A few months ago walked through the doors of Karachi based therapist Saira Shaikh who’s lived in the seaside city since her early twenties. A counsellor, activist and philanthropist, she has steadily built a home in Karachi, designed by the famous architect (the late) Habib Fida Ali, whom Saira considered a mentor and a friend, and who died earlier this year in January. When she’s not working hands on with clients, she works with the PTI’s education team and serves on the core committee of Save Our Children, a concerned citizens intiative. In her free time she operates a bespoke design brand from home.
Tell us a bit about your background?
I was born and bred in Lahore, and have a bachelor’s degree from Kinnaird College. I have beautiful memories of growing up in Lahore – great friends, cycling in the neighborhood, playing hooky from college, plays and debates, movie nights at Punjab Club, cricket matches at Qaddafi Stadium and summers spent in Nathiagali . It really was the age of innocence – literally a lifetime ago, considering how much the state of affairs in our country have deteriorated. Those were the simple pleasures our kids never experienced nor will understand. I married very young and have two sons and a daughter and after I have more free time on my hands I studied for a diploma in counseling in Karachi in 2006 and trained to become a therapist. Two days a week, I see clients suffering from anxiety and depression among other psychosomatic symptoms. I previously volunteered for a year at Karvan-e-Hayat, a nonprofit institute that offers mental illness and rehabilitation treatment.
How long have you called Karachi home? What do you love most about living in Karachi?
I got married and moved to Karachi. Coming from Lahore it was very different. I hated the weather, missed the changing of the seasons. However, in time, I fell in love with Karachi, ‘The City of Lights,’ which sadly, it isn’t anymore. I was fascinated by its multi-cultural society. Karachi had a big arts scene which was very different from Lahore at the time.
When did you move into this home?
We moved into our house in 2005. A lot of people have touched my life. One such very special person was our architect Habib Fida Ali. It was a long and grueling search trying to find an architect who would give us a Lahore-like home – architecture in Karachi was very different at the time, something I didn’t much care for. I was initially really nervous meeting the great architect. Expecting airs and attitude, I was pleasantly surprised by his gentle witty manner – we clickedimmediately. From him I learnt the art of simplicity and timelessness. In whiteness he saw abundance. He gave me a beautiful ‘canvas’ to paint on. He was a great friend and a mentor and I will always remember him with the greatest love and fondness.
What is your favourite room in the house? Why?
My favourite room in the house is the family lounge. It was the first room I did up. It is in the heart of the house yet has a lot of privacy. One wall is entirely a window, overlooking a courtyard with the pool and the Champa trees I love so much. Some of my favorite pieces are in this room. It’s an
eclectic mix of locally customised furniture, Turkish pieces, and accessories from the Philippines, Far East and Australia. I have furnished it in a way that we use it for entertaining too. I love playing around with the look of this room. I alternate between my two favourite carpets to change the
mood of the room.
How did you approach decor and adding in your own signature touches?
Very cautiously: I must admit I was lost initially about where to start. However, the one thing I knew was that my house had to be a reflection of me. There was and still is a trend of having your house furnished by some big interior designer. My house lay unfurnished for years – I initially had a few essential pieces and that was it. However, I had been collecting sculpture and art for years. I love my big wood sculptures scattered all over the interior made by our own local artists such as Jamil Baloch, Akram Dost Baloch, and Jam Depar. I also have huge pieces of stone sculpture from Bali scattered outdoors.
Is there a certain furniture or art piece you are especially attached to?
In all honesty, all the pieces I have collected have a story or some memorable incident behind them. From antique stores in Koh Samui, antique shops and Christmas bazaars in the Philippines, warehouses in Perth, furniture and antique markets of Changmai, to antique dealers in Turkey and Morocco, they are all cherished memories and stories. However, in the entrance, I now have a collection of old prints of the sub-continent under the British Raj. These I bought when Habib Fida Ali had an exhibition of some of his art collection during his lifetime.
How does your own style reflect in your home?
I am very proud to say that my house is a labour of love for both of us since my husband has been an integral part of it. I am a perfectionist and I must admit I have spent sleepless nights trying to place a piece. I have a very eclectic style, blending the new with the old and love statement pieces. I have a love of nature which I have brought into the house with a lot of huge indoor plants. I am very sensitive to the energies of places and people. There is a lot of wood that adds warmth and the stark white walls in the entrance add a certain purity, simplicity and clarity. My home is me, it is not copied, it does not imitate, it has originality and the inspiration has come from all I cherish and hold important. For me it has a soul which speaks volumes.
What advice would you give to someone setting out to decorate their own home?
Please don’t buy your furniture based on your architectural plans. I know of so many homes where the owners take their plans and go to American warehouses or hire designers to go to Dubai and fill up their houses in one go. It’s like opening Architectural Digest or Florida Homes and saying this is the look I want. So the furniture, soft furnishings, wall paper and curios are all bought in one go to get the ‘look’. Its sacrilege. Don’t be in a hurry to furnish. Move in with your essential pieces. Take your time, feel your spaces, enjoy the emptiness, it’s your space it must be a reflection of you!
When you’re not in Karachi are their certain cities or countries you like to visit?
When the kids were young we used to go to Perth every summer for three months. These days my youngest daughter is studying in the States, my middle son is studying in London and the eldest is here, so travel has increased. But I really love is Nathiagali and want to build a small apartment there, it’s a dream and to keep it alive I go once or twice a year –the northern parts of Pakistan are stunning. I also really miss Lahore and go quite often now.
What makes a house a home?
It’s like a love affair! An intimate relationship between us and our most personal space. The more love and attention you invest in it, the more it blossoms. It should be your special haven which lifts you up as well as comforts you when you are down. It’s a place which should have all your favourite people and all your favourite things under one roof.