Interview with Isabel Pintado: Balancing work, design and family life

Marina Mrdjen-Petrovic talks to Isabel Pintado, managing director of Wilson Associates Middle East about the importance of managing talent and work life balance.

With 20 years in the design industry and more than a decade of working in the Middle East for award-winning design studios, Spanish-born interior designer Isabel Pintado needs little introduction. From humble beginnings working in her grandmother’s studio, Pintado went on to join GAJ in 2005, where she helped in setting up its interior design department. After seven years, she made a move to LW Design in 2012. Under her vision and business leadership, both studios have won numerous awards.

In July this year, Wilson Associates, the US-based global interior architectural design firm appointed her as managing director for the Middle East and Africa regional office. Taking over reins from Firas Alsalih, who helped establish Dubai office, Pintado is not afraid of making ambitious plans.

A rendering of the proposed lobby area for the new Anantara resort in RAK.

“The idea is to take the Dubai office really to the next level,” she says. “In past years, this office mostly served to support Wilson’s studios in Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, Paris, Singapore, and Shanghai. I’m currently seeing an incredible design talent that I inherited. I have 12 designers and more senior individuals will join us in October since the idea is to create the infrastructure to tackle future projects.”

Wilson Associates has more than 300 design and architecture professionals who work across inter-office teams, collaborating on various projects worldwide. Known for its luxury design, Pintado explains that each studio has its specific design expression.

“From New York’s funky office, which produces superb contemporary and avant-garde concepts, to our Dallas team that focusses more on traditional designs, such as Atlantis The Palm Dubai or the original Royal Mirage in Dubai. If we get a project of that style, we will go straight to our Dallas office. Then we have our LA office, which is known for its contemporary design and our biggest studio in Singapore, which is delivering an enormous mixture of design concepts.”

Vivanta by TAJ will feature 201 hotel rooms and 130 branded apartments.

We were curious to know what will be the future design direction for the Dubai office, which Pintado describes as “design with no constraints”.

“It will be my style,” she explains. “The idea is not to cut and paste something that I’ve done in past, instead addressing more what clients want and giving them something that is unexpected and quite unusual. That’s what we are doing right now. I’ve been in the US for a couple of weeks and already starting a new concept of what direction to take under Wilson’s umbrella.”

A complete freedom of design is one of the reasons Pintado joined Wilson Associates, explaining that there are “no preconceived ideas of what its work is”.

Vivanta by TAJ is on course to complete by October 2018.

She says: “Because it is all under one umbrella, we share resources and you get to see what other offices are presenting, taking an inspiration from it. Our office in Paris has a very special set-up. It is Wilsons by Atelier Tristan Auer, run by a very established designer with an exquisite taste, who is doing some work with Emaar right now. I was in our NYC office and looking at what they’re coming up with was so inspirational.”

The contemporary Anantara resort in Ras al-Khaimah and Vivanta by Taj in Jumeirah Lakes Towers are among the current projects that are being delivered by Wilson’s Dubai office.

“We are doing some exquisite high-end residences, which are out of this world. We are coming to an end with one particular project in Abu Dhabi and the budget has been magnificent to work with. It allowed us to use materials you get a once in a lifetime chance to use. The Anantara resort in RAK will be an eco-chic hotel. It is a beautiful concept and it’s been jointly done by our offices in Dubai, LA and New York. In New York we have a strong F&B team, part of Wilson’s group called Blueplate, which is focused on high-end food and beverage concepts, from the branding, the logos, the uniforms all the way to the crockery. The Dubai office is doing all the rooms while the LA team is doing all the public areas. It is one of those times when we use the expertise of different studios to give a client the best product,” she says.


Pintado was living in Madrid with her family before moving to Dubai 15 years ago. At that time, she was looking for a job and was introduced to Brian Johnson, principal and managing partner of GAJ, through a friend and, after she had worked on a couple of residential projects on a freelance basis, he invited her to join.

“It grew from there, and we started from scratch,” says Pintado. “In the beginning, it was just me doing everything. I remember those years as wonderful years. We got a chance for more hospitality projects, receiving the recognition for the work we did and now Kevin [Mclachlan] is doing a superb job taking it forward.”

Pintado and her team at GAJ won Interior Design Firm of the Year award in 2011.

During this time, Pintado explains she witnessed an enormous change in the regional design landscape, shifting from traditional and often safe Arabic-inspired concepts to more contemporary and bolder design schemes.

“Before you had either a very elaborate look or Arabic-themed projects and there was nothing in between. The first hotel that actually came up as something different and more contemporary was Emirates Towers by the design team of LW. In the past, such projects would have been rejected or considered as unfinished. The common perception was that it didn’t have enough layers or it wasn’t rich enough. I think design wise, [the market] has matured enormously. Look at all the venues that now have an industrial look. That would have been entirely unacceptable 15 years ago,” says Pintado.


With different initiatives across the city, Pintado believes that Dubai is on a right track to cement its reputation as the centre of Middle East design.

Pintado was one of the panelists at the DesignMENA Summit 2014

“Our design community has really taken off in the last 10 years and I think the talent is here,” notices Pintado. “It is land of opportunities. In other countries there are very young talented designers but they are never given a chance to really create projects the same way we do here. For designers, it is Nirvana to some extent – the budgets, the projects and the number of projects. It is great place to be, not just the UAE but then entire region. Many years ago, it was all coming from Beirut, Lebanon, but I think that’s now moved to Dubai. You still have incredible talent in Beirut and the level of creativity there is unique and truly outstanding, but the hub for the business of design is now in Dubai.”

Pintado adds that the city has so much potential and is often recognised as a source of quality and luxury.

“Clients from Asia, for example, when they associate your office with being in Dubai, they immediately assume that you are going to give them that level of extra something. The government of the UAE has done superb job. The brand perception has changed as well. Twelve years ago people sort of knew where Abu Dhabi was but Dubai was a big mystery. Now you say Dubai and everybody knows about it.”

However, Pintado also notices that at the beginning of this year, many design firms in the region suffered of a big slowdown.

“January is normally a very busy month for consultancy firms but talking to my colleagues it seems that everybody suffered. In March things started picking up again. I do see an enormous amount of movement right now, I think that people are realising that the time frame to the Expo 2020 is becoming shorter and I foresee that next year will be a very busy one.”

Apart from the Middle Eastern markets, Pintado perceives Vietnam and the Philippines as prospective markets for design studios.

“Asia and China have slowed down significantly. Vietnam is a fascinating country and in my previous firm we did quite a bit of work there. The Philippines have so much coming up but the fees from this region are a bit too high, so we have to find a way to establish some joint ventures with local firms to be competitive and make it marketable.”


Pintado’s way of successfully managing the team is all about pairing people and identifying what they are good at and praising them for that.

“I have a case of dreadful envy every time I pass by designers and I see them sketching. I think ‘Oh God, I miss those days’, but to be honest I love managing people. I believe one of the things about managing people is to identify each individual for their strengths and weakness. And when I say weaknesses, I don’t see it as something negative. Your weakness is somebody else’s strength. It’s all about pairing people in a way that they complement each other. Identifying where they don’t have strength and supporting them so that they feel they are supported and don’t have to hide their weaknesses. An environment where people don’t have to hide it is where they strive the most.”

Over the years Pintado has developed her own ways of keeping her staff motivated.

“One way is the strong company culture and that your staff feel they are part of it. Repeat your company culture, your values and what you are about. Another way is obviously financial incentives, being a salary or bonus, or equity in the firm,” she says.

“I know that I know nothing” is the famous phrase most often attributed to Socrates. Pintado, too, finds it to be crucial for everyone’s personal development, explaining that you’re never too old to learn something new whether through courses or assigned mentors.

“I don’t think that you should ever assume that you know too much or too little,” she says. “I do think that firms should take mentoring and educating their staff very seriously, making sure that knowledge is then distributed around. It is also important to study after you work for a number of years because then you know how to translate it into a practical work.”


Being a proud mom of three teenagers didn’t stop Pintado from having a successful career as a designer and accepting more responsible management roles.

“I find that I personally have a good balance. I say to my kids that I am a full-time employee over the week and I am a full-time mother on the weekends. And that’s just the reality of it. You just have to come to terms with your choices and guilt is the biggest waste of time. I think women are useless with guilt in general. We kick ourselves about everything and it is a waste of time. You make your choices and you live with your choices,” concludes Pintado.