very challenging."

Eventually a fellow designer suggested they go into business together; they started Cityspace, and their first job was Citibank. "We had to design a space for 1,500 people. It was great, a really large project." The work took two years, and once other tenants saw their work, they queued up for their services. They ended up nearly fitting out the entire building.

Recent jobs for the company of 30 have included Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, Lowe Lintas, L’Oreal, the Air France lounge at Don Muang, BMW, the New Zealand embassy and Reuters. "We do a lot of banks – they’re more conservative, but one of my fortes is designing spaces for large groups of people. It’s about creating an environment that’s fantastic for people to work in. And every project has the potential to have a really great feature. "

The company is a partner in Design Worldwide Partnership, currently setting up in Singapore. "We’ll have different independent partners from around the region in that office, allowing us to become a regional player."

She says she’s only designed a few people’s homes. "Everyone has their own opinions about what they like. Some people have money, but they don’t have taste and they’re not willing to change. You need a lot more patience for it."

Instead, she’s ventured into the home market by creating another company, Asian Motifs. When the economy crashed, she and a friend decided to design homeware products just for fun. "My friend, a Scotish artist, likes pottery and wanted to work with celadon; I wanted to dabble in fabrics."

Someone suggested having an exhibtion at an art gallery, so they did; next they showed their collection at the Sheraton Hotel; suddenly they found themselves expanding their product line. Their most lavish request came from a buyer for the Sultan of Jedah, who came across their website and commissioned a dinner service for a party they were having in their Sardinian palace. Plans are now afoot to expand to London and Singapore.

But wherever Kristina goes now, she can be sure she’ll have a comfortable home to return to.

You can create a home that’s fantastic without spending a lot of money, Kristina says. Here are some tips:
* Do as much research as possible.
* To learn what you like and to develop your tastes, browse through decorating magazines.
* If you are going to use an interior designer, keep pictures of the styles you like to show them.
* Buying accessories can be an inexpensive way to make sure your home reflects your personality.
* Ask people where they bought things they have that you like.
* When you’re taking taxis or driving around small side streets, keep a sharp eye out for small places selling interesting things.
* Look out for people working out the fronts of shops, too. They can usually make things for you.
* Make sure your house is a place you want to live in – it’s got to be comfortable. If you have too many show rooms, you’ll end up living in a corner.
* Take advantage of the low price of flowers here and use them to brighten your home.
* Enjoy any renovations and design work that you do. Don’t rush things.
* On the other hand, don’t procrastinate either.

/ Lifestyle