6 young interior designers in the UAE and what they have accomplished

Commercial Interior Design’s Young Interior Designer of the Year, Sonal Kotecha of Pallavi Dean Interiors, helped us host a group discussion with her fellow designers. We talked about the challenges they face in their professional lives, studies, the influences that have had a major impact on their careers and how they managed to get where they are today.

Sonal Kotecha, Pallavi Dean Interiors

Judged as the most promising commercial interior designer under the age of 30 currently working in the Middle East, Sonal Kotecha was selected for her active personality and eagerness to absorb what the industry has to offer.

“Design is much more than having good taste and an eye for style; to have integrity, I think it’s important for designers to understand the background of certain styles and to know key players in the industry and how they influence our visual landscape.”

Born in the UK, Kotecha gained a degree in Interior Architecture and Design at Nottingham Trent University.

“One of the biggest takeaways from the course was technical drafting and other software skills,” she says.

Now when she looks back, the economic downturn in 2008 was an unforeseen challenge for her. During that time, Kotecha was proactively looking for a job in London when a lot of people were being made redundant in the industry. She then taught herself how to build a website, a simple one – but one which could double up as an academic portfolio and as a platform to gain some freelance work. And it was this website that was seen by the company that moved her to the Middle East and secured her first job in Dubai.

“It’s great when something you feel is a ‘challenge’ or ‘difficulty’ at the time turns into the best thing that could have happened,” she says.

2015 saw a big career move for Kotecha, who joined Pallavi Dean Interiors, as she wanted to enjoy more creative freedom and variety.

“It is great to be surrounded daily by other people who share your obsession in some form or another for beautifully designed spaces because this is a career which is always fuelled by passion.”

Kotecha is currently working on two residential projects on the new Pearl Jumeirah Island.

Frederico Cruz, Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ)

I am a design addict. I’m sociable, friendly and open minded, but I know how to follow through with the concept. I enjoy sorting out how it’s made with contractors and craftsman. I’m the loud one in the office, but that doesn’t make me a pest. When you are in need of an extra hand, I’m always ready to help…

That’s in short how Frederico Cruz, interior designer from Portugal, describes himself, promptly adding: “I’m with GAJ now, who are mentoring me and fine tuning my skills.”

Cruz earned his master’s degree from the Elisava School of Design and Engineering in Barcelona and a bachelor’s degree from ESAD in Porto. At that time, he recalls he “was bored having lunch by the beach in Porto, nailing some academic project” when he got a phone call from his mother’s friend who needed help in CAD for ongoing project.

“It was unknown to me who this work was for, until I received a letter with a request for a meeting in Paris, stating that the drawings were approved with a signed stamp showing a name and a big hand sketch crown on top of it: Starck. That was how I got my first job delivering work for Philippe Starck and his first major project in Paris – Le Royal Monceau.”

Cruz’s first full-time job was as an event planner for Joana Macedo, an event and decoration company in Porto. The greatest challenge he faced then was to learn how to manage people.

“Dealing with people’s ego is by far the most difficult task you’ll ever have,” says Cruz.

When he finished his studies in Barcelona, Cruz returned to Portugal to his “mama’s shelter” to look for better opportunities abroad. He had been sending his portfolio everywhere but had always kept an eye on the Middle East.

“I was contacted by GAJ and was introduced to their ‘modus operandi’ and the variety of different projects the company gets and it was an immediate ‘yes’.”

Since then, he worked on exciting projects at the Burj Al Arab, Sheraton Mall of the Emirates, JA Manafaru in the Maldives and most recently on the Jewel of the Creek.

“Interior design is the combination of all different industries and cultures into a single space and that takes time to render. The future is finally going towards a global vision creating an affordable design for the people. The design is going back to its origins and we are finally accommodating the sustainable methodology of combining aesthetics with local craftsmanship.”

Alysha Nasir, Bluehaus Group

Taking a step away from technology and looking at real human interaction is one of the most important aspects in inspiring the design work of Alysha Nasir.

“Everyone is online all the time, there is so much social media. But this can act as a disconnection from real life – so one of my favourite things to say is ‘put the phone down’.

“Technology can be a great way to put a design point across, but it is not the beginning and end of creative thought.”

Nasir studied at both the American University of Sharjah and the American University of Dubai, but feels she learnt more about her craft from actually working “in the field”.

She says: “My studies gave me a very good foundation of understanding fundamentals. Then the knowledge that I acquired from actually working day-in and day-out with a professional firm such as Bluehaus gave me the opportunity to build upon that.

“During the senior showcase at university, I collected business cards from all the individuals on the judges panel and though I heard back from a few, Bluehaus seemed the most feasible to start my career at the time. I was hired as an intern for three months, during which I had the opportunity to submit several bids and even win my first project.”

The Bayer Pharmaceutical Office in Dubai’s Media City was Nasir’s first major project and she outlined her philosophy when it comes to taking on work.

She explains: “As the point of contact, upon liaising with the client, I listened to what they wanted to do and applied a lot of it, rather than applying my design expertise because you’re still figuring out how to respectfully express the knowledge you’ve gained at this time.

“The world of work has been a real eye-opener — that’s for sure. However, I was very fortunate that I had very talented people around me who gave me the opportunity to learn very quickly. There were many challenges but I always look at them as great learning opportunities and also a chance to assert my own view on resolving them for a successful outcome.

“Being thrown in at the deep end helps, but when the design needs to become reality you assess the ’build-ability’ of your design, ask questions and get as much help as you need. At the early stage, I tried to just listen and ask lots of questions to try to absorb as much from experienced colleagues around me.”

Nasir feels the regional market allows her freedom to express her creativity – and she is positive about the future.

She says: “There are some parameters you have to stay within, whether it’s the client’s brief or the regulatory guidelines, however Dubai does allow great flexibility for designers to express their own artistic flair.

“Certainly LEED will continue to play a big part in our business. The need for sustainability and yet creating a unique design especially with the limited range of materials currently available, will be the challenge for the future, for designers and suppliers alike. 3D printing, using recycled materials is another element I think has great potential.”

Bianca Bouwer, Perkins + Will

It is a hands-on and adventure-driven attitude that drove Bianca Bouwer from where she first trained as a designer to the UAE. She concluded her studies as a Master of Architecture at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa in 2013, later being offered a two-month internship at Perkins + Will in Dubai, where she now works full time.

“It was quite a big decision — to pack your whole life and move halfway across the world and come here to Dubai, not knowing anyone or anything. But at the same time it was a bit of an adventure so I decided to go for it. And when I got here, it was such a fantastic exposure for designers in terms of work and Dubai has always been known as this playground for designers and architects and to me it was paradise,” she recounts.

She adds that shifting from university to the workplace does pose its own challenges as reality can end up being something completely different to studies.

“University is all about big ideas whereas in the workplace it is a lot more detail-oriented, so everything you do, from the first idea to the last details on your snag list, everything is important. I don’t think that university places such a big emphasis on that, it is much more about cultivating the way you think and the way you approach things.

“I think there are difficulties and there are challenges no matter what you do, but it is how you approach them. I like to face challenges as a form of opportunity to learn from and grow because that’s what we do as young designers, as leaders, we take it in and make it work,” she says.

Perkins + Will, she explains, has a different way of mentoring its interns which to Bouwer was an eye-opening opportunity. She became involved in a number of different projects, while being guided by more experienced designers who worked together with her as a team.

Bouwer’s pattern of work has changed with her growth within the company, from focusing on corporate interiors to recently working on hospitality and residential projects.

“Perkins + Will has this fantastic ethos of allowing you to grow into certain disciplines that you wish to pursue and that has given me the opportunity to venture more into the hospitality industry. It is a completely different way of thinking, even dealing with something as simple as materials and the spaces that you create.”

Monica Twarowski, dwp

Two top hotel projects in Dubai are currently being undertaken by Monica Twarowski of dwp — but a hospitality design at the other end of the spectrum was one of the very first she undertook.

“I am currently working on the W Hotel on the Palm Jumeirah and the Address Boulevard, which has been an exciting project to be part of,” she explains. “But when I started out, back in Australia where I am from, I designed a McDonald’s fast food outlet.”

Shortlisted for the Young Interior Designer of the Year award, Twarowski joined dwp in 2013 and finds working in Dubai poses different challenges to those she experienced in her home country.

“The whole thing around design is different in this region,” she says. “Previously, although I was in the main working on smaller projects I had a greater degree of overall control. Here it is more specialised and the approach is a little more segregated.”

Twarowski studied at the South Bank Institute of Technology in Brisbane.

“We studied seven different subjects each semester, so that covered a lot of ground,” she says. “As well as using technology we were also encouraged to hand-draw – which I really appreciated as a valuable skill to have. Collectively the course gave me fundamental tools from which I was able to build and explore moving forward.

“The approach in Australia is not one which involves internships in a major way. Instead we were sent out into a workplace for one day each week. During my last semester of study I was accepted at Dimitriou Architects and Interior Designers to work one day a week. This lead to my first job and among the first projects was a McDonald’s restaurant located in Caloundra, Australia. Obviously it’s a brand so there are certain things which are universal, such as the colours and materials.

“But it was at a time when the company was looking at some different approaches so I was able to have some input and put forward some ideas. It was valuable in another way as well as I learnt how to interact with suppliers.

“I also worked on a laboratory project in a university and that raised different challenges as it was all about being functional. Hospitality and hotels has always been what most excites me and I am glad to see I am getting opportunities in that area – Dubai is really the place to be for that.”

Looking to the future, Twarowski feels that technology and the human factor need to combine to bring out the best in design.

She explains: “The more our lives encompass technology the more there is a need for “tech-less” environments. Encouraging people to reconnect and engage – not only with each other but also with ourselves. “Tech-less” rooms will become standard additions incorporated into homes and offices. There is also the issue of originality and creativity. In design I feel it is vital that you remain true to yourself.”

Juana Haddad, Stickman Tribe

The intense interior design curriculum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York prepared Juana Haddad well for her career as an interior designer, but she believes that academic projects fail to efficiently prepare new graduates for “the tedious task of collaborating with contractors”.

Additionally, the school’s location in one of the premier cities for design played a huge role in preparing her for the workplace.

“This allowed me to study under distinguished professors, attend talks from major interior designers and leading architects in the field, and granted me access to world-class art museums and exhibits.”

Her first job was at a boutique interior design firm based in Brooklyn called bStudio Architectural Design.

“The founder was a part-time professor at my university. After taking a few classes with her, I started an internship position at bStudio which naturally evolved into my first full-time designer role, which I began upon graduation.”

After joining Stickman Tribe, the first major project Haddad tackled was Path Bar School in Dubai, a speakeasy-styled training space dedicated to teaching guests the essentials of bartending.

“One of the challenges I faced on this fast-paced project was the low budget that was identified in the later stages of the programme, which resulted in major value engineering. In turn, main design elements were cut from the space. In order to keep the concept alive, I engaged in a lot of on-site sketching.

“One of the major ways my team supported me through this project was by assigning me a mentor. Having such a collaborative and supportive environment as the one at Stickman Tribe shows just how essential it is to complete any project harmoniously.”

Today’s design world, Haddad sees becoming more multicultural and global than ever.

“With the use of social media and the increased exposure to international designs, I have rarely experienced the need to limit designs to one market unless the project brief specifically calls for it.

“I have been working on Zaya Nurai island resort in Abu Dhabi which has a varied target market. We were really able to play with the design of the food and beverage venues and beach villas. Alternatively, I have been working on the venues and public spaces of an exciting new hotel brand in Beijing with the target market the ‘Millennials’.”

Haddad believes that the concept of making spaces more personal and intimate by using warmer raw materials that provoke the feeling of “a home away from home” will be developed further as well as the idea of collaboration and interaction in business and public spaces.

“An important evolution that I think will shape design in the very near future is environmental awareness. This concept has been encouraged globally, though at a slower pace in this region. A method to trump the mentality that sustainability is costly will be recognised. Designers will be able to help clients realise that what may cost more upfront will actually be cheaper in the long run, whether through exploring sustainability through sourcing finishes locally or using environmentally friendly materials.”