Suppliers roundtable: Design deconstructed

Interior design in high-end Middle Eastern hotels has long been synonymous with splendour and glitz with traces of the local Arabic culture.


How much do local cultural influences weigh in while interior designing hotels in the Middle East?

David T’Kint: In my approach, every project is bespoke and based on a narrative which reflects the vision of the local culture. It influences basic operational aspects in addition to creating a sense of place. Moucharabie and other regularly seen Middle Eastern cultural elements are overdone, the market is now looking for something beyond that. Kempinski Beirut, Lebanon by HBA is a good example. In some instances there is a specific request from the developer or even an operator not to have any local influence, in that case other aspects such as brand identity will drive the narrative in properties like Zabeel House by Jumeirah, designed by StudioHBA.

Dausser Chinoufi: There is significant influence by local culture, aesthetics and design. We incorporate these into our designs across projects ranging from hospitality to other commercial spaces. There are reasons why local cultures influence our projects, from including a sense of familiarity and thereby comfort, and as an affirmative nod to cultural heritage, and historical presence. The locals across the Middle East are proud and honour their cultures which is still a part of their daily life, therefore, it is appropriate to respect and include cultural design aesthetics when and where possible.

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Amyas Wade: This ultimately depends on who the hotel is targeting. Within Dubai, the modern language of the city means that increasingly hotels are designed with a contemporary aesthetic using traditional forms, but in modern ways. Developing contemporary concepts whilst maintaining some relationship to the history of a region is something we are well-versed in doing, and it is this “localisation” which helps to make our hotel designs relevant to the location.

Rosha Ehsan:One of the primary factors we focus on as designers is the people and market we are designing for. This is why we can’t always rely on the local culture to appeal to all markets. The industry is forever evolving and so is the audience. Currently, there is a high demand for mid-market affordable stay hotels that are aligned with the city’s lifestyle or identity. This is an opportunity to set new standards and trends. It also opens up a new market for creativity within the hospitality sector as a few years ago, most of the travellers in the Middle East were limited to stay in high-end hotels.

Martin Meijer: It depends a lot on the positioning of the hotel brand. Much research has been carried out on the millennials and their mind-set. Guests need to be convinced of the value of a product or an organisation through storytelling. They value companies that have a powerful vision and a distinct point of view on the world. They also appreciate it when companies have strong connections to the local community — and they are more impressed by raw entrepreneurial talent than in the mighty displays of wealth and power by big corporations.

Tareq Khalafawi: If you look at the Arabic shapes and history of Arabic art, you will see them translated in many projects locally. Designers are implementing these trends in their projects. Also, it is worth mentioning that His Highness Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has launched a number of initiatives which help to support cultural activity within the country and encourages projects and initiatives aimed at promoting the development of the UAE’s culture.

How important is collaboration with suppliers, operators and designers? Why?

David: Working together is the only way to make a project successful. Our expertise makes each of us a link in the chain of a project with individual roles to play. For Great Scotland Yard, London — designed by HBA Dubai — the design team worked very closely with many suppliers in order to adhere to all local regulations whilst implementing the specific requirements from the operator for this high-end property located in a very demanding market.

Dausser: Collaboration combined with clear and timely communication with stakeholders such as suppliers, operators and designers is extremely important. It is what keeps a project on track for timely completion. It’s also essential to ensure that the design is acceptable and fits the vision of the owners (and the public) while costs are curtailed, budgets are met, and materials are available and obtainable as required. Without collaboration, any project could easily derail and take much longer to complete after facing tremendous hurdles.

Amyas: It’s important to have good communication with both the client and the wider delivery team. Having strong relationships with suppliers allows us to specify the latest materials with the confidence that when an order is placed, the product will be available. It’s about trust and integrity — avoiding reproductions and copies is paramount. As designers, having a creative visual solution isn’t enough. To achieve the design vision, there also has to be an understanding of the operational aspects, too.

Rosha: The hotel brand, its interiors and operation are all elements that go hand-in-hand, and it is extremely vital to ensure they work in harmony. At Creneau International, as restaurant owners and operators, we emphasise on sharing our operational expertise with clients, and design interiors with an in-depth understanding of how the operations work. Great opportunities lie in true collaboration, leading to a more successful project delivery.

Martin: Very. I would add the property owner into the team, too. Between them and the operator, they create the vision and develop or choose the brand that will be delivered. In a very competitive market, to be able to provide something special, you need clients that can think outside the box. It is then our job as designers (together with the suppliers) to deliver their vision. As designers we need to interpret this vision into three dimensions — colour, texture and light — which together, function efficiently and will last for the specified life cycle of the development.

Tareq: The contracting industry in particular, has to deal with very high standards when it comes to quality, efficiency and timeliness. The construction and renovation industry in the Middle East has seen a dramatic shift in recent years. Dubai is increasingly becoming a designer’s heaven with the passage of time, because of so many start-ups entering the market each day. It is therefore very crucial to work with experienced suppliers, designers and fit-out contractors in Dubai to guarantee the project’s success.

What are some of the challenges you face as designers in the Middle East?

David: Every country in the Middle East has its own, however market volatility has a heavy influence on our work.  It makes designers work at an irregular and hectic rhythm - sometimes comprising aspects of the project. This happens worldwide however it is becoming the norm in some parts of this region.  Additionally, quality is unfortunately often a challenge.  A project not attended by contractors and specialists with the right qualifications ends up delayed and the outcome does not reflect a quality product.

Dausser: As designers, the challenge continues to be the development of modern and contemporary spaces that promote nature-inspired or natural spaces, taking into consideration climatic considerations. The designs that we develop, should serve two purposes, the first is to be eye-catching and beautiful, and to minimise maintenance costs - which is a challenge given the hot and dry climate across the region. The other challenge we face is client budgets that require high-end value-added services.

Amyas: The challenges are really no different to those we face in other parts of the world. Kinnersley Kent Design undertakes projects globally, and designing for brands in the Middle East, we face the same issues regarding timescales, budgets and communication. We endeavour to ensure that our designs are always relevant to the context that we are working in and celebrate local culture.

Rosha: Over the past decade, the industry has evolved with a shift of focus solely on the ROI. Clients are more interested in the experience, functionality and the ROI on design elements rather than its aesthetics. Knowing the role of contractors within the project execution and the budget-consciousness of clients nowadays, maintaining the original specifications has been a challenge and very often goes through a value engineering process, which is time consuming and comes at a cost.

Martin: We have been lucky to work with great contractors and clients. Contractors are squeezed on margins and contract terms and this will inevitably, have a negative effect on quality. Therefore, it is crucial for designers to be engaged, ensure material submittals and shop drawings are reviewed and signed off by them. Clients are obviously looking for a high quality service, the lowest price and the fastest time.

Tareq: Exceeding the customer’s perception of the project and delivering something that totally amazes them. This requires thinking out-of-the-box and communicating this paradigm shift to everyone who is involved in designing, building, and finishing. Clients are also becoming actively involved in what goes on throughout the project life cycle.

What are some of the concerns hoteliers bring up during the interior design process?

David: Considering the brand identity, ensuring operational aspects are implemented, and local or easy availability of anything which needs to be replaced in the future are the most common concerns from hotel operators. Both HBA, our high-end product, and StudioHBA, our mid-tier product, work very closely with operators.

Dausser: Hoteliers want to maximise their guests’ experience during their visit, while challenging competitors and increasing ROI for investors and owners. As a result, most of the concerns revolve around cultural appropriateness, trends in hospitality design and aesthetics including the use of fashionable materials, classy colours, and functionality of spaces.

Amyas: This varies, but typical concerns revolve around the durability of materials, the budget (more precisely, where best to invest it), and ultimately timings – when the different stages of the design process can be presented, agreed and progressed into the various packages of information for tender. There is always a discussion around budget, and balancing the design vision with the affordability of realising it.

Rosha: Hoteliers today are investing in quality branded mid-scale hotels and are mostly concerned about the customer journey and emotional experience of guests during their stay. Brand standards are changing to be more about how they want people to feel while exploring the hotel and its environment. Employee well-being and back-of-house spaces that ensure satisfaction are also part of the design process.

Martin: During a recent meeting, an operator was explaining how the design of a hotel had major flaws in terms of operational flow. There was a 200-metre walk to service guests from the kitchen; no allowance for refuse and two restaurants which could not be accessed directly due to a swimming pool in the middle. Obviously it’s important that the owner engages an operational consultant during the design process.

Tareq: Hoteliers are always looking for a personal touch, something that their clients can easily feel connected to from the moment they enter. Concerns are mostly based around the ability to offer value for money and being able to adjust the hotel offering, to the needs of the guest the hotel wants to attract.

How important is value engineering? What are some of the challenges you run into?

David: It is part of our work to ensure the integrity of the design whilst remaining within the developer’s budget. Value engineering is often reduced to basic thoughts, such as replacing a stone with a tile, however I believe it is much more than that – construction details and origin of materials can sometimes weigh in heavily on the cost, therefore as designers we should have a pragmatic approach to our design.

Dausser: Value engineering is important, however, it is usually done in order to revaluate the cost of the fit-out and FF&E in order to reduce costs. A good interior design firm will work according to the client budget and will carefully choose the best materials that match the initial budget of the development while working on the BOQ (Bill of quantity).

Amyas: Traditionally, this has been carried out by the contractor to simplify details and substitute materials for lower cost alternatives. However, at Kinnersley Kent Design we endeavour to develop the design scheme with the client, specifying local products where appropriate and using cost-efficient solutions that work within the budget from the outset. This helps maintain the integrity of the concept by avoiding the need to alter details later on, which can result in a loss of vision for the brand.

Rosha: As designers, we are very specific in the materials we choose and there always is a purpose behind it. The selection of materials so often comes from core brand values and when the value engineering game steps in, it can sometimes defeat the entire purpose of a design. This is why we ensure to support our clients in all stages of the design and build. Value engineering is not about degrading the quality, but offering value for money to our clients.

Martin: Very. Unless a design is challenged or reviewed it cannot be justified or improved. Mojo takes a flexible and collaborative approach at this key stage. We are not precious or egotistical about the design. We understand that form follows function and that design should be cost-effective, quick to build and easy to maintain. Unfortunately by being flexible, if major changes occur, then we need to revisit the overall design to ensure all elements still work in harmony.

Tareq: Value engineering helps for clients who are looking into ROI on their project to balance between money spent and design execution. This balance is important to share with cost control companies and management prior to execution and to set budgets matching expectation.

What are some of the design trends you have seen in the recent years in the Middle East?

David: Lifestyle hotels and unique experiences have been gaining a lot of attention here, following the trends from other parts of the world.  Aloft Deira City Center, designed by StudioHBA, is one of several openings of that sort this year.  Developers understand guests travel more than they used to and therefore, expect more.

Dausser: Design trends here include the use of classy, timeless colours that give off a serene, yet luxurious feeling. Modern, contemporary, clean design with geometric lines and shapes is also a trend, and is usually coupled with cultural aesthetics and colours. Another trend, is the incorporation of nature or natural landscapes in both common and private areas. A trend that is on its way out, is grand and ostentatious design.

Amyas: The proliferation of mainly five-star hotels has given way as the market evolves to include more mid-market brands that appeal to more cost-sensitive guests as the demographic of visitors change. The industrial aesthetic is currently prominent, especially in the UAE. We anticipate that this aesthetic will mature in the region as more creative and lifestyle brands are entering the market, capturing a younger visitor.

Rosha: The majority of hotel interiors in the region reflect the traditional Arabic culture and the market has reached a saturation point. New developments now focus on contemporary designs with local influences, catering to travellers who are always connected. ‘Social consciousness’ or knowing everything, is constantly being shared and has become a major driving factor in design direction when determining the experiences the hotel wants to offer.

Martin: Steve Jobs and Apple have greatly influenced thinking and design by paring down the superfluous in design and taking forms to their simplest. This is reflected in muted interiors - one example is the Jumeirah Al Naseem hotel. We have been inspired by their Arabic arches recently and used this idea for one of our recent restaurants - great artists steal!

Tareq: Clients these days feel comfortable with exotic designs. The use of natural materials such as wood, concrete and raw steel are now also trending within the region.

What role does sustainability play in interior design for hotels?

David: Sourcing materials locally is a good example of a sustainable approach to design however, there are limitations as required items might not be available.  Well considered volumes is another one as air conditioning space plays a major role here.

Dausser: Sustainability is very important as this is not just a passing trend. There are policies from private and government bodies that promote sustainable use of resources, and energy, but in order for this to happen, sustainable design needs to lead the way. Sustainability in hotel interiors reduces operational costs and carbon footprints.

Amyas: Sustainability is a key driver in Middle Eastern policy and it is rapidly becoming an essential element of projects. Suppliers in the region are now adding sustainable ratings and sourcing information to their products which makes it easier for our studio to raise the issue of sustainability with clients. By demonstrating how sustainable elements can be incorporated into schemes across all areas while reflecting the company’s values and vision, it helps make sustainability an integral part of projects from the briefing stage.

Rosha: Offering sustainability in design is an attitude that I always like to keep as a designer. Whether a client requires a sustainable solution or not, I always do my best to have a sustainable approach wherever possible by sourcing materials and products locally to reduce the overall carbon footprint of a project, or using material sourced in a sustainable way such as reclaimed wood or biodegradable materials and low VOC paints.

Martin: It should play an integral part in the design process and be a key consideration. LEED certification is a good thing, but this increases development costs significantly. A recent project cost an additional AED 60 million to attain LEED certification. A hotel is a business and greater incentives should be offered for developers who attain LEED certification such as; lower interest rates on loans for properties which would enable more hotels to be sustainable. Incentives should also be reflected down the supply chain to suppliers through trade financing at competitive rates.

Tareq: Society is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of environmentally-responsible building and interior design for hotels. As a result, more clients seek to incorporate sustainable principles in their interiors. Interior designers can do a lot to improve a building’s energy efficiency, mainly by reducing the amount of energy needed for heating, lighting and running appliances, and by providing renewable, non-carbon-based energy to the building.

Meet the experts

DavidT’Kint, Design Director and partner at HBA Dubai

David has built a diverse portfolio designing luxury hotels with international hospitality brands. His keen sense of design can be seen in global projects like The Langham, Jeddah, KSA; Great Scotland Yard, London; U Taj Exotica, The Palm Jumeirah, Dubai.

Dausser Chennoufi, Principal and CEO at Draw Link Group

Daousser holds a master’s degree in architecture and interior design. His professional experience includes designing and managing projects for large and small scale, luxury, commercial, hospitality and residential.

Amyas Wade, Design Director at Kinnersley Kent Design

Amyas heads up the creative interior design team at Kinnersley Kent Design. Best known for the redesign of Fortnum & Mason in London and Japan, Amyas’ recent projects include the Aloft Al Ain hotel and the Fashion Avenue expansion at The Dubai Mall.

Rosha Ehsan, Interior Designer, Creneau International

Rosha is an nterior designer with a wide portfolio of projects in the Middle East from residential to corporate, hospitality and F&B. In May 2016, she was awarded the winning title for “RDC”, an annual Retail Design competition hosted by INDEX.

Martin Meijer, Mojo Interior Design

Martin is an interior designer with 30 years of experience working in Ireland, UK, Dubai and China. His works in the region include full design service for the refurbishment of Jebel Ali Golf Resort and Spa, Dubai; Atisuto Restaurant, Dubai and more.

Tareq Khalafawi, Co-Founder and CEO ayt A&T Group Interiors

Tareq founded A&T Group Interiors in 2009. Living most of his life between USA, Jordan and the UAE Tareq has been exposed to different architectural worlds and has more than a decade of diverse experience which he brings into A&T’s unique creative signature.

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