Interior design consultant Dr Reem El Mutwalli is the epitome of old-school discretion. Her list of clients may include some of the UAE’s most high-profile families, but in contrast to our current selfie-driven show-off and share-all culture, she prefers to keep this aspect of her work private.
El Mutwalli is a respected academic and holds a PhD in Islamic art and architecture. She has written a number of books and been responsible for curating exhibitions and collections at the Cultural Foundation, Abu Dhabi, as well as amassing a collection of Emirati dresses that reflect the country’s history.
She describes herself as “a scholar who happens to design”, and is ever-conscious of the UAE’s history, culture and traditions when she creates.
El Mutwalli tells me that she recently read the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, which reflects on the future of the human race and has been referenced by both former US president Barack Obama and Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates. It struck a chord, she says.
“Lots of change is happening so fast, and you have to be able to move and adapt. I was part of the first generation that grew up with Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Founding Father of this nation, who created the story of the UAE. Yet, going through all the changes that were happening so quickly, so much was dissolving and going away, that I felt it was important that this heritage and culture was written about.”
The UAE is a unique market and, unlike the United States or Europe, it is relatively small, which means that, to a certain extent, everyone knows everyone. El Mutwalli believes that this stretches her creatively, as it is essential to do something different every time – it's simply not possible to design something and replicate it again and again, and still make a profit. "It's a one-off every time, be it a dress, an interior or an artwork," she says. "It's a continuous demand, searching for the new, the different and the unusual."
When it comes to interiors, El Mutwalli’s way of working is far from typical. She doesn’t bid for projects, yet is called upon by the same clients repeatedly, having worked for many of these families across the generations. Most of the interiors she works on are made up of suites or apartments within large homes. When families have eight or nine children, their homes are continually changing or being staged for different occasions – to reflect a marriage, the birth of a child, a new family member, and so on.
“Fortunately, these clients have a lot of homes, both here and abroad, so by the time I’ve finished one, it’s time to go back to the first one and start again,” says the designer.
One brief that she will talk about was supplied recently by Sheikha Moza bint Mohammed Al Nahyan, wife of Sheikh Hazza bin Tahnoun Al Nahyan, for private quarters set across 2,000 square feet of space at their Al Ain home. The idea was based around a green oasis theme. As a result, El Mutwalli utilised a palette of deep olive, racing green and aubergine. Typically, once she has reviewed a brief, El Mutwalli appraises the space and its functional requirements, and picks one or two focal points from which she weaves her design – this could be a fabric pattern, a period style, a painting, a colour scheme or even a string of pearls that inspires a concept and her imagination. Her work on residential projects differs from when she is delivering commercial projects, which are a little more formulaic.
“With residential and with my type of clientele, it’s more like a work of art and requires my presence all the time,” she explains. “It’s like creating a painting; I don’t decide what’s going here or there until I’ve gone through certain steps.”
El Mutwalli will often visualise everything from flower arrangements and landscape design to furnishings, wall and floor coverings, right through to details like the dining service, staff uniforms and personal stationery.
Having worked with her over the course of many years, her clients are often happy to rely entirely on El Mutwalli’s judgment and she enjoys this element of surprise – not to mention their excitement when it comes time for the
“I always say my work is 70 per cent psychology and 30 per cent design. I think there are many designers that are capable and have a beautiful vision, but if you don’t understand your client well, it’s very difficult to be able to present them with what they want.
"You have to remember that this is a [relatively] new country; there hasn't been time to collect heirlooms from across the generations," says El Mutwalli, who often draws from her experience of Europe's grand stately homes to try to add a feeling of old, lived-in affluence and heritage to her designs, while also creating interiors that are culturally relevant. She has worked with a number of clients to assist them in building collections that reflect a particular area of interest – whether that's textiles, tapestry, ceramics, art or metalwork. In her project for Sheikha Moza, for example, a deep green chest of drawers with bone inlay looks like it might be an heirloom, but was actually sourced from The One.
El Mutwalli's work at the Cultural Foundation has been instrumental in launching the careers of many local artists and she enjoys commissioning these same artists for work on her projects – a case in point in the design for Sheikha Moza are the Persian "rugs", which are actually hand-painted directly
onto the marble floor of the apartments to create atrompe l'oeil effect.
If El Mutwalli has a signature, it is probably the way she layers and combines opulent fabrics with bespoke pieces of furniture to evoke an atmosphere of elegance and intimacy. Regardless of the supplier, El Mutwalli says that quality is the defining feature of the objects she incorporates into her interiors – whether that’s fabrics from Zuber & Cie, fine crystal by Baccarat or wallcoverings from Ananbo.
So fundamental is that ethos that it is carried through to the sometimes unseen elements of a design scheme, such as a curtain lining or other small details. These elements may be as discreet as El Mutwalli herself, but they speak volumes about her commitment to quality.