BBC 2024-02-10 12:01:28

Gazans surviving off animal feed and rice as food dwindles

People living in the isolated north of Gaza have told the BBC that children are going without food for days, as aid convoys are increasingly denied permits to enter. Some residents have resorted to grinding animal feed into flour to survive, but even stocks of those grains are now dwindling, they say.

People have also described digging down into the soil to access water pipes, for drinking and washing.

The UN has warned that acute malnutrition among young children in the north has risen sharply, and is now above the critical threshold of 15%.

The UN’s humanitarian coordination agency, Ocha, says more than half the aid missions to the north of Gaza were denied access last month, and that there is increasing interference from Israeli forces in how and where aid is delivered.

It says 300,000 people estimated to be living in northern areas are largely cut off from assistance, and face a growing risk of famine.

A spokesman for the Israeli military agency tasked with coordinating aid access in Gaza said in a briefing last month that there was “no starvation in Gaza. Period.” The agency, Cogat, has repeatedly said it does not limit the amount of humanitarian aid sent to Gaza.

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The BBC spoke to three people living in Gaza City and Beit Lahia, and viewed footage and interviews filmed by local journalists in Jabalia.

Mahmoud Shalabi, a local medical aid worker in Beit Lahia, said people had been grinding grains used for animal feed into flour, but that even that was now running out.

“People are not finding it in the market,” he said. “It’s unavailable nowadays in the north of Gaza, and Gaza City.”

He also said stocks of tinned food were disappearing.

“What we had was actually from the six or seven days of truce [in November], and whatever aid was allowed into the north of Gaza has actually been consumed by now. What people are eating right now is basically rice, and only rice.”

The World Food Programme (WFP) told the BBC this week that four out of the last five aid convoys into the north had been stopped by Israeli forces, meaning a gap of two weeks between deliveries to Gaza City.

‘Serious risk of famine’

“We know there is a very serious risk of famine in Gaza if we don’t provide very significant volumes of food assistance on a regular basis,” said the WFP regional chief, Matt Hollingworth.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) said there had been a sharp increase in the number of aid missions denied access to northern Gaza: with 56% of deliveries denied access in January, up from 14% in October to December.

It also said the Israeli military “at times required justifications” for quantities of fuel destined for health facilities, and “imposed reductions on the volume of assistance, such as the quantity of food”.

The BBC asked Israel’s army for a response. They directed us to Cogat, which told us to address our questions to the army.

Duha al-Khalidi, a mother of four in Beit Lahia, told the BBC two weeks ago that she walked six miles (9.5km) to her sister’s house in Gaza City, in a desperate search for food, after her children had not eaten for three days.

“I don’t have any money, and even if I did, there’s nothing in the town’s main market,” she said. “[My sister] and her family are also suffering. She shared with me the last amount of pasta in her house.”

“We feel that death has become inevitable,” her sister, Waad, said. “We lost the top floor of our house, but we are still living here despite the fear of collapse. For two weeks, we can’t find anything in the market; and if some products are available, they are 10 times their normal price.”

A famine risk assessment, carried out by several UN agencies, estimated that almost a third of residents in northern areas could now be facing a “catastrophic” lack of food, though restrictions on accessing the area make real-time measurements very difficult.

Families in northern areas are also struggling to find reliable water supplies.

“Many of us are now drinking unpotable water. There are no pipes; we have to dig for water,” explained Mahmoud Salah in Beit Lahia.

Video filmed in the Jabalia neighbourhood north of Gaza City shows residents sitting among the rubble of bombed out streets, digging down into the earth to tap large underground water pipes.

“We get water here once every 15 days,” Yusuf al-Ayoti said. “The water is dirty. Our children are inflamed and their teeth are eroded from the dirty water. There is sand in it, and it’s very salty.”

After four months of war, the makeshift solutions for bridging the hunger gaps are wearing thin. And there are few ways to restock Gaza’s larder.

The territory was reliant on food aid before the war; now much of its agricultural industry has been ruined or abandoned.

‘The destruction is vast’

New figures from the UN suggest that more than half the agricultural land in the central region of Deir al-Balah has been damaged. This includes an olive press and farmland belonging to Bassem Younis Abu Zayed.

“It looks like the aftermath of an earthquake,” he said. “The destruction is vast, covering neighbouring buildings and farm animals. Even if we manage to restore the mill, 80-90% of the olives have gone. It’s not just a loss for this year, it’s a loss for the next several years.”

Further south, in the border town of Rafah, more than a million people displaced by the fighting elsewhere now jostle for space with the town’s 300,000 residents.

Israel’s army regularly publishes what it says is recent footage of busy markets and restaurants in Gaza’s southern centres. A majority of the 114 aid missions to southern areas of Gaza managed to get through last month, but residents and aid agencies say many people are still going hungry, and a public health crisis is looming with a lack of shelter, sanitation and medical care.

Aid can be blocked by fighting, bureaucracy or rubble. Earlier this week, a food convoy waiting to head north in Gaza was hit by naval gunfire.

But deliveries are also complicated by the growing desperation of Gaza’s people, says Matt Hollingworth.

“We need the law and order issue resolved, so that we’re not having to negotiate our way through crowds of desperately hungry people, to get to other people that we’ve yet to reach,” he said.

“It’s probably the level of helplessness that worries me. People have lost hope.”

A deal between Israel and Hamas is seen by many as the only way to get more aid into Gaza, and get Israeli hostages out.

As Israel bombs Rafah, ahead of a widely expected ground offensive there, leaders on both sides are under pressure to end the suffering of people trapped in Gaza – their enemy’s, and their own.

Six-year-old Gazan girl found dead days after plea for help

A six-year-old girl who went missing in Gaza City last month has been found dead, along with several of her relatives and two paramedics who tried to save her.

Hind Rajab was fleeing the city with her aunt, uncle and three cousins when the car they were travelling in appears to have come face to face with Israeli tanks, and come under fire.

Audio recordings of calls between Hind and emergency call operators suggest that the six-year-old was the only one left alive in the car, hiding from Israeli forces among the bodies of her relatives.

Her pleas for someone to rescue her ended when the phone line was cut amid the sound of more gunfire.

Paramedics from the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) managed on Saturday to reach the area, which had previously been closed off as an active combat zone.

They found the black Kia car Hind had been travelling in – its windscreen and dashboard smashed to pieces, bullet holes scattered across the side.

One paramedic told journalists that Hind was among the six bodies found inside the car, all of which showed signs of gunfire and shelling.

A few metres away were the remains of another vehicle – completely burnt out, its engine spilling onto the ground. This, the Red Crescent says, is the ambulance sent to fetch Hind.

Its crew – Yusuf al-Zeino and Ahmed al-Madhoun – were killed when the ambulance was bombed by Israeli forces, the organisation says.

In a statement, the PRCS accused Israel of deliberately targeting the ambulance, as soon as it arrived at the scene on 29 January.

“The [Israeli] occupation deliberately targeted the Red Crescent crew despite obtaining prior coordination to allow the ambulance to arrive at the scene to rescue the child Hind,” it said.

The PRCS told the BBC that it had taken several hours to coordinate access with the Israeli army, in order to send paramedics to Hind.

“We got the coordination, we got the green light,” PRCS spokeswoman, Nibal Farsakh, told me earlier this week. “On arrival, [the crew] confirmed that they could see the car where Hind was trapped, and they could see her. The last thing we heard is continuous gunfire.”

Recordings of Hind’s conversations with call operators – shared publicly by the Red Crescent – sparked a campaign to find out what had happened to her.

Hind’s mother told us – before her body was discovered – that she was waiting for her daughter “any moment, any second”.

She called on the Red Crescent to publish the details of its coordination with the Israeli army.

We twice asked the army for details on its operations in the area that day, and about the disappearance of Hind and the ambulance sent to retrieve her – it said it was checking.

We have asked again for their response to the allegations made by the Palestinian Red Crescent on Saturday.

The rules of war say medical personnel must be protected and not targeted in a conflict, and that injured people must be given the medical care they need – to the fullest practical extent and with the least possible delay.

Israel has previously accused Hamas of using ambulances to transport its weapons and fighters.

Pakistan army urges unity as ex-PMs both declare win

Pakistan’s powerful army chief has urged the country to leave “anarchy and polarisation” behind as two ex-prime ministers declared victory in an election that has defied expectations.

With most results in, independent candidates linked to jailed former PM Imran Khan have won most seats.

But Nawaz Sharif, another ex-PM widely seen as having the army’s backing, has urged others to join him in coalition.

Officials have also rejected Western criticism of how the election was run.

With no clear outcome, General Asim Munir called on all parties to show maturity and unity, saying the politics of polarisation did “not suit a progressive country of 250 million people”.

“Elections are not a zero-sum competition of winning and losing but an exercise to determine the mandate of the people,” Gen Munir said.

Fourteen National Assembly seats are yet to be determined – all in the vast and sparsely-populated Balochistan province – but both Mr Khan and Mr Sharif say they have won.

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Mr Khan released an AI-generated video message rejecting his rival’s claim and calling on supporters to celebrate. He has been jailed on charges of leaking state secrets, corruption and an unlawful marriage and his PTI party was banned from taking part in the polls.

About 100 of the wining candidates are independents and all but eight of them are backed by the PTI, the non-profit Free and Fair Election Network said.

Mr Sharif’s PML-N party won 71 seats ad the PPP of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of assassinated PM Benazir Bhutto, got 53. The rest were won by smaller parties and independents.

The PML-N party has now begun talks with other groups about forming a unity government and it could be a while before anyone is able to claim outright victory.

Mr Sharif acknowledged that he did not have the numbers to form a government alone, but insisted he could remove the country from difficult times at the head of a coalition.

On Friday the US, UK and EU each expressed concerns about the fairness of the election. UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron said there were “serious concerns” raising questions “about the fairness and lack of inclusivity of the elections”.

But Pakistan’s foreign ministry rejected this as “not even factual”.

It said the statements neither took into account “the complexity of the electoral process” nor acknowledged Pakistanis’ “free and enthusiastic exercise of the right to vote by tens of millions of Pakistanis”.

There were sporadic reports of violence during the election. A former National Assembly member and head of National Defense Movement Party, Mohsin Dawar was shot and injured in Miranshah, North Waziristan in an incident that killed a fellow party member, his party said.

There were also reports of a protest in the south-western port city of Gwadar in Balochistan province, where some voters alleged irregularities in vote counting.

Additional reporting by Saher Baloch

The surprising 4,000-year history of dragons

From dragon-like animals to Chinese tornados and quaint English villages, here are the real-life traces of an ancient myth.

Today marks the Lunar New Year heralding the year of the dragon – or does it? The Chinese word “lóng“, or 龍, is usually translated into English as “dragon”. But don’t let the connection mislead you: lucky, ethereal Chinese dragons are very different beasts to the stomping, fire-breathing monsters of English mythology.

They are associated with wind rather than fire, for a start – the Chinese word for tornado (lóng juǎn fēng) translates word for word as “swirling-dragon-wind“. And Chinese dragons are also different to the regal Sumerian “ušum-gal”, a mythical, lion-jawed, snake-bodied creature from the ancient Middle East. Around the world, and in many different languages, people have come up with words that more or less mean dragon – but how they picture them, and whether they see these beings as sacred, friendly, deadly, or just a bit annoying, varies hugely across cultures.

These dragon-like creatures do have one thing in common: they tend to share traits with real-life animals, and reflect our interactions with and feelings about the natural world. Here’s a trip through history in pursuit of these global dragon myths and their real-life inspiration – and what they can teach us about our own relationship with nature.

A mythological dragon creature called “mušhuššu” in Akkadian, depicted on the Ishtar Gate from Babylon (Credit: Getty Images)

The oldest word for dragon?

More than 4,000 years ago, a scribe in ancient Mesopotamia – the Middle Eastern region that is now part of Iraq – wrote a curious word on a clay tablet: “ušum-gal“. The word is in Sumerian, humanity’s oldest written language, and is believed to be the oldest known word for dragon. It’s composed of the words “gal” (big) and “ušum” (“snake“).

But what kind of creature is an “ušum-gal”, actually – and does it have a still-living, real-life counterpart in the Middle East?

Sumerian texts suggest it was a mythical creature inspired by snakes but also lions, says Jay Crisostomo, a professor of ancient Middle Eastern civilisations and languages at the University of Michigan, whose work includes deciphering and translating original Sumerian clay documents.

“It is one of several mythical creatures [in Sumerian culture] that combined various animals and typically conveyed traits related to wisdom, power and protection,” he says. “The ušum-gal is especially noted for its mouth, so presumably had a large, gaping maw.”

Some dragon myths may have been inspired by lions, which were once widespread (Credit: Getty Images)

In Sumerian texts, the word ušum-gal is often used as a metaphor for a lion or in conjunction with lions as part of a royal fearsome trait, Crisostomo continues. “For example a hymn to the moon god Suen proclaims: ‘Born in the mountains and coming forth in joy, he is a powerful force, a lion, a ‘dragon’ (ušum-gal), a mighty lord. Suen, (with a) mouth like a ‘dragon’s’, ruler of Ur!'”

The word also depicts a creature that rules over others and can only be defeated by the most powerful humans, he adds: “Some stories envision the god or the king as so powerful that even ušumgal do not dare leave the plains/desert or step into his path. I imagine that the ušum-gal was probably originally a type of lion or other wild carnivore and gradually adopted more mythological associations over hundreds of years.”

Sumerian does not have any modern-day descendants. But speakers of Akkadian, an ancient Semitic language related to modern-day Arabic and Hebrew, borrowed the Sumerian word and used it as “ušumgallu”, which has been translated as ‘lion-dragon’, Cristostomo says. In Akkadian culture, this lion-dragon creature was worshipped as a divine being, he says: “Another mythological dragon creature in Akkadian is mušhuššu (loaned from Sumerian muš huš ‘fierce snake’); this creature is translated ‘dragon’ and is famously depicted on the Ishtar Gate from Babylon.”

He concludes: “So is ušum-gal the oldest known word for dragon? Possibly. It was certainly a creature with traits that overlap our idea of dragons. A powerful, awe-inspiring creature that gods and kings would happily be associated with, a creature imbued with legend and a bit of mystery. If that’s a dragon, then a dragon is an ušum-gal.”

Lion statues and carvings from that era have survived into the modern day. A reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate, with some remaining fragments of it from its original home in Babylon, is now in a museum in Berlin. But what of the real-life lions that once roamed the ancient Middle East? We can’t know for sure exactly which lion the Sumerians were referring to. But two Asian lion subgroups that were once relatively widespread are now mostly extinct, except for a small population in India.

A Chinese alligator (Credit: Getty Images)

China’s dragon of change

While English dragons spew fire and do battle with angels, Chinese dragons are sacred beings. Soaring wingless through the clouds, expelling wind not flames, they symbolise luck and blessings.

Numerous academic theories exist as to the origin of the mythic Chinese dragon, says Marco Meccarelli, a lecturer at the University of Catania in Italy. These start with the idea that they were totemic symbols used by some prehistoric clans – and were inspired, in turn, by real-world snakes, or perhaps a giant oceanic python. When this tribal society became class-based, Meccarelli writes in Discovering the Long, the dragon became a symbol of rulers.

A second set of theories links the legends to a crocodilian species, such as the Chinese alligator. Seven thousand years ago, the marshy floodplains of the lower Yangtze River was an alligator haven. But as farmers turned their habitat into rice fields, the species declined. Today it is among the most endangered crocodilians in the world.

Chinese dragon myths may have been inspired by the spiralling forms of lightning

Dragon images may have evolved from attempts to replicate the noise and spiralling forms of thunder and lightning, and were prayed to for good weather, says Meccarelli. This weather link could help explain the linguistic association of tornadoes and swirling dragons in Chinese, as mentioned before. Alternatively, the fourth approach, according to Meccarelli, suggests dragons evolved from the worship of nature itself and they are an amalgamation of numerous animals and weather phenomena.

Roel Sterckx, professor of Chinese history, science and civilisation at the University of Cambridge, supports this latter theory – and is sceptical about attempts to link Chinese dragons to individual real-life animals. “A great deal of nonsense has been written on the origins of the Chinese dragon, ranging from scientists trying to identify it as some type of alligator or other amphibian to epigraphers trying to interpret the graph for ‘long’ as a pictograph of some sort of reptilian creature,” he tells the BBC. “The truth is all of this is speculation and the main point is that the Chinese dragon is a hybrid incorporating features and locomotion of all animals in one.” In other words, the dragon is an embodiment, not of a singular entity, but of the very capacity for change.

A painting titled ‘Saint George and the Dragon’ by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475), an Italian painter and a mathematician (Credit: Getty Images)

England’s “dragon villages”

In AD793, “fiery dragons” soared across Northumbrian skies – a bad omen. A vicious and devastating Viking raid followed on the northern English island of Lindisfarne, sending shockwaves across Europe.

Anglo-Saxon stories are rife with ferocious dragons, slumbering in dens beneath hills, guarding their treasure. The legends live on in many English place names. Take Dragley Beck, a hamlet in Lancashire, and Drakelow, a village in Derbyshire. Both could mean “dragon’s mound”, or “dragon-hill“.

Historically, English has two common words for dragon: dragon, and the now rarely-used, ancient word wyrm. The word “dragon” is derived from the Latin “draco” meaning serpent, or sea fish. Meanwhile, in Christian religious texts, “dragon” also referred to the devil. This mythological creature took on different qualities and shapes throughout history, for example as a fire-breathing dragon called a “firedrake“.

Wyrm“, on the other hand, is a slithering, crawling creature, not a winged, flying, fiery one one. “Wyrm” also referred to parasites, snakes and grave-dwelling creatures in early medieval England. It inspired myths such as that of the child-eating Lambton Worm. This creeping creature was more common in English folklore than the winged version, and lurked in caves, marshes or fens.

“The wyrm has no legs, but slithers like a serpent,” says Carolyne Larrington, professor of medieval European literature at the University of Oxford. It is different from the fiery, winged monsters: “The firedrake can fly and shoot flames,” Larrington adds, “while the wyrm spits poison”.

Real-life snakes, says Larrington, may have inspired the myths. “People have [also] suggested that dinosaur fossils might have played a part. But there’s no real correlation between dragon stories and fossil finds,” she says. A snake-inspired myth may have made its way to England from abroad: there is some evidence that the dragon motif has migrated with the movement of humans.

Today, Britain’s only venomous snake, the adder, is in decline with intensive agriculture destroying habitats and causing populations to become fragmented and isolated. English dragons on the other hand, says Larrington, are usually invulnerable and symbolise power. “You have to find their weak spot to kill them,” she says.

Whether your own idea of dragons is as swirling, spiralling symbols of luck or as giant slithering worms, the Lunar New Year could be a good opportunity for looking out for their traces in your own language, everyday life and environment – and perhaps, marvel at the collective act of imagination and appreciation of nature that gave rise to these fabulous creatures.

Reporting by India Bourke, Katherine Latham and Sophie Hardach

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Inside the homes that ‘whisper luxury’

Quietly luxurious British and American interiors styles have merged over the centuries. What are the elements of this ultra-rich, “old money” look, and what makes it so timeless?

The stratospherically rich famously love to wear under-the-radar European fashion labels that only their peers will clock – a tacit affirmation of their superior social status. Now this stealth-wealth aesthetic is being echoed by a style of interior décor that is equally beloved by the super-affluent. It is explored in a new book Quiet Luxury, featuring 18 homes in Paris, Madrid, Dubai, New York, Melbourne, Stockholm, Athens, and Knokke and Hooogstraten in Belgium.

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In his foreword to the book, Wim Pauwels writes: “Quiet Luxury refers to understated architecture and interiors made with very high-quality materials. All interiors are a non-ostentatious take on luxury, with a focus on exquisite materials and fabrics, muted colours, timeless designs, pared-back chic. It is all about developing a personal style that the architects, interior designers and homeowners believe in, far away from volatile trends.”

The book Quiet Luxury explores interiors worldwide that share a luxe but understated aesthetic such as this design by VSHD (Credit: Oculus)

Pauwels tells BBC Culture: “People increasingly value quality, craftsmanship and longevity over disposable items. This is a reflection of a deeper cultural shift towards sustainability, minimalism and a focus on well-made, enduring pieces. Quiet luxury emphasises simplicity, and a connection to natural materials.”

Don’t be fooled by the look’s apparent cultural neutrality and homogeneity, however: in the main, the style slaloms between referencing American and European modernism. Author and cultural commentator Peter York traces the pedigree of this aesthetic in both fashion and interiors to well-heeled East Coast Americans, epitomised by the moneyed milieu portrayed in the hit TV series Succession – although its protagonist Logan Roy is self-made, the series is inspired by such established media dynasties as the Hearsts, Mercers and Sulzbergers.

This style, founded on people’s idea of European subtlety, is now international – Peter York

“It’s a small, important, fading minority of mostly Northeastern preppy types of old money in American terms,” says York. “Fred Astaire and his sister Adele, who married a British toff, spent a lot of time in London in the 1930s. The Kennedys were tribal with the Devonshires. American plutocrats love British clothes, especially men’s clothing. And they love our interiors. Clive Aslet’s book, An Exuberant Catalogue of Dreams: The Americans who Revived the Country House in Britain, is about American owners of English country houses who restore English country houses, making them perfect, if sanitised. To be fair, they often do this very well.”

AOJN’s pared-back home aesthetic creates a tranquil, calm mood (Credit: Kristofer Johnsson)

He sees the English country-house look as an early variant of quiet luxury. Its 20th-Century incarnation was a transatlantic confection, popularised by US heiress and interior decorator Nancy Lancaster, who collaborated with John Fowler, co-founder of quintessentially British decorating firm Colefax & Fowler. She helped cement Anglo-American ties by buying the business in 1948.

York believes quiet luxury has less influence now in the US because Americans are becoming less Anglophile. “It’s a shrinking sector but won’t disappear,” says York, who is not a fan of the look. “This style, founded on people’s idea of European subtlety, is now international anyway – and it’s fantastically boring and bland.”

Architect Richard Parr, whose practice, Richard Parr Associates, designs many rural homes in Britain, sees Italian fashion and interiors as a major influence: “This understated style is very much that of Giorgio Armani. Among the uber-affluent, it’s much classier not to broadcast logos. As you’d expect, the Armani Hotel in Milan, which opened in 2011, and is housed in a 1930s palazzo, is the original take on quiet luxury greige. It’s stood the test of time, never been refurbished.” 

Clean lines

Simplicity fused with opulent elements were espoused by modernist and mid-century architects and designers. An iconic example is Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion of 1929. While uncluttered and free of ornamentation, it feels luxurious thanks to its use of rich materials, including dark green Tinian marble and rust onyx, some used for structural elements such as walls. A taste for measured luxury is also evident in its furniture, notably van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair with its caramel leather-upholstered seat and chromed steel frame.

Its primary characteristics lie in a use of simple elements, clean lines and understated materials – it’s a philosophy that whispers rather than screams luxury – Pierre Petit

“Quiet luxury can be seen as a contemporary interpretation of the ‘less is more’ principle coined by Mies van der Rohe,” says Pierre Petit, co-founder of Paris interior design firm Atelier DAAA. The book Quiet Luxury features its renovation of a Haussmannian apartment in Paris. “Its primary characteristics lie in a use of simple elements, clean lines and understated materials, aiming to be free of non-essential embellishments,” he explains. “If its manifestation in fashion recalls Shiv Roy’s camel cashmere wardrobe, its equivalent in décor could be a chair wrapped in mohair velvet or [modernist designer] Charlotte Perriand’s Berger stools. It’s a philosophy that whispers rather than screams luxury.”

Atelier DAAA’s renovation of a Hausmannian apartment in Paris is clean and understated (Credit: Cafeine)

Atelier DAAA’s apartment highlights another characteristic of quiet luxury – it doesn’t necessarily banish classical, decorative elements. “Its moulded ceilings are accentuated by marble-clad arches,” continues Petit. “In general, choice of materials is crucial – metals are bronzed or softened not polished; woods remain raw and untreated, velvets look muted not glossy.”

Another project in the book  called Stairway to Heaven, also in Paris, designed by Véronique Cotrel, takes its cue from US mid-century modernism. “I drew a lot of inspiration from Californian 1960s modernism, which advocated clean interiors and natural materials – wood combined with stone. It’s minimalist in style yet capitalises on its many windows, which we enlarged to create an inside-outside feel. We installed mirrors on the sides of window recessesto bring more light and a feeling of nature indoors.”

“In a time when we’re saturated with images and notifications, I attach importance to emptiness,” adds Cotrel. “I like to create interiors that don’t necessarily have usual functions but have what I call aesthetic functions, such as clear perspectives that are easy on the eye and enhance natural light and a sense of space.”

Verocotrel’s Stairway to Heaven design was inspired by American mid-century modernism (Photography: Amaury Laparra)

The quiet luxury trend can also be seen as a reaction against the overblown, visual cacophony of maximalism. While flamboyant interiors can be thrillingly theatrical, their appeal arguably palls fast – fun to dip into temporarily in a hotel, say, but not to be embraced permanently. In the light of pressing environmentalist concerns, a layered, more-is-more philosophy seems wasteful, self-indulgent and likely to date quickly.

“There’s been a noticeable reaction against ostentatious interiors,” says Margit Argus, founder of architects practice Studio Argus, based in Tallinn, Estonia. “A desire for simplicity and a thoughtful choice of materials signifies a collective yearning for authenticity. This movement is a response to our fast-paced world, with individuals seeking solace in calm spaces.”

Influenced by new circumstances and contemporary concerns, the style is becoming increasingly popular. “The trend aligns with a growing emphasis on wellness and mindfulness,” says Pauwels. “It’s also propelled by a desire for serenity amid turbulent times.”

Some believe a commitment among designers and their clients for sustainability is increasingly stoking a demand for more enduring materials and a comparatively timeless aesthetic. “The adoption of a quiet colour palette is intricately intertwined with concerns for the environment,” says Argus. “The neutral tones of quiet luxury frequently originate from a growing use of eco-friendly materials.”

Quiet, refined, calm spaces with considered elements and open spaces are what ultimately feel soothing – Nicole Hollis

Some established interior designers have always favoured a pared-back look, in the belief that our homes are a haven that cocoon us from the frenetic pace of public life, and don’t see it as a passing trend. “This has never been a trend for us but something I’ve always gravitated towards,” says Nicole Hollis, a San Francisco-based interior designer who has undertaken residential projects in the US and Europe. Her interiors are uncluttered and feature striking sculptural furniture and neutral colours, such as charcoal grey and ivory.

Estonian design firm Studio Argus adopts a neutral palette and uses eco-friendly materials (Credit: Studio Argus)

She believes the pandemic made people more aware of the serenity home life provides. “A key question for us now is ‘How does this space make me feel?’ Quiet, refined, calm spaces with considered elements and open spaces are what ultimately feel soothing. Key ingredients of the style are symmetry, an avoidance of diagonal lines, natural materials and a muted palette, which quiet our senses and allow us to recharge. I’m attracted to art that can overwhelm the senses but I wouldn’t want to live in a space that feels like this.”

Consistent use of materials is important, she says. “We carve elements from the same block of stone or marble to give continuity to a space,” she says. “For example, we’ve worked on homes in the US where we’ve gone to Italy to source marble, and selected a block that is laser-cut for all slabs, counters, sinks and doors. The veining matches throughout and shows a consideration for fine detail.”

Historical precedents for the style, she adds, include architect Piero Portaluppi’s Villa Necchi in Milan – a mansion that was pioneering for melding Italian rationalism, Art Deco and state-of-the-art creature comforts, such as central heating, electric blinds and a dumb waiter.

Identifying a house’s key qualities and bringing them out via carefully considered design details is another characteristic of the look, says Richard Parr: “In my projects, I draw the design out of the place itself. I use locally sourced materials that don’t jar with a house’s environment – and in inventive ways. Our interiors are very architectural – we keep to the fabric of the building, only adding a simple layer. For a house in Suffolk, we are installing glazed ceramic tiles inspired by amazing colours I saw on a local river shore.”

What tips can designers give to achieve the style in an accessible way? “Make sustainable choices when selecting furniture, and mix old and new pieces,” counsels Clémence Pirajean, co-founder of London-based interior and product design studio Pirajean Lees. “Avoid trends. Instead create a look that’s personal and tailored to your lifestyle. Incorporate objects you’ve collected on your travels abroad. Accumulating items over time will help establish your home so it doesn’t look brand new but feels timeless and lived-in.”

Quietly luxurious interiors have a timeless, pared-back sensibility (Credit: Studio Argus)

Rasmus Graversen, a scion of the Graversen family that established Danish furniture brand Fredericia in 1911, suggests allowing furniture to age naturally. “With furniture and other homeware it’s about showing you dare to let them acquire patina. For example, instead of putting lacquer on brass to stop it rusting, let it age naturally.” 

The quiet luxury aesthetic might seem beyond the reach of most of us, but it also springs from a mindset that believes less can be more, says Jo Littlefair of London-based interior design practice Goddard Littlefair. “An accessible entry into this aesthetic is a more mindful approach,” she advises. “Decluttering is paramount. A few standout pieces can transform a room. It’s a style embodied by thoughtful curation.”

Quiet Luxury is published by Beta Plus Publishing

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