Georgina Crouth
CAPE TOWN - Artistry, elegance and understatement: these are not necessarily top of mind when thinking Dubai, which is synonymous with flash, cash and pastiche architecture.

Which is why, when a press release about a Dubai businessman's three exclusive developments in Cape Town reached my in-box, I thought: "Oh dear!"

But Ahsan Darvesh, scion of the 109-year-old Darvesh business empire, is disarmingly mannerly and immaculately polished, with a shy smile and a passion for artistry.

India-born Darvesh, who has spent most of his life in Europe, arrived in South Africa six years ago, when his family extended their packaging business, he explains from his offices in the swish new Artem Galleria shopping centre in Sea Point.

“We do high-quality industrial packaging in South Africa, for chicken, rice and meat. We invested R750million in the state-of-the-art Technovaa Packaging Industries plant in Durban: it’s the first such plant here.”

The family has also been in the luxury business for 15 years, working with 103 luxury brands, including Tom Ford, Chanel, YSL and Gucci, which was spearheaded by Darvesh. “We were involved in the high-end props for perfume and cosmetics. While I was working with the design guidelines about 10 years ago, I realised there was no proper seven-star residential brand in South Africa.”

Here for the launch of their packaging arm, nature-loving Darvesh visited Cape Town, found his spiritual home and decided to stay by completing an MBA through UCT’s Graduate School of Business.

It was during this time that he was a resident of the old Ambassador Hotel in Bantry Bay and identified its potential. “I fell in love with the space - it was so beautiful, it had a direct view on to the ocean, the angle was just perfect. For me, symmetry is very important as an artist. And the symmetry was spot-on.

“When I contacted the owners, they said sorry, it’s been sold. But I knew it would happen and a month later they told me the sale had fallen through, so I bought it.”

He renamed The Ambassador, his first purchase under his new Da’Realty property division, The Aurum (“gold” in Latin). It comprises eight presidential apartments on the rocks in Bantry Bay, linked via underground parking to 15 luxury units across the road on Victoria.

The presidential apartments are slated for completion by June. The Aurum might have achieved the highest price per square metre, but that’s not what Darvesh sought to achieve, because his customers understand such attention to detail and artistry is “on another level”.

Next in his sites was the run-down Adelphi Centre in Sea Point, which opened as Artem this month. “When I initially started this development, people were laughing at me - they were saying art doesn't exist in development. I said it does, but you've forgotten the way things used to be because developers are always looking at the bottom line.”

Art might be a luxury, but investing in quality workmanship makes sense. Darvesh says it costs four times as much to employ artisans to do the work, but the quality, endurance and the enjoyment it gives customers make it a sound investment. “The idea about Artem is an art gallery experience: the entrance is like a picture frame, so when you walk in you feel you've entered an art space. We have art flowing everywhere - that’s what Artem means, to ‘conceal art in its origins’.”

Their door supplier's family produced doors for Napoleon. The 2-metre marble tiles in Artem’s bulkhead are shaped to look like it's gift-wrapped. The sanitary ware is solid brass. The balustrades are solid brass. The pavement's been revamped with herringbone-patterned paving around the building. The entrance features 27 rows of hand-stitched mosaics from Italy.

The devil's clearly in the detail and it's one of the reasons people come to enjoy the space. “If you go to mundane shopping centres, people just clock in and out - they never enjoy it. Artem doesn't feel like a shopping centre, it’s different. That's what we are achieving with all our spaces.

“I’ve been offered blank cheques in Durban and Joburg, but if the nature doesn't resonate, I won’t do it. I need that element to inspire me. I consider us artists in the development game - it’s about lifestyle artistry.”

Darvesh doesn’t have an art background, having studied finance and marketing in the US, but he’s had a passion for artistry since a young age. "We were the first company to do the luxury counters, manufacturing between Dubai and Paris. We became one of the largest in that region. I wanted to extend myself beyond that space, to do developments.

"I've travelled extensively and lived all over the world. I would travel three hours to Florence to meet with a belt-maker to see how he did his stitching. I've always been in search of artisans.”

It's not easy to launch something that hasn't been done before, he admits, because bankers don't understand it, nobody wants to fund it and everyone thinks you're crazy.

“I would see a building and it would speak to me. When I bought the Adelphi, people said to me this is the most rubbish building in Sea Point - and I saw something in it which nobody else did.”