The Small Things That Make A Home With Sumayya Vally

It’s a sunny Wednesday morning when I arrive at her door. Vally swiftly swings it open and I’m greeted by the warm, comforting aroma of Diptyque’s 34 Boulevard Saint Germain, which swirls throughout the space. It’s a fitting scent for the home of one of the kindest creatives I’ve encountered (Vally gives the most wholehearted hugs).

She looks divine, with her hair carefully wrapped up in a black turban and her eyes rimmed with kohl. She’s wearing a striking SS23 Junya Watanabe dress, an architecturally pleated piece with sharp shoulders that resembles a kaftan. Vally isn’t particularly tall, but the garment gives her the appearance of being larger than life. Dangling from her ears are a pair of Schiaparelli earrings in the shape of noses, and on her feet are Schiaparelli’s anatomical trompe-l’œil gold toe platform stompers.

Architect Sumayya Vally in her London flat wearing a Junya Watanabe dress, with bracelet (left wrist), earrings and shoes by Schiaparelli; other bracelets and rings by Monies

The look blossoms from the refined evolution of her style since she’s been in London. She’s infatuated with Alaïa, Issey Miyake, Lanvin and Schiaparelli. And it shows. In her walk-in closet, there are rows upon rows of coats and capes from each of the houses, every piece in its own garment bag. On the ottoman in her bedroom, she keeps jewellery by those same brands, as well as by Tiffany and Co. and Zohra Rahman. “Style and taste are ever-evolving, like instinct. It’s a form of intelligence that is unique to all of us. Having said that, my constant has always been my black head covering, which I am never without. It is becoming an increasing form of resistance to simply be who we are in this world,” she says. “To be African, Muslim, Indian, otherwise, means that we have points of intersection and connection with so many different places and we have the opportunity to resonate across them all. The confluence of lenses through which I see the world – the woman in me, the Johannesburg in me – are absolutely the reason I see the future of the world and the visions I have for it in the ways I do. I believe that hybridity is an incredible strength.” Fitted with high ceilings and chevron wood flooring within a rather unassuming, Victorian-era build, in the open-plan kitchen/living room there is a large, rustic dinner table, a writing desk and flat-screen TV. A shaggy white rug is rolled out on the floor beneath a boucle curved sofa and matching armchair. White spackle vases in the shape of female figures rest upon a pair of wooden nesting coffee tables and beside them is a jagged sculptural pedestal displaying one of Vally’s Diptyque candles.

The kitchen is Vally’s preferred part of the house. It’s where she wields the magic of her architectural wand. “Wherever I am living or working, I always find myself connected to the kitchen table. A significant part of my cultural upbringing was being surrounded by food and the rituals involved in its preparation and shared consumption. Some of my earliest memories involve myself and my cousins preparing Ramadan delicacies at my aunt’s kitchen table or calling together neighbours for the breaking of the fast,” she says. “Places of sharing food and discussion are highly underrated spaces of cultural production. The basic ingredients and architecture of a gathering are said to be tastes and sounds from home. There is power in gathering. For example, at the Mangrove restaurant [which was open from 1968 to 1992], the presence of mother tongues, food and music from home, and a stream of people from different backgrounds being welcomed to the same table, were ingredients for a different kind of creative institution. This birthed great movements; it was the headquarters of Notting Hill Carnival and birthed [late ’50s/early ’60s newspaper] the West Indian Gazette. There is so much architecture waiting to happen in these rituals.”

From left: Sumayya wears jewellery by Schiaparelli and Monies; Sumayya holds a ceramic Taqiyah cap by Haroon Gunn-Salie. Vally commissioned the artist to make 1000 of them for the inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale, Awwal Bait, 2023, where she was the artistic director

She doesn’t have much of a story to tell of her furniture (it was selected and purchased by her housekeeper when she wasn’t even in the country), so the narrative lies in the minimal, but meaningful, objects I can see between stacks on stacks of books. These include last year’s architectural achievements – Dezeen’s Emerging Architect of the Year award and a gold medallion from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada for her contribution to the world of architecture. The latter was given by Bahraini politician Sheikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa when she was invited there to give a lecture on the Islamic Arts Biennale. Also displayed are a duo of fossilised desert roses. “I’ve had these for ages. I got them in Sharjah [in the UAE], but I don’t know where they’re originally from. Architecturally, I’ve always found them incredible. Jean Nouvel did the [National] Museum in Qatar that looks like this.” One of these roses rests alongside the first scale model she ever made of her vision for the Serpentine Pavilion, which she calls “the reason I’m in London”. On the floor in the hallway is a fire exit map from the ’60s. It’s from the same building that Malcolm X stayed in when he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. “People from all over the world from all walks of life stayed in that building together, it became an actual place of cultural connection. He wrote letters about how he saw men with blonde hair and blue eyes, and people with the darkest of dark skin eating together. He was talking about his experience living there, in this place.

“The political history of the building is also important to me as an architect because that’s what architecture is essentially about. Being South African, I really understand that architecture and urban planning plays such an important role in segregating us and keeping us apart. But by the same token, if you have places where people can come together, you immediately recognise that our differences are not so real.” There’s also a pair of ceramic Taqiyah skullcaps that she was given following Awwal Bait, the first edition of the Islamic Arts Biennale last year. Vally was the artistic director and worked in close proximity to the artists involved, such as Haroon Gunn-Salie, who was responsible for the prayer caps and the colossal display in which they were included. Gunn-Salie cast 1,000 Taqiyahs and hung them from the ceiling of an airport terminal in honour of South African anti-apartheid activist Imam Abdullah Haron. “The installation commemorated his funeral because he was very sadly tortured and killed in prison by the apartheid police,” Vally says. “The trial for his death – because his murder was framed as a suicide – was ongoing until last year. This work opened at the Biennale at the same time the trial was on in October, when the police were found guilty. Finally, the family can put the matter to rest. It was very special.”

Books on architecture and cooking share shelf space with Vally’s Dezeen Emerging Architect of the Year award and the gold medallion she was awarded in 2023 from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada for contribution to the world of architecture

Vally begins each day with Fajr, the dawn prayer. For this, she has a typical mat she brought over from Johannesburg. “I am grounded, bound and centred by five daily prayer times, which always seem to arrive at just the right moment. These moments of complete submission provide stillness and pause for reflection.” The prayer mat is probably the most meaningful thing she has in London, but it’s also the most mundane. “It’s honestly the most basic, it’s ‘Made in China’, you can buy it at any shop and in any neighbourhood that has a migrant community from any Islamic country,” she says.

Morphing a rented space into something of her own is rooted in Vally’s ability to fill it with books. It’s “the easiest way to bring worlds together, to make a home from many places and build a library” (even though hers is “strewn across the world”). Some of her favourites are Rizzoli’s Alaïa Afore Alaïa, the V&A’s Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto exhibition book, Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp and London restaurant the River Café’s Look Book: Recipes for Kids of All Ages. Vally doesn’t call the flat ‘home’, but that’s because, for her, ‘home’ isn’t the four walls she physically occupies. It’s something more than that.

“Home will always be Laudium, the town I grew up in, the community I am a part of and the mosque I went to. Johannesburg and London are my present homes, but I have found ‘home’ in so many of the places I’ve been. I feel at home in Jeddah and in the UAE, and I have become familiar with the cultures of the region through the homes of its warm and generous people. In London, time with my friends is ‘home’ – as are the places we visit and things we eat together. It’s very fluid. It’s not a physical place, it’s an idea and a series of touchstones related to company, food, smell, sound, ritual and prayer. My home is my mother’s embrace, the sounds of my nephews and nieces, my father’s patient demeanour and my family’s time, presence and love.”

An architectural model of Vally’s 2021 Serpentine Pavilion design

Taken from Issue 59 of 10 Men – PRECISION, CRAFT, LUXURY – out NOW. Order your copy here.

Photography by Anna Stokland. 


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