October 15, 2013

Fronting up to the ostentatious excesses of retail in Dubai, Studio Toogood’s design for fashion store, Mahani, delivers visual respite in the form of a raw and robust interior shell.

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Projects including:
  • Gazi, by March Studio
  • Tonka, by Techne Architects
  • Gorman, by Travis Walton
  • Mahani, by Studio Toogood
Features including:
  • Exhibition review: Faultlines
  • Initiative: Louis Vuitton artist collaborations
  • Interview with Alison Page, founder and creative director of the National Aboriginal Design Agency
  • Talking shop: An interview with Russell & George
  • Future retail: a conversation with The Future Laboratory
  • In profile: Scholten & Baijings
  • Practice: DesignOffice
  • In profile: Chris Hardy, the complete IDEA shortlist.

In Dubai, retail is recreation. As the city’s temperatures rise, hundreds of air-conditioned malls lure and entertain with typically kitsch, colossal, opulent and ostentatious shopping experiences. Yet in the face of ubiquitous retail bling, a brave newcomer is testing the water. Named after the owner’s chic tailor aunt, Mahani is Dubai’s first concept store, established by Central Saint Martins graduate Farah Taqi and designed by London-based Studio Toogood.

Mahani-7-ADREmbedded in the Jumeirah Emirates Tower shopping mall and surrounded by gloss and glitz, Mahani is a potent contrast to the typical UAE shopping experience. Taqi wanted to create a fitting scene for the range of fashion-forward European brands the store showcases, such as JW Anderson, Louise Gray, Meadham Kirchoff and established luminaries including Ann Demeulemeester and Maison Martin Margiela. None of these labels are currently represented in Dubai, a city whose culture is more usually orientated towards established luxury brands.

Mahani-6 ADRAnnounced by pared back signage, exposed-filament lights and a narrow entrance, the large, cool store interior is a visual respite from its over-lit neighbours. Within, Mahani is composed primarily of lush, polished plaster walls, raw cast concrete blocks for display, security-mesh set pieces, exposed lighting and – a nod to its location and Arabic heritage – a huddle of sassy satin poufs and swathes of generous drapes. Studio Toogood creative director, Faye Toogood, explains: “It’s hard for us to realise how much of an impact this approach has, because we’re very much used to the minimal environment and concept store in Europe; in Dubai, industrial materials are not used in a retail space… and for us, this is the interesting part of the project – that we managed to achieve that in this context.”

Mahani-5-ADR As required by the brief, the design also creates a changing platform appropriate to a forward-thinking retail environment. Mahani needed to be able to transform – to host preview fashion events with seasonal catwalk shows, screen films and projections, and to provide a space to hang out alongside the comparatively edgy clothing and accessories. Studio Toogood’s approach comfortably allows for this: only the cast concrete plinths, blackened steel hooks and rails, and in-house ‘bakery’ are fixed. All other elements can be moved and manipulated to reshape the look and atmosphere of the interior. Magnificent shimmering curtains may be swept aside to open the space up fully, or pulled closed to create luxuriant pockets; elongated mirror stands glide round on wheels; and the naked lighting systems of fluorescent tubes and spot lights allow lux intensity and focus to be ramped up or down as desired. Read as a whole, Mahani appears as an adventurous theatre set as much as a shop. Toogood concurs: “Different surfaces such as the polished plaster, concrete and curtains all add a theatrical aspect… the loose pieces can be moved around to create different atmospheres… and none of the doorways have doors – it’s like coming in off the wings of a theatre.”

Mahani-4-ADRAnd as any theatregoer knows, getting great seats for a show can make or break an experience. At Mahani, visitors are spoiled for choice with dozens of apricot- or mint-coloured poufs on which to perch and gossip. Some are also used for display, but most are tucked away to the rear near the coloured glass and blackened steel ‘bakery’ from which food and drink is proffered. Like the clothes, food design offerings are updated seasonally, made off-site in Dubai and curated by Milanese collective Arabeschi di Latte. The bakery has a distinctly Toogood feel. Its blades of subtly tinted security glass encased by blackened steel create a playful makeshift kitchen and she teases: “It’s a bit like a cross between DJ decks and an eighties kitchen… just move the tap out the way and put your decks in!”

Mahani-3-ADRSimilarly, the two furniture pieces made of powder-coated security mesh – a dark, low rectilinear form and a taller white four-part circular table for jewellery display – also draw on her distinctive aesthetic, most clearly seen in earlier Assemblages furniture ranges. Toogood enthuses, “I love a bit of raw, rusty steel!” and although these pieces carry the grit and grunt of industrial heritage from which they’re drawn, the proportions and finishes have been thoughtfully balanced, the result of much experimentation with patinas, acid and crafted finishes.

Mahani-2-ADROne of the main reasons that Mahani woos is for its combination of what Toogood refers to as “raw and precious, feminine and masculine” elements, which remain a compelling theme of her work. With a background in Fine Art, Art History and years of experience creating two-dimensional magic as World of Interiors stylist, she isn’t afraid to try unusual – or even ‘dated’ – materials and finishes. The carpet and curtains here, for example, are elements that contemporary designers may consider too soft and decorative. So, too, her beloved polished plaster finish that is redolent of 1980s glamour. Its rich turquoise finish at Mahani reminds me of the background in Giovanni Bellini’s Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan and, similar to that painting, in this project the visual depth creates a fantastic showcase for displaying wares draped in front.

Mahani-8-ADRKnowingly aware of the potential cultural clashes and passé materials, Toogood willingly acknowledges, “There’s an element of glitz… the whole thing has an industrial 80s feel about it and that sort of pastel shine I really like in the midst of the rough. I think it stops it looking like some other concept stores in, say, Berlin or London.” She is refreshingly direct about other eclectic aspects – the horse and cat plaster busts are seen as playful counterpoints to a fairly austere space. Their rough plastery texture sits well with smaller cast concrete tables, each framed by an exposed aggregate profile.

Mahani-9-ADRWhile this fledgling concept store is new to Dubai, in the competitve world of retail, the potential for multi-sensory, experiential and temporary installations – experiences that Studio Toogood has become known for and, indeed, excels at – are on the rise. She reflects, “Now the retail world is beginning to clock on to the fact that, because we are all capable of buying so much online, they have to offer their customers more of experience when they visit the space… we’ve been increasingly asked to look at retail, which is high on experience.” Next up is the Studio’s store for Browns Focus, with a range of new shops for Miller Harris fragrance to follow. Each retail fix, much too good to miss.

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