x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Gilt, gongs and guest houses

Insider Zain Mustafa's stylish contemporary majlis won at INDEX while Bauhaus has turned its former student quarters into a boutique hostel.

The designer Zain Mustafa says his modern, cushion-filled majlis is an exercise in "putting comfort before image."
The designer Zain Mustafa says his modern, cushion-filled majlis is an exercise in "putting comfort before image."

Wading through INDEX - Dubai's annual furniture trade show - you can't help but notice that the Italians have two contrasting schools of furniture design. There's the chic, modular, cappuccino-coloured brigade - and there's the gilt-erati. It struck me that the opulent interiors that the region is renowned for - so disparaged by the international design set, who make the annual pilgrimage to worship at the Milan Salone - have actually been influenced by, yup, the Italians.

Standing among exhibits loaded with faux-Venetian gilt, fringes, tassels and whatnot, it's clear that they've a lot to answer for. (As do the French and the Spanish, for that matter). Thankfully Marcus Fairs, the founder of dezeen.com - an online magazine - was here to set things straight. His talk outlined how the economic earthquake has had an impact on design trends - so it is now out with bling and "tacky" chandeliers, to be replaced by comforting, Zen-like spaces with lots of white, cosy, enveloping furnishings, and objects that have a bricolage aesthetic. And the place that has pioneered designs encompassing all these trends? Those smart Scandis at Ikea - who took the unprecedented step this year of showing their wares at Milan, but not, sadly, at INDEX.

This past fortnight the UAE has witnessed a relentless round of design talks, furniture showroom launches, exhibitions and awards. The debut season of Abu Dhabi Art incorporated a design studio-cum-workshop, which seemed more geared to students than collectors. Where, I wondered, were the design collectibles to match the quality of the art works? Commercial Interior Design magazine threw its annual awards bash - too bad that a fair few of the shortlisted entrants had either shut shop, left the country or were behind bars.

Zain Mustafa's winning "contemporary majlis" at INDEX (beating Hirsch Bedner Associates, Etcetera Living and House of Zunn) deserved to win, for not simply creating a set (although HBA's was rather stylish) but a conceptual exercise in seating a lot of people in a contemporary way. Bespoke seating encompassed the whole space, providing a tent-like softness, centred towards the middle - making it inclusive and engaging. Mustafa stated that the mounds of cushions demonstrated his aim of "putting comfort before image". Hmm. I'm with the legendary interior designer, Andree Putman (who's working with the Kuwaiti developer Abyaar, to instil some gallic chic into its appallingly named Acacia Avenue Residences), who once told me, "visual comfort is more important than physical comfort ..."

The best design I saw all week? The Yas Hotel. Despite witnessing an army of snaggers (who record all the defects that need fixing - hey that's what comes from rushing its opening), this white temple of design - with its beautiful terrazzo and steel "Scaletrics" floor (followed through in the carpets and literature graphics) to the jewel-coloured furnishings and seductive, curvaceous spaces - made me want to check in. Permanently.

The influential German design school that was established in the 1920s opened its former students' quarters as a boutique youth hostel earlier this year. One of the buildings, where the artist Kandinsky lived, features a gold wall - not something you'd expect to see at the Bauhaus. Another surprise - particularly for diehard minimalists - is the discovery that the cluster of white cube buildings, with their flat roofs and glass curtain walls, features a staggering 140 colours inside. Which all goes to show that it's not the shade or finish that's in question, but how it is applied.

Yvonne Courtney is the co-founder of designtastic.net, a design consultancy and e-zine.