It was over 20 years ago that Belgian-born interior designer Leen Vandaele first started taking on projects in Saudi Arabia. As a European woman working on her own, Vandaele’s Saudi experience was fraught with challenges – and loneliness. But her time in the kingdom also ignited a warm and long-standing fondness for the Middle East and, years later, inspired a move to Dubai.
In the UAE, rather than just providing pure interior design services, she transformed her company, Squisito, into a supplier of mid to high-end fabrics, sheers, wallcoverings and other design-related products. It was also in Dubai that she joined forces with Sam Farhang, a fellow interior designer from Iran.
In addition to supplying products by manufacturers such as Arte, the pair continue to take on interior design projects – but enjoy the freedom to pick and choose ones that truly inspire them. These include ‘O’ de Squisito, a boat-house turned events venue that was fully conceptualised by Vandaele.
The pair’s most recent undertaking was the conversion of an old warehouse in Al Quoz into a new office and showroom for Squisito. The warehouse now features a mezzanine floor that is home to a large showroom, offices and a work space for visiting designers. There is also a large, double volume, 220m² hall area on the ground floor which will act as a venue for art exhibitions, fashion shows and other such events.
Landscape architect Xristos Triantafillidis was responsible for designing a relaxing outdoor area.
Squisito’s new Loft Gallery will celebrate its official launch on November 7 and will hold open-door days between November 8 and 11 to give people the opportunity to explore the new premises. CID caught up with Leen Vandaele and Sam Farhang to find out more about this latest venture.
Tell us about Squisito.
Leen Vandaele: I started Squisito a long time back in Belgium. I had another company before but I created Squisito when I started working abroad. My first jobs were in Saudi Arabia, where I did some palace work. These were very big jobs and I was afraid that if something went wrong, it would eat up all of the reserves of my existing business. So that’s why I created Squisito. Squisito stands for exquisite, something that is a little different from the rest.
How challenging was it working in Saudi Arabia at that time?
Leen Vandaele: As a woman you could not, and cannot, drive, and you had no social contact. I am talking about 22 years ago so essentially, as a European woman all on my own, I was a pioneer.
Of course, I was very lucky to meet somebody who was able to offer me this opportunity, and I am still very grateful to them. However, I didn’t realise at the time that it would be so difficult. It was very lonely. I was all by myself, from morning until night. But it was still a very good experience for me, all in all. That is why, I think, I became so acquainted with the culture.
Here, everything is much more open but I learnt about real Arabic culture in Saudi Arabia. And one of the biggest things I learnt was patience!
How did you end up in Dubai?
Leen Vandaele: After Saudi Arabia, I went back to Belgium and had the opportunity to travel around quite a lot. I was lucky enough to have jobs all over the world but I realised that I really liked working in the Middle East.
There is something about the Middle East that makes it different to anywhere else. It is like a bug – some people have it for Asian countries, some for African countries, for me it was always the Middle East. I find the people to be very warm hearted and generous in their friendship. So I came to Dubai.
In the beginning I did some freelance work for various companies. I then opened up my own small office in the Fairmont Residences, which is where I lived. At the time, I was mainly specialising in residential work, although I had done some smaller hotels in Belgium as well. I have also done some embassy work, as well as some very large retail projects in Saudi.
When I came here and saw the market, I found that there was a real need for quality – and I am still convinced of this, in spite of the crisis. First of all, a lot of people are not aware of what they need to specify because they are young and good sales people can get them to believe anything. I’m sorry to say it but, especially in the contract sector, there is a lot of monkey business going on. For example, people will say that any coated fabric is Trevira CS, whereas Trevira CS is a very specialised fibre.
I believe that it is our responsibility to educate the younger generation. I have a background in fabrics because my father owns a large weaving mill, so I was familiar with yarns and colours and weaving and so on, from a young age.
Once I saw this need for really good quality, I thought why don’t I help other designers to select the right materials, because they don’t have the time to do it properly by themselves.
Little by little, I made a name for myself. Then I started a small office in Garhoud and we became the exclusive agents for Arte, a very well known brand.
If you have the background, it helps. This is our strength. Because Sam and I are both interior designers, we can understand our clients and their needs, rather than just sell them a product.
Why did you decide to move to these new premises in Al Quoz?
Leen Vandaele: My sponsor had this old warehouse. I looked at the space and decided that I wanted to transform it into a big tent. As usual, everyone thought it was just another one of my crazy ideas! And then the crisis came and business went down, so we hesitated for a long time. Our choice was to stay where we were, but then there would be no opportunity to grow. Or we had to close our eyes and take a chance. The stronger ones will survive, this is what I believe.
In Belgium, I used to organise an art exhibition every year, mostly in favour of handicapped children and children suffering from cancer. Once we are strong again in the market, I would like to do the same here. I would like once a year to organise something for people in need. That’s why we decided to include a gallery space in these new premises.
We are organising open-door days between November 8 and 11. People can come in at any point in the day. We have a lot of customers and we don’t expect them all to be able to come on the same day, so we thought why not make it more accessible. Everybody is welcome, and nobody is obliged to do anything, they can just come and see.
What challenges did you face when converting this warehouse?
Sam Farhang: We really wanted to keep it as a warehouse. We didn’t want to change it into something else. If you would have seen it before, the floor was covered in oil and it was dirty and dusty, so we immediately put white tiles down. The idea was to have a white box that you could turn into many other things.
Leen Vandaele: From the outside it looks like a standard warehouse. We wanted to create that element of surprise when you open the door. And we haven’t overdone the decoration on the inside. We have created this space for professionals, and they just need it to be neat and tidy. They want a space where they can concentrate and they can see the product properly.
Al Quoz seems to be emerging as a hub for the creative industries. Is this one of the reasons that you moved here?
Sam Farhang: The reason that the Al Quoz area is being upgraded and that so many people want to move in here is because there are no real options in Dubai. A lot of art galleries cannot afford to go to Jumeirah or be in the malls. At the same time, they want to be a little bit independent and with these things in mind, there is no other place to go. That is why Al Quoz is coming up.
Leen Vandaele: Price wise, it definitely makes sense. What is killing most businesses here are the overheads, particularly high rents. Even if you want to sell your fabrics at a reasonable price, because of your high rent, you have to put the price up.
Sam Farhang: Also, we didn’t want to be overly exposed. People come here specifically, because they know us and they know where to find us.
You’ve been in the region a long time. How have you seen the industry evolve?
Leen Vandaele: Interiors have definitely become more European. In the beginning, interiors really leant towards the Arabic style – very classical and very overwhelming, with lots of velvets and pelmets and so on. Now local companies are taking on people from other countries, very often from Europe, and their mentality is obviously very different. The challenge that local people face is giving them the freedom they need.
Sam Farhang: I think Dubai is currently coming up with its own style. Moroccan design came to this country and at the same time a lot of design influences came through from Syria. Then they wanted to make it modern. So you go somewhere like Royal Mirage or Palace Hotel, and you see that various Arabic styles have been combined together. Dubai style consists of all of the various Arabic styles mixed together.
Mixing modern design with a range of different Arabic styles was not an easy task but it has become a style in itself.
Leen Vandaele: There are so many people from so many different places here, which creates a real richness.
Has design, or attitudes to design, changed as a result of the crisis?
Sam Farhang: Designs are becoming more simple. Everybody is looking at budgets now and as a supplier you have to be more flexible.
Do you still do interior projects?
Leen Vandaele: Yes, but we only do projects that we really like.
Sam Farhang: We don’t get involved in things that are not really our style because we really want to be able to put our whole hearts into it.
Leen Vandaele: The World Trade Centre Club was a project that I did before Sam joined me. There is also ‘O’ de Squisito, a house boat that I designed to be my own apartment. Then it turned out that the government does not allow you to live on a boat, so I was forced to do something else with it. We now use it for different types of events.
How was designing a boat different to other types of interiors?
Leen Vandaele: Well, the main thing with this one in particular was the stability because the draft is only 75cm. This was a big issue. There are two big rooms downstairs and a living room upstairs because, of course, the higher you are the better the view. It also means that you can hear the water from the rooms.
People always ask me why everything is white and why there is so little inside. Although I love art, there are no paintings and no sculptures. This is because when you open up the curtains, your view changes all the time.
It is quite an unusual creation. I was not aware when I created it that it would have such a massive impact.
We had a wider idea and were in talks with Emaar when it was considering the Dubai Creek expansion project. We were looking are creating platforms with these kinds of houses because I’m sure a lot of people would like to live like this. But then, of course, the crisis came and so that is now on the back burner.
So, what’s next? Is there anything that you haven’t created but would like to?
Leen Vandaele: It will come, I’m sure.
The idea for ‘O’ came in one night.
I know designers hate to think of themselves as having a specific style, but what are the underlying features of your work?
Leen Vandaele: I don’t know if I can define my work, but I always try to create spaces that people feel comfortable in. Coming into a space that has a good energy about it – you cannot put a price on that.