It's hard to keep your eyes on one thing at Kulture House. At every turn, there is something quirky, colourful and interesting to look at – a hanging chair, a range of African and Asian textiles, framed travel photos and even a giant Babushka doll at the end of a hallway. Set up in a converted villa in Dubai, Kulture House is a mix of different things. It is a cafe and restaurant, but it also has retail spaces, a small garden and an art gallery for pop-up exhibitions.
This eclecticism and fusion of design elements is the brainchild of co-owner Sheikha Jawahir bint Butti Al Maktoum. In 2017, she and her business partner spotted a dilapidated villa on Jumeirah Beach Road. “We could see the potential in the space shine through,” she says. So the duo set about acquiring the abandoned residence and transforming it into Kulture House, which officially opened in March this year.
At the core of the business’s ethos is the interconnectedness of cultures, an idea that Sheikha Jawahir embraced during her many travels. “I immerse myself in the culture of each new destination,” she says. “It became beautifully apparent to me that each culture blends into the other with so many similarities intertwined throughout.”
Trained in interior design, Sheikha Jawahir reflects these cultural intersections in Kulture House's aesthetic. Towards the entrance, customers walk through an archway adorned with clusters of ceramic tiles sourced from Portugal, Italy and Morocco. A water feature in the front garden exudes a calming effect and was inspired by a trip to Arizona. Past the doors guarded by golden giraffes, you enter a space with a panoply of trinkets and unique decor. There to greet you is a coffee bar serviced by Encounter Coffee, run by the same people from Tom & Serg and tea specialist Avantcha. Textiles are hung on the wall, and carpets with Middle Eastern and African designs are piled together on the floor.
In another room, the main dining area is covered by a bamboo ceiling. A bookshelf is ornamented with beads and bracelets. The walls of a little nook are covered in a pattern drawn from African textiles. On another side, beaded lamps dot the concrete wall. Down a hallway that is framed by a blue and white arch of Indian design, a shelf is filled with pictures of UAE leaders, an African tribe, a portrait of a geisha and travel snapshots.
There is a sense that Sheikha Jawahir has brought in all her favourite souvenirs and decor items here. Her personal touch is everywhere, especially when it comes to the furniture. Every piece inside the space has been commissioned by Kulture House, part of the owners' goal to engage with the local creative community. A beautifully designed chandelier made from upcycled stools, for example, has been created by local brand Kashida. Scattered across the floors are pockets of mosaic tiles, the same ones from the archway outside, which have been custom-made by Mosaico in Ras Al Khaimah.
Because of its former life as a residence, the space is divided neatly into sections, with each room possessing a mood of its own. “As an interior designer, I have created a space that takes my guests on a journey of discovery,” Sheikha Jawahir says. Towards the back is an art gallery, which recently ran a month-long exhibition of paintings and sculptures by British artist Julian Castaldi, who has lived in the Emirates for six years.
The story of how he came to exhibit in the space involves curiosity and pure chance. Castaldi was walking past the villa as construction work was still ongoing, and the mosaic tiles at the entrance lured him in. He sensed something creative and interesting was going on. After introducing himself to the owners and discussing his work, they agreed to showcase his pieces as a solo show in September. “We love his work,” says Sheikha Jawahir. “It is vibrant and fun with a nod to Emirati nostalgia.”
Castaldi's paintings combine the aesthetics of pop art and vintage photography. His series on Emirati leaders is not like the usual official portraits hung in government offices. There's Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, in the driver's seat of a vintage car peering out the window and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, smiling, camera in hand, as he takes a photo.
"I always try to find images that aren't popular images," Castaldi says. "If you Google Mick Jagger pop art, for example, you're going to come up with the same 10 over and over. So that was like looking for something different."
Although these paintings appear stencil-like, they're not. Castaldi's process involves redrawing old photographs on canvas using a combination of acrylic, enamel and the occasional Sharpie. The subjects of these works have been drawn from vintage images of the Emirates, including old taxis, Dubai Zoo and the city's first neighbourhoods. "I collect vintage magazines, photography, cameras, lots of things … I've probably got 15,000 vintage slides from the US, from the 1950s, '60s and '70s," he says. In the UAE, he scours Facebook groups such as Old Dubai for vintage photographs and is working on his own archive – a book project titled Goodbye, Dubai, which documents the city's ever-changing landscape.
Four of Castaldi's canvases are still on view in the restaurant section, while this month, Kulture House is hosting a jewellery pop-up. "We are always on the lookout for local artists, designers and talent to work with," says Sheikha Jawahir, adding that the function of the space can change to keep things "exciting".
For the rest of the month, the temporary retail concept Kanz: Emirati Treasures will be in the gallery, showcasing high-end jewellery pieces from four regional designers: Aisha Baker, Five 2, Gafla and Shamsa Alabbar.
Shopping is very much part of the Kulture House experience. There are two other dedicated retail spaces within. At the entrance, a permanent concept store features products hand-picked by Sheikha Jawahir – a combination of home-grown brands and those discovered during her travels. These include Zuri, a sustainable fashion brand from Kenya, with items such as jugs, belts and bracelets inspired by African prints. The rest of the items are reflective of the co-owners' own favourites in decor and beauty, including Dubai's The Nature Lab, The Room Place and fragrance brand Testament Collection, which is sold exclusively at the store.
The second space will host rotating pop-ups, often featuring home-grown names. After guests have had their fill of art and shopping, there's the food to look forward to.
In September, the restaurant expanded and updated its menu, which includes a selection of vegan and vegetarian options. Like everything else at Kulture House, the menu is a mixed bag – of burgers and barbecue, pasta and risotto, hummus and falafel, teriyaki and tacos. Guests can go as healthy (the kale salad is deliciously fresh) or unhealthy (deep-friend red velvet Oreos with ice cream, anyone?) as they want. The Kulture Smash Burger is a highlight and one of their bestsellers. And, as if the interiors weren’t Instagrammable enough, Kulture House takes it one step further with a latte art machine, which prints graphic-style images directly onto your foamy hot beverage.
It's a little difficult to define what Kulture House is or what it wants to be, although it certainly follows a trend of concept stores and cafes in Dubai that have settled into this blend of social space, curated retail destination and food spot. Sheikha Jawahir likes to think of it as a "community destination". With the cooler season approaching, plans are afoot for the backyard and front garden seating to be put to use for workshops and events. "UAE residents enjoy an experience that is multifaceted," she says, adding that guests can expect something new with every visit – an approach that just might work best in a world where attention spans are getting shorter and the need for instant gratification keener.