"I've been in Dubai for 15 years and for the first seven I lived in an apartment," says Brian Van Ess as he shows us around his decidedly colourful villa in Jumeirah. "Like a lot of expatriates I didn't invest in my surroundings, and furnished my original apartment with just the basics: a couch, a bed, a table. Then, eight years ago, I made a conscious decision to improve the quality of my life and told myself to 'get on with it'. I wanted to live comfortably for now, rather than at some undefined later."
This sentiment will resonate with many UAE residents. Brian's "getting on with it" has resulted in a home that is a refreshing change from the neutral palette and safe decor normally associated with the Emirates.
"When I moved to Dubai there was a definite culture shock. West Palm Beach, where I grew up, is incredibly relaxed and not as stuffy as, say, life in Dallas, where I've also lived and worked. I'm more suited to beach living than urban life and have always tried to emphasise the outside in any homes I lived in. I don't do matchy-matchy."
This ethos also has reaped rich professional rewards for Brian, the creative director of Contempo, one of the premier events and floral design companies in the Middle East. He previously worked with multiple fashion designers in the US, including Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Byblos, Anne Taylor and Issey Miyake. He has conceptualised and designed some of the Middle East's most glamorous weddings and has transformed the shape and style of corporate floral design, starting with his work at The Fairmont Dubai. Most recently, he designed the winner's circle and corporate boxes at Dubai World Cup, and he is finalising the details of a wedding at Armani Hotel, a fashion show and more corporate events. His love of detail and aesthetics has clearly been a well-honed skill.
"Definitely my interest in interiors can be traced back to the annual Parade of Homes in Florida when I was growing up. It was a twice-yearly event when you could visit properties and see the diversity of designs - from chinoiserie influences to Mediterranean-inspired decor to the ultra modern and very flamboyant. As I grew up, I continued to visit houses. I loved going to show homes and property launches. I've seen some incredible furniture in my time and I guess I have retained this information and used it in my professional life as well."
Brian found his own home by accident rather than design, and worked with the space he was given.
"I happened upon this house one day. The front gate was open and I decided to investigate. Everything was dead - the pool was empty and the garden overgrown. The rooms, including the kitchen and living room, were a wreck. However, when I got to the impressive staircase, I was sold. And when I saw the view from the first floor, where I could watch the skyline and the Burj Khalifa grow, I knew I was home. I started to investigate how I might stay here, and realised the rent was cheaper at that time than staying in a three-bedroom apartment in a high-rise."
The two-storey villa has three bedrooms and an open-plan downstairs space that Brian has completely redone. He defines the style as "traditional, eclectic and organised. I systematically clear clutter and I have defined groupings of objects, either on consoles or coffee tables."
The biggest problem with the redesign, he says, was getting started. "The hardest part was deciding on the colours. I decided on the colour of the living room first and then tried to source the fabric. I admit it's not quite what I had in mind. I wanted a much more tropical print, but I always knew I wanted red.
"The other main factor in beginning was the chandelier because it had to work with the walls. Because the room was an odd shape, I had to design the furniture myself. Fortunately, I have the backup team from Contempo and our craftsmen to help achieve this look. The factor I wanted was flow - movement inside the space - and I always wanted these cut-out style sheers as curtains."
The effect is hospitable and dramatic. There are multiple reception and bar areas, which also emphasise Brian's love of entertaining. "I have the luxury of a house boy, and I've found out I can entertain up to 200 people at one time in the house. I did a great Thanksgiving in our hallway for 20 people. Then I had our staff party at home and transformed the outdoor area into a winter wonderland with seven Christmas trees and an all-singing, all-dancing band."
This sense of fun is also highlighted in what Brian calls his pool room. "The pink sofa sets the tone for the rest of the decor. I was inspired by the wacky designs of Miami. The bar was actually made for an event and I decided to reuse it rather than store it in our warehouse. The curtains and flooring were actually very simple to put together." The effect is enhanced by natural, floral designs throughout the house, and photographs taken from events (framed by Contempo's master craftsmen).
Brian admits the house is not yet how he wants it, but to any outsider it seems complete - even the pet pooch, Sunshine, complements the welcoming decor.
"I have all of my art collection in the US - I've got some really wild stuff mixed with French traditional paintings. My home in Florida is all about the light. I have a sun porch and all the windows are floor-to-ceiling, which I love. The house has a wrap-around balcony, and I've decorated it in strong colours. The bedroom has a strong Tommy Bahama vibe with red walls and bamboo and wicker furniture. I've also got some fabulous lamps and a jacuzzi. The house has a view of the Gulf of Mexico and the intracoastal waterway. I live close to a health club and am surrounded by palm trees, so I feel it is very tropical in comparison to Dubai."
Whatever his personal discontent, his Dubai home seems complete mainly because everything fits properly. "I've got moving down to a fine art. I don't have a lot of extras. I've also realised that the sofas sold in Dubai are only made for square or linear rooms - it's impossible to find curves. The beauty about this place is that I've tried to accentuate the flow by having furniture made to measure." For inspiration, Brian usually visits the malls once a month and is a fan of Roche Bobois, Marina, The One and Crate & Barrel. He doesn't spend a lot on extras, though.
"Luxury for me is space and having the ability to move to the kitchen, to the sunroom and to the pool outside. It's also about having help in the home and in that respect I feel very blessed."
As for visitors' reactions, Brian says: "It's always the same. They usually say 'wow' and then how much it feels like home." There can be no greater compliment.
For more information on Contempo and Flowers by Contempo, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, 04 332 0077