x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Make a piece you fell in love with functional

My Space Emily Gordon, an Abu Dhabi-based artist who specialises in contemporary three-dimensional collages, discusses her eclectic taste in antiques.

As I enter the home of the artist Emily Gordon, I am greeted by a hallway lined with pictures, three deep in places. "Sorry about the clutter," she says, "these are all waiting to be collected by their owners." In the sitting room, more of her work lines its bare walls. "The decoration here is pretty transient, to be honest. As soon as these are picked up, something else will replace them and the room will change again."

Less transient are the antiques and bespoke pieces she has lovingly collected over the 18 years she has lived in the UAE. "When we arrived in Abu Dhabi, there were hardly any residential buildings, let alone furniture shops, so we just had to make do." The sleek glass table top behind the sofa, which rests on six huge, smooth marble cubes, is a perfect example of how this "make do" solution has worked to great effect. "I found the marble in a workshop in Musaffah and got some glass cut to cover it."

Gordon, originally from Oregon in the US, specialises in contemporary three-dimensional collages, consisting of up to eight or nine layers of paint, resin, paraffin and wax, and "floating" with metal, gold leaf and glass. She has a loyal following, having been commissioned by several palaces and exhibited at galleries such as the Majlis in Dubai and Hemisphere Gallery in Abu Dhabi. She clearly has a knack for turning unusual objects into functional pieces of furniture. By the door, an enormous copper urn, topped with bevelled glass and a vase of emerald green bamboo shoots, makes an innovative occasional table. "I bought the urn in Oman but I have no idea what it's for; I just thought it was unusual." And by the sofa, a scarlet Tibetan drum painted with an intricate dragon motif has been transformed into a decorative end table. "I dragged that back from Thailand years ago, when I was running a little business exporting furniture."

Cleverly, the simple, beige seating, arranged around a coffee table made from an old Omani door, serves as the perfect blank canvas for her collection of pieces from Africa and the Middle and Far East. I spot another beautifully ornate wooden door, propped against the wall, which, she explains, she found in an alley in Abu Dhabi, covered in cement. "At the time, when they were putting up all the high rises, you could find amazing pieces like this just lying in the street. I love things that have a bit of history, when I can look at it and think, 'What sort of people have walked through this door? How many weddings and funeral processions has it seen?'" I ask if there are any more secret stashes of furniture to be found in the city, which I can raid to expunge the glaring Ikea-ness of my own home. "No, it doesn't happen any more. It's all been picked over and places like the Cultural Foundation are keeping them now, quite rightly, to preserve the old culture."

Despite what Gordon described as "clutter", the room has a spacious, airy feel and the careful symbiosis of antique and modern pieces means the ambience never strays into the realms of "tourist tat". Contemporary cushions in bright pink and a luxurious silk shawl draped over the arm of a chair add bold splashes of colour to the simple furniture, which, she tells me, is 10 years old. "I think there are more interesting things than wild furniture. When you've got all this going on," she gestures, "you need somewhere easy to rest the eye."

There is an obvious emphasis on texture, from the gnarled wood of the coffee table to the rough-cut marble side tables and soft velour cushions. The central space has been kept clutter-free, with objects placed strategically round the edges of the room, in corners and underneath things. We dig out a polished wooden box from under a window seat. "It's an old ship's document box," she explains. "It was found in Oman but originally came from a Portuguese ship." And underneath one of the sofa side tables is a beautiful striped bowl, filled with painted black and white gourds, which her mother brought from Papua New Guinea, although, as she points out "the bowl was made by the Touareg tribe in Morocco".

She shows me one of her recent projects, which involved turning a teak rice pestle into a beautifully smooth, low stool. "I found it in Sharjah and just thought, 'What a dreamy piece of teak; How can I make it functional?'" She has filled the deep hole inside, the result of years of rice-grinding, with wax, resin and acrylic. "It could be an end table or extra seating. I love its historical context: this was a family heirloom and someone's prize possession, which was central to their livelihood. It's very compelling."

A fierce-looking African mask glowers at us from behind the sofa as we sift through intricately woven Omani baskets, beaded wooden stools and pumpkin-shaped spice boxes from Thailand. "I just hope people keep creating these wonderful things. There's such a huge amount of interest in them. There's no point getting too attached to them though, because at the end of the day, it's all just 'borrowed stuff'. Who am I going to leave it to anyway?"

I have an excellent suggestion but decide to keep it to myself.

kboucher@thenational.ae