"It has taken one whole, challenging year," says Nazzy Beglari-Scarlet, "but now I feel at home here." By here, she means not only in Abu Dhabi - which, of all the places she has lived during her life as a "global nomad", she says is the closest to her mental picture of the Tehran of her childhood - but also in the house that she and her husband, Peter Scarlet, the executive director of Abu Dhabi Film Festival, rent in the capital. It's a huge space filled with contemporary art, Persian rugs, colourful artefacts and everyday domestic products from all over the Middle East, customised furniture, intriguing textiles and, above all, a tremendous sense of warmth.
"I left Iran as a teenager just before the 1979 revolution, not knowing that I would never go back; that's why home and what I remember of our home in Tehran is such an emotional issue," explains Nazzy. "I try again and again to deconstruct and reconstruct my memory of home, where my grandmother entertained friends and guests almost every day and the kitchen was always active." Thus, finding a house that they could be happy in was a huge challenge for the couple. "I said to Rachel [Morley, their leasing agent at LLJ Property], 'Show me everything' and, bless her, she took me at my word," recalls Nazzy, who had to combine house-hunting with her demanding job as a senior correspondent for Voice of America television. "After nearly four months I was beginning to despair when Rachel called and said, 'I've found something I think you'll like' but refused to give me any details. The moment I saw it, I knew this was it."
Although it was a bare, newly built shell, the space, light and twin roof terraces had great potential; turning it into a home was another matter. "We wanted to travel light as we wouldn't be here permanently, so we brought very little with us from New York," says Nazzy. "Luckily there was a sale at Marina so I bought a lot of the big pieces - but it still felt soulless." Several trips back to the US followed: "We needed some of our carpets, our paintings, books and DVDs so it would feel familiar."
Since then Nazzy has been shopping - not for the usual, smart "off the shelf" decorative items but for the inexpensive, unusual and offbeat (not least the house's signature flock of terracotta birds from the Iranian souq that populates the front garden and one roof terrace). And when she couldn't find that, she simply customised what she could find: a plain Ikea sofa has been brought to life with calligraphy drawn directly onto the upholstery; ditto the lampshades in Peter's office and the guest bedroom; an unremarkable wooden stool from Marina has been transformed with a fabric collage incorporating vintage photos of an Egyptian diva; a simple sofa is now covered in rich toffee-coloured velvet decorated with strips of vintage Suzani fabric; plain cream cotton curtains have been transformed with calligraphy or appliquéd screen-prints.
None of it was expensive; it's all in Nazzy's eye for detail and talent for combining forms, styles and colours - often in unexpected ways. Take, for instance, the front garden. Where there was bare sand Nazzy planted bougainvillea, damas and frangipani - all of a jungle-like lushness after less than a year. Where others would see a parking space, Nazzy saw an opportunity to create beauty. She painted the ugly grey concrete paving bright turquoise, draped cream canvas over the wooden gazebo, hung diaphanous cream curtains at either end, added a fountain and some furniture (much of which she repainted) and voilà - another great space for relaxing with friends when the weather is cooler.
Clearly anything that looks as effortless as this requires a tremendous amount of work. "I did everything by myself and it was hell," Nazzy admits. Clearly, though, it was worth it. "It's so lovely here we hardly go out - there's just no need," says Peter with a happy grin.