A home in the life of Nada Onsi is the co-owner of O'Cocoon in Abu Dhabi, Damascus and her hometown of Beirut.
'A home must evolve over time'
Nada Onsi is the co-owner of O'Cocoon, the well-known home shop in Abu Dhabi. She lives in Beirut, where she opened the first store 18 years ago. She recently opened a third one in Damascus You grew up in one of the grand old homes of Lebanon. Have you continued the family tradition of the big formal style? Actually, no, not at all. My home in Beirut is quite the opposite of the place in which we grew up, and of my stores; I've gone for a neutral palette, sans couleur, nothing too dramatic or glitzy, more of an airy contemporary look. I guess that's probably because I see so much of the "statement" type of decor during the day, in the store and my clients' homes, that after work I welcome something more subtle. I do, of course, have some of the smaller more everyday items from O'Cocoon around the place, be it guest linens, serving dishes or vases, but muted. Part of the art of good decorating is doing what is appropriate to one's space and lifestyle, and that's what works for us there. Perhaps my taste is changing; that does happen and one's home must evolve as one moves through different phases of life. Just as you won't wear the same kind of clothes at 20, 40 or 60 years old, your home also needs to change over time.
But you speak so fondly of the old family home ... Oh yes, I loved it. It was a 1940s house filled with history and beautiful things: crystal chandeliers, big heavy wooden consoles, huge Persian rugs and a lot of art, including work by my grandfather [the famous Lebanese painter] Omar Onsi. It reflected the rich culture, traditions, religions and history of our family and the country.
My sister Zoubeida, who runs the Abu Dhabi O'Cocoon with me, has the same memories. For both of us, that home nurtured our love of fine things, whether those are big statement pieces or the smallest of details. It also gave us both the view that "home" is one of the most important things in our lives. I think it's a strong part of the Lebanese culture, to aspire to own a home that will provide a place of safety, a haven for the family both today and for generations to come. You'll usually find with Lebanese people, no matter where in the world they live, that they still have a place "back home". It gives us roots for the future and a gathering place today.
What do you like most about your current home? I love that the whole 400-square-metre apartment - but the living area in particular - is open and spacious enough to have big gatherings of family and friends, where people can come and relax and have a good time. Equally important is the ocean view - I can't live without the sea. We also have a lovely big terrace that serves as a whole extra living and entertaining space and, with the fantastic weather we have in Beirut, we can use it throughout the summer. Some of my decorative pieces are probably not what my clients would expect me to have, such as the wooden African giraffe and contemporary paintings and an old fridge from Harrods. The apartment's not filled with the Limoges, Christofle, Lalique and similar items we stock in O'Cocoon; in fact my most precious things are the paintings done by my daughter Lamia al Jallad, who is an architect but also an extremely talented painter. Apart from being beautiful, they are a link with the past - to my artist grandfather, whose work was all around us as we were growing up - and something for the future, a continuation of a family tradition.
Nevertheless you do have many lovely things. Does this mean people have to "watch out" in your home? As I've said, beautiful decoration does not necessarily have to come with a high price tag and the essence of home is a place where family and friends can relax. If this means they want to put their feet up and settle down under a blanket, so be it. And if that blanket happens to be a silk throw from Paris, well that's fine too.
Your husband is German. Does he share your taste? Believe it or not, for the most part yes. He is German by birth but in his soul I think he is now Lebanese. He loves the country as much as I do and so he understands what I'm trying to achieve and enjoys the same lifestyle we all do. Which is not to say that we don't sometimes disagree about what should go where ... Do you see a difference in how people view the concept of home in the UAE, compared to Lebanon?
I do: as I have said, in Lebanon the idea of owning a home and making it a special place for the family is very strong. Of course we see that here with our Emirati clients, but it's interesting that so few expat women seem to want to do much with their homes here. I understand not wanting to buy big expensive pieces that are difficult to move when their time in this country is up, but there are lots of small things one can do to turn a house or apartment into a home, without spending a fortune. A beautiful vase, for example, with flowers, can transform a room and bring life to a dead space; I can't live without flowers, whether freshly cut, or the beautiful artificial blooms available these days - or the planters of greenery on the terrace. This is particularly true in a country where natural greenery is not plentiful.