The rise and rise of Agata Kurzela

Marina Mrdjen-Petrovic talks to CID’s Interior Designer of the Year, Agata Kurzela about her successes to date and her ambitions for the future.

With more than a decade of work in master planning, architecture and interior design, Polish-born Agata Kurzela has been delivering challenging and complex projects across the Middle East. Her hard work over the years resulted in many accolades and most recently Kurzela picked up the CID Award for the 2016 Interior Designer of the Year.

When reviewing her recent work portfolio, which ranges from residential, hospitality, commercial to government fit-outs, the judging panel had no doubts the crown was being placed on the right head, describing her style as an innate and “one that cannot be learned or studied”.

After the CID Awards, we met the designer herself to find out more about how she first got into interior design. We also shed some more light about victory at the CID Awards.

CID: You seemed a bit shocked when your name was announced at the CID Awards ceremony. Do you feel that this recognition came at the right time?

AK: It is tremendously difficult to objectively judge one’s own work and benchmark it against other people’s, and I had no real expectation to win; I was already very pleased with the nomination, I thought. To be lined up alongside so many experienced creative designers, many of whom I have a great deal of admiration for, and then to win – yes indeed that was a shock. And to have the panel consisting of so many respected industry players to deliver the verdict was slightly overwhelming.

In terms of timing – with every project I feel like I learn something new, develop and I always feel and hope that I can do better next time. I like to think this is an award for travelling well, and not for arriving, just yet.

CID: It will be interesting to see where you are heading, but we need to go back to the past first. Tell us about the moment when you decided this was the way to go with your career?

AK: I’ve been doodling with crayons from an early age: the usual stuff, houses with pitched roofs, smoke in the chimney and birds in the sky. My grandfather had his easel permanently set up on his veranda-turned-studio, so I got to dabble in oil painting as an infant. Growing up as an only child, I spent a lot of time on my own and formed a strong connection with books, which at the time seemed a source of boundless knowledge. I would indiscriminately read everything on my family’s book-filled shelves, but was particularly drawn to art atlases, mathematics treatises, descriptive geometry manuals and anything with drawings and diagrams. Someone in the family put two and two together and suggested that architecture would bridge these interests, and it kind of naturally went this way.

CID: You studied architecture and master planning at the Technical University of Gdansk in Poland. Do you feel that school prepared you well for the ‘grown-up’ world?

AK: In contrast to my very progressive high school, my university at that time still had one leg stuck in the past and unfortunately, this was frequently reflected in an outdated curriculum and attitude towards the students. That said, the strong focus on developing the ability to draw is something I still find useful today. The real thing that made a huge difference to me though was meeting my tutor, Daniel Zaluski, a master planner, who properly introduced his students to contemporary architecture through series of lectures, field trips and workshops. His very open and non-hierarchical approach created a very good and creative environment for student work to really flourish.

CID: Do you feel that students studying here are well prepared for the industry?

AK: Universities of course vary enormously between each other but, generally, I feel that there should be a stronger focus on computational design education and material research as this is where the paradigm shift is occurring. There are huge developments in design software and fabrication methods, with major implications for the architectural process, so it is a shame so many recent graduates still use software as an improved version of tracing paper.

CID: Can you remember your first project as a young architect? What was your attitude back then and did it change over the course of years?

AK: My design philosophy has not changed as such, but what used to be difficult, even daunting I can now juggle more comfortably. Over the years, I have pulled together a set of tools, design knowledge and an ease of being able to translate sometimes very abstract notions into tangible design. That’s a sort of muscle-learning.

I enjoy working in a three-dimensional, sculptural way and continue to study and experiment and am always keen to explore new developments in the fields of design and apply these in real projects.

CID: You moved to the Middle East 10 years ago. Did you have certain presumptions about the work in this region or it was easy to adapt?

AK: In hindsight, the move from Paris to London was much more of a shock as the pace of work in Paris and London were dramatically different. In Paris, if you stayed at work past 6pm, your boss would quite seriously worry about you. The move from London to Dubai was relatively easy in comparison as the majority of our projects were in the Middle East anyway. I have to admit that, we worked so hard back then that, in a way, adjustment to the lifestyle was not an issue. But, yes, of course there is a cultural difference in the way the consultant-client relationship works here, more demanding deadlines but also more ambitious projects.

At the time I was working with a fantastic urban design team developing plans for the 750ha plot on Mina Zayed Island as well as working on high-rises and residential developments. After a couple of years at BM, I joined Zaha Hadid and when the crisis started, that’s where I was. By the beginning of 2009 our stream of work in the Middle East and elsewhere had dried up: Signature Towers and Dubai Financial Market in Business Bay, Dubai Opera in Lagoons, and Performing Arts in Abu Dhabi centre were all put on indefinite hold. Moving back to Europe was hardly an option as the job market there was also pretty bleak, so I spent some time working on comparatively smaller freelance projects and started gaining more experience in interior design.

CID: We are currently witnessing different initiatives to establish Dubai as the new Middle Eastern design hub. Do you think it is important for architects and designers to be more involved within the industry?

AK: These have been very positive developments, in my view, and considering the urban distribution of the city, it is a great step forward to facilitate the exchange of ideas for the design community by bringing everyone closer together as our work is highly collaborative by nature. Involvement within the industry is crucial. What I would love to see more is public design competitions for key buildings and public spaces in the city as well as bolder architectural and design critiques which would help to develop the design scene even more and, by doing so, raise its profile within the global context. There may be a sort of Darwinian process going on, but a more robust criticism could be more progressive.

CID: What are some of the issues the regional industry faces today?

One of the most visible is a striving for national identity throughout the Middle Eastern countries. Are we part of the global society or are we somewhat local? The answer is probably “both” but to manage this internal conflict into a design that has relevance is a very difficult task. That is not a uniquely Middle Eastern problem but a global issue, where almost unlimited access to information and an ability to create non-geographically defined groups of interest, weaken the local links. What is specific to the region is a rather muted lack of meaningful dialogue through the absence of critique.

CID: We say Middle East, but often the majority of projects revolve around Dubai? What are the major markets for your work and what other markets do you find to be potentially interesting?

AK: As you rightly noticed, majority of work is in the UAE, and in Dubai specifically, but let’s also not forget Abu Dhabi, which – as an administrative centre with an ambition to become an important cultural hub – has many high-profile civic buildings underway. Outside the UAE, we have definitely seen increased business from Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia and many key players are keeping an eye on the developments in Iran that is quickly opening up as a result of recent political developments. Other areas to watch are Africa and Central Asia with infrastructure, government and hospitality projects.

CID: Your relationship with clients here… What is your unique selling point? What would you say is your strongest skill?

AK: The majority of my experience has been in large companies and in those that have a dedicated business development manager. As such the design team’s first contact with the client is often at the briefing stage. This is a key moment where we start identifying and translating ambitions into more tangible forms. If we get this right and “connect” at this initial stage, what follows is usually smooth sailing. After all, the role of a designer is to help their clients to express their ambitions and reflect their needs; to listen, understand, deliver and delight as well.

CID: At the time you submitted the nomination for the CID Awards you were running the interior design department at AK Design. What type of projects were you overlooking?

After being employed in a double role as senior architect and interior designer, I got promoted to the Head of Interiors and over the past couple of years led the department, a six-strong team of designers. Conveniently, the department was supported by separate project management, MEP, production and delivery teams. Before I left, the scale of the projects varied from small prestigious boutique projects to large-scale developments and the type of projects would vary from residential, hospitality, commercial to government fit-outs.

Working at AK Design allowed me to grow and develop professionally and I am very grateful for having an opportunity to collaborate with my team and other colleagues – we managed to develop many great projects together, often in very challenging circumstances.

CID: You’ve made a recent move to Pallavi Dean Interiors. What was the reason for moving to a more boutique environment?

AK: After years of working in large firm, moving to a more boutique and nimble style of office was something that was a great opportunity I couldn’t miss.

The energy within the PDI team is contagious and I look forward to developing many new projects as a part of the new team. Despite a boutique set up, there is a perfect balance between a very non-corporate style of working and professionalism combined with dedication – and let’s not forget – plenty of talent.

CID: And while we wait to see what inspiring projects will come out of the PDI team, tell us what inspires you today?

AK: It is definitely challenges that inspire me. Every project is like a new puzzle to solve and an opportunity to explore and discover.