Like all of the most ingenious ideas, Niall Grannell's was born out of necessity. Two years ago - not long after moving to Dubai - the young Irishman bought an apartment in Dubai Marina and moved a lifetime's worth of belongings from his home on the Irish coast into his smart two-bedroom property: "Through my love of water sports I had accumulated a lot of bulky equipment. I hadn't realised back home how much room it all took up and my second bedroom turned into a storage room, which just didn't make sense."
Grannell considered self-storage, a concept that has mushroomed in the UAE recently, but found it expensive and impractical: "I was convinced there had to be something better so I looked at the parking space allocated with my apartment, drew a simple sketch of a storage box on long legs that sat above the bonnet of my car and set about finding someone to build it." The result was the SpaceBox, a solid steel container that provides up to 132 cubic feet of extra storage. "The box is configured so that items such as bikes, skis and surfboards will all fit easily," explains Grannell. "It is crafted in one solid piece so the legs can withstand knocks from a vehicle."
Such was the positive reaction to his design that, last August, Grannell gave up his job and launched YourSpace, manufacturing and leasing the SpaceBox to individuals and developers: "It was a simple solution to a complicated problem," he shrugs. "But really, who doesn't benefit from more storage?" Who, indeed? Grannell's out-sized sporting accoutrements are typical of a generation of consumers who are increasingly acquisitive - of gadgetry, "lifestyle" equipment and accessories, footwear and clothing. And yet this unprecedented materialism comes at a time when the fashion for interiors is sleek, uncluttered and minimal. Not only that, apartments here no longer automatically come in sizes large and extra-large - and developers seem to assume that nobody owns a thing, to judge by the tiny or non-existent wardrobes. For those expatriates who don't still have a house in their home country to store their rarely-used belongings the problem is exacerbated.
"The result is an awful lot of people with far too many things and too little space to store them," says Suzanne Baker of The Holding Company, one of Europe's most successful on-line retailers of storage items. The London-based company was established 15 years ago by Dawna Walter, an American expatriate who was, like Grannell, desperate for storage in her cramped mews house and set about finding ingenious, stylish solutions. Since then it has captured the imagination of a public hungry for a clutter-free life. Says Baker: "We're also finding that people aren't moving as often as they were during the property boom so they are even keener to utilise space."
The Holding Company's latest focus is what Baker refers to as "air space" - vertical storage on walls, gaps at the bottom of cupboards - valuable centimetres that can make all the difference. In older UAE properties, with their high ceilings, the potential to create extra storage space above standard-height cupboards is considerable. Even for those who live in one of the UAE's many very spacious villas the storage conundrum is no less valid than in a smaller home: "Most of our clients are those who have invested in their own homes so are out here with all their worldly goods," says Tony Lamb, the managing director of Under One Roof, a Dubai-based residential contractor that has a showroom in Al Quoz. "These people may not lack space but they still want to create good-looking storage with walk-in closets and custom-made cabinets."
The company is often called upon to make existing storage more useable: "A lot of the villas have very high ceilings and their built-in wardrobes have cupboards three metres high in which owners place things then have difficulty getting to them, so we are looking at electronic storage systems from Germany that can retrieve items easily [usually by means of a carousel that brings stored things into view]," says Lamb.
When a passion for cycling led Jon Thripleton, a British expatriate, to spend thousands of dirhams on racing bikes and accessories he was left with a storage headache, despite living in a spacious villa: "The garage with the dust and heat wasn't an option and my wife was getting frustrated with bikes constantly in the entrance hall." His villa had a sweeping curved staircase with "dead" space beneath it so Thripleton enlisted a local joinery firm to enclose it. Inside, they built shelving and installed cycle racks, closeting his equipment safely and neatly away: "We were worried it might detract from the airy feeling of the hallway but it looked great, did the job perfectly and cost less than Dh3,000."
Fitting out alcoves and under-stairs cavities are in a day's work for Michael Cassidy of Broadway Interiors in Dubai: "Even when there is enough storage we look at ways to increase its potential. Even installing a simple shelving system can make all the difference to the usable space." When working in smaller properties, Lamb says his projects mostly centre on reconfiguring closets to make them more efficient. It often calls for a bit of creative engineering - like the fitted wardrobes in a small one-bedroom Greens apartment that were re-jigged to house a built-in washer and dryer. The interior designer Hanne Gokstad is also often called upon to work on smaller apartments in the UAE and finds the most efficient way to create extra storage is by custom-building a platform bed. "It creates a huge storage space for bigger items like suitcases and sporting equipment - things that are not always in use but hard to keep out of sight," she says. Gokstad and her partner work in conjunction with the joinery and upholsterery firm City Palace: "We design the space and they realise it; it's a collaboration that works very well for both us and the client."
When the budget isn't up to bespoke, however, there's no shortage of practical solutions for the space-starved here. Of course Ikea has made its household name in functional, cost-conscious storage for the masses, with the simple lines of the IVAR shelving system its best-seller worldwide since the 1970s and much of its website devoted to advice on our almost obsessive need for storage. Howards Storage World (HSW), an Australian franchise giant that has operated in the region since 1995, has three stores in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi. "People come to us for functional storage, mainly - racks and units that can be hidden away in drawers and cupboards, as people are very much favouring the minimal look in their homes," says Hassam Tadmori. The 60-year-old Swedish brand Elfa, sold by HSW, is popular with local contractors and DIY-ers alike for the simplicity of the system, which works around brackets that hang from a single horizontal top track (priced from Dh100) that's fixed to the wall. Depending on your needs, you can add elements from a huge selection of shelves, drawer baskets, racks, rails and organisers.
At the other end of the scale, discerning storage seekers turn to Creative Closets for custom-designed solutions. "Our projects are very high-end and at this level of the market, clients are keen on a personalised solution," explains Nada al Nakeeb, a company spokeswoman. "We used to get requests for fitted wardrobes and bespoke shelving, mainly, but lately we are seeing a trend towards clients who want whole rooms given over to a storage system."
From its offices in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain the company sends what it calls "space scientists" out on site visits to assess their clients' lifestyles and wish lists before making design suggestions. Al Nakeeb says that her most lavish project to date was for a lady who wanted cabinets to store her collection of handbags - all 500 of them. "Gucci, Chanel, Dior - she had them all, it really was quite something."