Diamond in the rough: Designer Rabih Hage explains why peeling wallpaper and cracked ceilings are the height of luxe living

The year's hot interiors trend is about much more than just stripping back the wallpaper and glorying in your knackered plasterwork. Or so says Rabih Hage, the guru of Rough Luxe...
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The Independent Online

First the good news: you can call off that search for a plasterer, cancel the Wickes loyalty card and put those glossy interiors magazines in the recycling bin. Suddenly, the building site you've been calling home has put you at the forefront of good taste and judgement. Finally, you can open the cracked and peeling front-door of your newly hip "shabbalist" palace to all those fashionable friends waiting for that return invite.

Now the reality check: Rabih Hage, the architect and designer behind the Rough Luxe concept in the UK, has a few words of warning for anyone attempting to replicate the look of his London hotel in their home. "It seems as if we've made everyone's dream come true," the 43-year-old laughs, "but Rough Luxe is not just to peel layers off the walls and live with it. This is not the idea. What we have done with our London hotel is to look backwards into the building. We did not want to add any new layers that would rub out the history of the house. It is," he says emphatically, "nothing less than architectural archaeology with a respect for the patina of time."

That's us told, then. And Hage – who can talk for his birthplace Beirut, the Paris of his youth and his adopted hometown of London on the subject – does not stop there. He is, by his own admittance, bursting with ideas about what luxury (he pronounces it "lookshorey") is – and isn't. But first, let's press him more on his claim that Rough Luxe is not as straightforward as it might appear. "At the King's Cross hotel, we were peeling off wallpaper and underneath there were layers with a real hand-made finish, or the pattern from embossed wallpapers that had made an imprint on the wall over the years," he says. "Even if I wanted to do this on purpose, I couldn't. This sort of respect for the stone is what Rough Luxe is all about."

Having successfully launched the first Rough Luxe hotel last year, Hage is now offering his guidance to other businesses. So, if you have, say, a ski lodge or bookshop that you wish to apply the look to, Hage will act as a consultant on the project, then bring that business under his Rough Luxe banner. Naturally, there are the Rough Luxe Network Criteria to be adhered to. "Rough Luxe is about the exclusivity of the experience and its uniqueness in time" reads one. "Physical comfort is important, however, it comes second to intellectual exchange of ideas" reads another. (For the record, this "intellectual exchange" starts at £155 a night.)

The concept was born following a series of conversations Hage had with friends and colleagues on the subject of "What is lookshorey today?" To sum up: luxury is something different, unique, varied – "You can find it in a stone on the beach." It is "knowing the provenance of objects and having good contact with people". This, according to Hage, is real luxury. His "what luxury is not" list is longer. It is not bling. It is not to be found in the pages of glossy magazines. It is not a template for a hotel that would be the same whether it were in New York, Singapore or the Sahara. It is not "what the collective memory is condemning you to dream about". It is not accumulating expensive branded items manufactured with cheap labour. It is not about perfection.

Have any guests at the hotel misunderstood the concept? "There was one lady," Hage remembers. "She owns an art gallery in Paris and I thought she would be open-minded. But she called me and said, 'I am an elegant lady, I cannot stay in this hotel as there is no place to hang my robes.' The manager gave her an extra room for free to hang her clothes in and still she didn't appreciate this. She did not understand that there is luxury in being roughed up sometimes. She could not forget the cliché of physical comfort."

But plenty of others, it seems, do understand the concept: Wayne Hemingway has labelled it "shabbalism"; design websites are bursting with opinions on the subject; and the broadsheets have widely covered this "latest hip interiors trend". Henrietta Thompson, design and arts editor of Wallpaper magazine, understands the reaction. "I think Rough Luxe is a really refreshing take on 'budget boutique'," she says. "In many ways it's a natural progression from loft conversions with exposed bricks and that battered Eames chair people always seemed to claim was pulled out of a skip. The key with Hage's hotel is that everything is done with panache and personality. I'd be worried about how it will translate into a wider trend if everyone starts doing it, though. You can just imagine some upstart branding company faking the chipped-concrete look with a chisel – distressing in more ways than one."

Peter York, author of Style Wars and the interior-design classic Dictators' Homes, is not so sure. "The danger with this is that it can end up looking like an S&M dungeon. It just doesn't feel right for now. I think what the consumer wants in this climate is better value, more comfort and less wide-boy chat."

Whatever the response, Hage must be pleased this product of his imagination has caused such a stir. "Well, it's great to see it has become a catalyst for a conversation. But, forgive my ignorance, what is this 'shabbalism' and who is this Wayne Hemingway? Others say it is just a new version of 'shabby chic'. But I hate shabby chic. It is all shabby, no chic. The reason this has been a success is that it voices what people were thinking and we did it with courage and humour. I did not do this for branding or fashion. I am not on a mission."

With that, the man who over the course of our time together has proved himself more than adept with a soundbite, declares: "Rough Luxe is anti-label. It is about freedom of choice and people having their own taste. Shabby chic! Minimalism! Shabbalism! It's all rubbish. What are these labels? You can keep them for people like Mr Wayne Hemingway."

For more information: www.roughluxe.co.uk

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