Artisans: Outside of the Box

Art Painting Lab founder Sam Kaufman Saliba talks to Hotelier Middle East about the importance and growing popularity of art in commercial spaces

Sam Kaufman Saliba
Sam Kaufman Saliba

Sam Kaufman Saliba refers to herself as a hobby artist. She says: “I don't have any formal education in terms of artistic techniques but I started this company (Art Painting Lab) in 2006. I travelled around a lot went to a lot of talks and lectures and workshops and was just trying to understand what people love and how to communicate art.

They were very important because art is a very special product. It's an intangible product. It is something that does not exist. So either you're an artist who paints their own ideas to create the artwork, makes it tangible and then goes out to try and sell it which you do through galleries, or you do the impossible, what we do, which is sell an idea, a concept and aesthetic and convince somebody that it's going to be great.”

As is often the case, Saliba initially had a different plan: “I was 26 years old and my idea was just to paint walls and make people happy," she says. "I wanted to bring colour into the UAE and create environments that matter. It was definitely lacking at the time. It wasn't there at all, any kind of relevant, localised art was extremely rare. And then, throughout the years, I learnt how I needed to go about it and which sectors in the industry I should work with. Now it's come to this evolved place where we know who we need to work with. We work with interior designers, hotel operators, art consultants, hotel procurement companies, and through those partners we're able to streamline the art correctly.

“People ask ‘What does what does Art Painting lab do?’ Essentially, we are an expert service that provides tailor made artworks for hotels and restaurants in the corporate industry at affordable prices and at superior quality.”

Saliba explains that flexibility is key when working with hospitality clients: “At the end of the day, the hotel or restaurant has a certain project management requirement. It’s a stage based build up. The interior designers will set out the space and they will figure out where the art could potentially go. We then talk to them and try to identify the best solutions for them.

The procurement companies, sometimes they just need artworks in the aftermath where it has to fi t the already existing design. For refurbishments, they will come to us and they will say, 'Okay, this hotel is existing, the nails are already on the wall, we just need to change the look,' and art is a very good way to refurb in a very cost-effective way. This is I think, where we are very different to what exists in the market because we approach the art as artists. Everyone in this group is an artist, every single person. So everyone you see sitting there, every single one of them could go on site and just paint the work or paint the canvas themselves."

Art Painting Lab has made its name as a mural company but Saliba is quick to point out that there’s much more to what the company does. She says: Unless they’re in the business, people think of us as a mural company because the murals are so loud and proud. We actually do full-scale fi t outs for hotels and restaurants and business centres, but murals give the wow factor. Last year maybe 60% of our work was canvases.

Above: Sam Saliba

In terms of demand, Saliba notes that hotels design is moving in a different direction where properties are investing more and placing a greater importance on allowing spaces to breathe, and creating aesthetic breaks with art. She explains: “It is happening across the board with three-star, four-star and five-star hotels. It's also happening with refurbishments. There is a change in the way that hotels are selling themselves. Life has become a very visual interaction between the hotels and their consumers. With that in mind, the visuals have to be very compelling. A lot of the time, the art actually is a big player in that influence because people essentially go online and they have a choice between booking themselves into a hotel or finding a cute bed and breakfast or Airbnb. Hotels have to up their game visually to compete with options that are more affordable.

“I believe we are now actually quite demanding visually, because we were constantly experiencing a visual high through our phones, through our computers and through movies. So if you see a hotel that seems to speak a quieter language, it's not as compelling as when you see a hotel that sets itself apart through art.”

The latest property that Art Painting Lab has helped stand out from the crowd has just opened: “One of the hotel projects that I'm most proud of is Radisson Red. It's going to be something else. I'm also really proud of Zabeel House. We provided 90% of the art. We did the rooms, the lobbies, Lah Lah (the restaurant upstairs), the bar in the café, the gym, we did a lot of that work. It's very lifestyle and it really taps into the Arabesque style but in a super modern way, which is which is very beautiful. Also we just recently did the artworks for the Address Fountain View.”

Above: Radisson Red guest bathroom

Art Painting Lab also has two big projects in the pipeline with RAK Properties and Nakheel as well as several commissions to produce art in public spaces. Saliba says: “We've done massive public projects like the Dubai Mall extension. We painted and designed 52 murals in two months.”

That kind of output demands an exceptional team and Saliba is quick to point out that she has one: “There are 12 of us in-house in total, but on average we split six to eight people between sites. Each person works like three people. That’s the type of work ethic we have. We work, like, three times the speed of everyone else. For example, Mercury Lounge in the Four Seasons, we finished it in three days. The whole team came, everybody crushed into it, and we finished it.”

Though it may all seem very relaxed, Saliba and her team are systematic when taking on a project. She says: “We have a very formal approach. We assess the project, understand the project's needs, and provide a proposal, which is usually a thought proposal and then we study.”

"The reason we do that is to help the hotel or the client with figuring out a budget that works for them. We can go in many different directions but budgets, obviously, restrict time on site, design time, and all of that restricts the artwork. We always try to find the best solution, because we live for the art. So we always want the artwork to be absolutely amazing. It has to go into our portfolio.”

Above: Sam Saliba, Max Laurence, Amna Basheer and Melvin Miguel

Part of ensuring the success of a project is to start early. Saliba says: “From our point of view, it's best to be appointed at conception. At conception, the process is very integrated, because we will be working with the brand, the hotel operators, and the investment entity all at the same time aligning all of the ducks. And what that does is it creates an integrated approach. It creates a budget, a sensible plan, because then it doesn't have to get so expensive. When we have time, we can find good solutions that are budget sensitive. However, we don't live in an ideal world, right? There are many different types of scenarios which is why we're here. We essentially say, ‘Come to us at any stage and we can help you figure it out.”

Speaking about the effect that social media platforms like Instagram have on the way that hotels are choosing art, Saliba says the correlation is undeniable: “One hundred percent. For example, if you're looking at La Ville hotel in City Walk, we created an illustration of City Walk for all the rooms. And we worked with 17A and Capsule Arts as well as other interior art consultants. Essentially what properties are doing is they're photographing influencers, on the bed with the artwork behind and they're circulating that constantly on their on their social media platforms. I was told by the hotel manager that they had some influencer kids staying with them at the hotel, and they videotaped it and sent it to all their friends, and all their friends went crazy.  They absolutely loved it to the point that now they have our illustration on the back of their business cards.”

Beyond social media, for Saliba art is about a personal connection. She explains: “You want people to come and see and be wowed and be bedazzled. When you create the design for a hotel, yes, the interior designer absolutely keeps the end consumer in mind. But when you go into a hotel, the people really know something has been done for them when it’s art.

Above: Radisson Red bedroom

When you see a big mural in a hotel that indirectly tells you, I did that for you in very different way than saying I bought this furniture so you can be comfortable. This is true whether it's a mural, an amazing artwork, installation or a fun sculpture that you can photograph and send to all your friends. It's a win-win for the hotel and for the end consumer. I'm a big proponent of art, just from a human perspective. We need that escape. Hospitality is all about escape. I think it's important.”

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