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Inside the impeccably ‘rough-luxe’ design world of Rabih Hage

Based in London and New York, and with a background in Beirut and Paris, the architect and interior designer Rabih Hage draws on a rich hinterland for his interiors that blend an architect’s respect for simplicity with a love of decorative ornaments

From his base in South Kensington, Rabih Hage stamps his mark on the smart homes of London’s smarter neighbourhoods and the home counties. An architect by training, his interiors are informed by his education in France, and his love of ornament.

Hage was born in Beirut, and grew up in France. At Paris’s École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (now Beaux-Arts de Paris), he learnt that “architecture should ignore ornaments, but I found that ornaments have amazing added value.”

Even as an architecture student (which he switched to from economics), “I was very into interior design, because the level of craftsmanship is amazing – you want to preserve and duplicate.”

He likens his studies in architecture to the country’s Compagnons du Devoir. Through this ancient organisation, students’ traditional, technical education includes taking a Tour de France. During this tour, they do apprenticeships with master-craftspeople, and eventually become qualified artisans themselves.

“They go from one atelier to another for 10 years, then they make a masterpiece and become a mastercraftsman,” Hage says. “The school of architecture was very much in this tradition – we learnt from older architects.”

His own internships included stints with Jean Nouvel and Jean-Paul Viguier, and he also spent time at an engineering firm which made textiles for the TGV train stations of Paris Montparnasse and Nantes. This experience – being close to the manufacture of fabric, and talking to structural engineers – proved formative.

In the UK, there’s a bigger tradition of being proud of one’s interior.

Rabih Hage

He established an architectural studio in Paris in 1992, a year after graduating, and found himself working on the country’s historic buildings and chateaux.

The living room of Rabih Hage’s Baltimore Wharf project in Battersea, London

His first project in London came about through “a lady I met in France who brought me to do a house for her in Belgravia’s Wilton Street”. More followed, and he soon found them more rewarding than his work in France. “In the UK there’s a bigger tradition of being proud of one’s interior.” He cites the French expression ‘pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés’, whose direct translation ‘to live happily, we live hidden’ doesn’t quite capture this notion that showing off is bad form.

In Chelsea, he says, “You see nice houses with the curtains open, you can see right through to the kitchen. People are proud, you can see wall upholstery, and the fabric of the sofa. London brought to me a lot of this appreciation of interiors.”

Meanwhile, design in France is understated: “You have beautiful floors which are well restored, and interesting mouldings, but you don’t highlight them with paint effects.”

In his UK projects, Hage sees the possibility of “mixing layers of patterns and styles of furniture”. Also, in mixing what he calls the vertical (“items coming down from the family, things you bought when you got married”), and the horizontal (“from your travels, a rug from Nepal, the interesting marquetry of the cabinet that you found in France”). Because in the UK, “ornament is not taboo, whereas it is in France.”

Through these observations, Hage has developed ‘rough luxe’, which he describes as a blend of urban archaeology. Or should that be ‘shabby-chic with a Gallic twist’? Either way, it manifests for him as partially sanded surfaces, bare floorboards, walls stripped back to older layers of paint and patching, mingled with opulent contemporary wallpaper, modern art and comfortable furnishings.

It’s what I’ve been doing all my professional life – finding the beauty in the old buildings

Rabih Hage

“It’s what I’ve been doing all my professional life – finding the beauty in the old buildings and not doing anything to it.” In these instances, the patina of the wall is doing the talking. “It’s preserving the past and repurposing buildings, working with layers. Any new layers should add or enhance something to it.”

Drawing room of Rabih Hage’s West Kensington project

In 2008, this approach got full rein, with the opening of his Rough Luxe Hotel in a Georgian terraced house in London’s Kings Cross. Then eight years later, it got its second significant outing with the completion of Hage’s family home in a corner of Provence. Over nearly a decade, he converted a derelict 17th-century barn that had been subsumed by undergrowth. “I’m a short-term tenant of this 300-year-old building. Perfection is not beauty and is not really my thing. I’m against the aesthetic of slick minimalism,” he told Wallpaper at the time.

As well as one-off private homes, his recent UK projects include 10 apartments on the top three floors of an SOM-designed tower at Baltimore Wharf, near Canary Wharf, where he’s given one show flat a 1970s vibe. That followed The Chilterns, 44 apartments in Marylebone; and 85 apartments in a former Edwardian warehouse in Camden – both for Galliard Homes.

His 11 staff are split between Kensington and his New York base, where he recently finished a home on the Upper East Side with a sculptural spiral staircase.

Perfection is not beauty and is not really my thing.

Rabih Hage

Over more than three decades, clients have sought him out for what could be described as homely grandeur. As well as designing some furniture himself, he sources antique and vintage furniture in the Paris Flea Market at Porte De Clignancourt, specifically heading for Marché Paul Bert and Marché Serpette (“I don’t waste my time elsewhere in the Flea Market”). And he’s a regular visitor to Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in Luberon, Provence. “The entire city is an antique and vintage market.” He heads for 50Cinquante. “The owner Thibaud has an amusing eye for the next trend in vintage collecting.” For upholstery and decorative fit-out works, he employs Les Ateliers Jouffre in Paris, Lyon and New York.

The resulting interiors have brought Hage accolades, including the Andrew Martin International Interior Designer of the Year Award 2011, Homes & Gardens Award for Interior Design 2012 and consistent nomination by House and Garden and Architectural Digest (France) as one of the Top 100 leading designers since 2002. In 2012, he was knighted by the French Republic as a Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite for his services to design. Over his career, Hage seems to have weathered the comings and goings of different fashions. But maybe in his rarified corner of the interior design world, clients are more interested in timelessness than trends.

Read more: Interior Designers I Interiors | Design | London | New York