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Made in Spain

It's the show designers die for - the annual International Furniture Fair in Valencia.

FAIR LADY'S decor editor PAULINE BRETTELL and photographer JUAN ESPI travelled up Spain's Costa Blanca to join everyone who's anyone in a world of smooth lines and slick surfaces.

Spain in early autumn - the summer sun has softened, and the olives are being pIcked. The countryside is quietly waiting for the last of the tourists to leave, and for the first of the restoring winter rains to move on to the plains. This is a harsh country of sunbaked colours that you'd like to capture in a paint pot to take home and splash all over your walls but they wouldn't look the same without the special light that belongs to this particular time and place ..

Spain is a country of contradictions, of Moors and Christians, battles and fiestas. History lives in its architecture: the hillsides are dotted with castles, each village has its cathedral, and windows and doorways, once barricaded to keep would-be conquerors out, open on to narrow streets. Many homes are hundreds of years old. No attempt has been made to mask the natural passage of time; instead, the past has been integrated into the present, and the elements have been left to weather the walls of village houses into shape.

Valencia, Alicante and all the towns and villages around and in between form part of Spain's Costa Blanca, the White Coast. This stretch of coastline has been colonised by foreigners under the sign of the Big Mac, but if you take the time to penetrate the daunting facade of tea shops and beer gardens, the real Spain is quietly getting on with life - Spanish style.

Looking at this country from a design point of view lends a new perspective, and leads you off the beaches and into olive groves and alleyways where package tours don't venture.

Unselfconscious colour combinations emerge; an old curtain flaps against faded plaster during the soporific siesta time; a pile of garlic takes on shape and meaning in the subtle blend of colour and noncolour that is so much part of current decor trends towards neutrals and naturals.

At this time of year decorators and designers from all over Europe converge in the heart of Valencia for the International Furniture Fair. Spanish design is on show too, in this, one of the country's oldest - and its third largest - cities.

A grander era is recalled in the beautifully wrought Art Deco metal work in the old part of town, but Valencia seems to be going through a renaissance, and there is an energy that is tangible in the air. On every corner, restoration work is going on and new buildings are being constructed with a contemporary sense of grandeur that sits comfortably alongside the old. The best example of this is the new bridge that sweeps across the old river bed (the river itself has been diverted out of the city centre). Known affectionately as La Peineta - the name for the traditional mantilla hair comb - the bridge joins the old and new pans of the city and is concrete evidence that Spanish design has moved beyond the hiatus of the Seventies, which saw timeshares and pleasure domes littering the coast.

During September, all roads led to the 32nd Feria lntemacional del Meuble de Valencia.

The sheer volume and diversity of design is impressive every year, but on our visit the hall that demanded our attention was the Sidi exhibition in pavilion 6. Sidi is talked about in hushed tones and is the place to be if you know your design from your decor. All the exhibits are high-quality contemporary designs, and the hall is full of smooth lines and slick surfaces.

We were pleased to hear that some of the designers were already exploring to South Aflica, and that the exciting new shapes and colours of the glassware designed by La Mediterranea were expected on our shelves this year.