MINIMALIST MAGIC: Interiors

Last year's pale and interesting look acquires a healthy glow when it i s mingled with the spicy colours of Morocco. Yet there is not a mirrored bedspread in sight when Dinah Hall visits the apostle of ethnic restraint
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The Independent Culture
ETHNIC is big news for 1995. And if you think you've heard that somewhere before, yes, it was also big news for 1993 and medium-sized news for 1994. Ah but, say the proselytisers of fashion, two years ago it was tribal - but who would be seen dea d with a shrunken head on the mantelpiece now? And as for the pale and wan colours of last year, they look like fashion's latest victim, death warmed up, against the healthy glow of this year's ethnic hot spot, Morocco.

Ayn McClain has good reason to be pleased about the new direction in ethnic, for with her business partner Abel Damoussi she is co-director of The Kasbah, the huge Moroccan emporium that opened in Covent Garden last year. So her flat seems like a good place to start for instruction in the new look. Bracing myself for joss sticks and mirrored bed-spreads (well, I haven't been educated yet, have I?), I open the door on to a kind of aesthete's heaven. The hall is expensively bare - just a stone table with a large crystal ball. Through massive carved wooden doors, hung on satisfyingly chunky hinges, lies the enormous double living room, large enough to swing a chain of two dozen cats. The first impression is not, it has to be said, ethnic: it is of wealth.But the nice, calm kind of money, you know - not the loud, splashy type of stuff. The same could be said of Ayn, who looks so cool and elegant you feel guilty that such filthy thoughts as lucre could enter your head: you feel them swirling around and contaminating the atmosphere.

Ayn defines her own particular interest in design as "Renaissance minimalism". In other words, there's not much of it, but what there is is more historic than antique: churchy French candlesticks, a 17th-century marble cupboard from Naples, a Venetian table. The wall lights, she explains with a barely detectable twitch of guilt, are 18th-century documents, brushed with milk (to nourish the vellum), and then ironed, cut into shapes and tacked over the special cold light bulbs. To sit on there are plain linen-covered armless couches piled with antique cushions from Turkey, Syria and Morocco. The air is heady with decorative cerebralism and the scent of amber candles burning in old Syrian jars. Not one thing is out of place here, except me. Next to Ayn, who is ethereal and reticent and whose exquisite features barely move as she talks, you feel like a rhinoceros. (if you were a rhinoceros you would be less out of place because she likes endangered species; she spent s ome time in the Congo with gorillas and would work in that field if she were not involved in design).

American by birth, but not by nature, Ayn arrived in Paris to study at the age of 18 and "never left" until she came to live in London six years ago. She fell into design but had always been "aesthetically orientated - it has always been fundamental to my being". As a child she used to love "traipsing around museums" - which is what a lot of designers say, interestingly enough using that same rather unenthusiastic verb which makes you suspect they might be superimposing adult interests on childhood memories. Well, it would be nice to think so, wouldn't it? But in the case of Ayn it is possibly true - anyone who can talk about the "dynamics between ob-jects", and a "neo-platonic view of aesthetics" - obviously did not spend their formative years vegetating in front of The Woodentops.

The decoration of her own flat owes something to a desire to shut London out, but in general she feels that because we are living in a "period of decadence and crisis" there is a move towards a more spiritual kind of decoration. "There is so much turmoiloutside that people need to feel comfortable in their surroundings. Creating a nice atmosphere is important to well-being. It can be materialistic and spiritual at the same time."

Moroccan design, she says, has a kind of magic - "a poetry about it. People like to dream; the Moroccan look gives them the opportunity. It has beauty and exoticism. And it has the charm of being hand-made. It is wonderful to touch things which are not perfect but bear the imprint of the person who made them."

Morocco has a thriving arts and crafts industry. This is largely due, says Ayn, to the king of Morocco who has done much to revive craftsmanship. But Westerners, she concedes, may need some help in how they approach the look. "People have not been properly exposed to it - they tend to think of it in Disneyesque terms - Aladdin, A Thousand and One Nights, that sort of thing. But it mixes very well with other styles - a screen or a lantern fits in anywhere."

In fact, in some ways it is perhaps essential to dilute the look, whose own exoticism comes from a cross-fertilisation of African and Moorish culture. Historically, Morocco has always had a strong attraction for aesthetes. The French painters Eugene Delacroix and Henri Matisse both fell under its spell, and aspiring decorators would do well to learn from their experience. For rather than just pillage what they found, they absorb-ed the influence in their own style. Indeed, Delacroix found he could only fully appreciate the imagery of Morocco when he had distanced himself from it. "I began making something out of my trip to Africa," he wrote in his diary, "only after I had forgotten all the little details and in my pictures retained only the striking and poetic side. Until then I had been pursued by the love of exactness, which most people mistake for the truth." The same philosophy holds true for design - what you mistake for truth in your living-room-cum-souk might just come across as a lifeless tableau of kitsch. "It's a question of adapting it to how you live," says Ayn, who has certainly managed to keep the "striking and poetic side" in adapting it to her Renaissance minimalist way of life.

On the other hand, when you get to The Kasbah it can be difficult to restrain yourself, confronted as you are with filigree lanterns, fabulous metal-trimmed ceramics in deep yellow, turquoise and blue, and intricately painted wooden doors which can be supplied to order. You can even buy water-based natural pigment paint, named after the cities of Morocco with colours typical of each place, such as Rouge Marrakech, Beige Taroudant, Vert de Fes and Bleu Agadir. If you fancy a mosaic floor or a fountain like the one in the shop they can supply Moroccan tilers and plasterers to carry out the work. Then, if you really get carried away of course, you can book yourself a flight to Morocco - the shop has its own in-house travel agent to cater for just such fashionable emergencies. ! ETHNIC BAZAAR: FURNITURE THE KASBAH, 8 Southampton Street, London WC2 (071-379 5230): everything from intricate metal boxes at £2.95 to Moroccan craftsmen to tile your floors.

HABITAT, The Heal's Building, 196 Tottenham Court Road, London W1 (071-255 2545) and branches throughout the country: the spring/summer theme is Grand Bazaar, taking inspiration from North Africa and the Middle East. Hand-painted fretwork furniture in deep spicy colours, including a stunning four-poster bed, irresistible hand-dyed bed linen and Moroccan ceramics. Not in the shops until March - but well worth waiting for.

MILLENIUM, 1 Barnes High Street, London SW13 9LB (081-876 1112): Greek home ware and furniture with a Byzantine flavour.

TEXTILES JOSS GRAHAM, 10 Eccleston Street, London SW1 (071-730 4370): specialists in antique Oriental textiles. Also kilims from Iran, Turkey and Morocco; furniture and handicrafts from India.

PAUL HUGHES, 3a Pembridge Square, London W2 4EW (071-243 8598): dealer in antique textiles with an eye for the interesting; much favoured by designers.

HODSOLL McKENZIE, 52 Pim-lico Road, London SW1 (071-730 2877): modern fabric designers, but among the patterns in their latest collection the substantial "Ottoman" design in coral or blue would do wonderfully for a spot of Renaissance minimalism.

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