This March, luxury hotel ME Dubai housed within The Opus will finally open. It’s been a long journey to get here since the time The Opus by Zaha Hadid Architects was announced in 2007 – Dubai’s first building with the interiors and architecture designed by the legendary architect.
A giant cube of a building with its core melted out, The Opus is a building that is more about what remains unbuilt – in this case the distorted, voluptuous void in its centre – rather than what’s built.
Inside, it’s the kind of neo-futuristic design characteristic of Hadid’s work: sweeping curves, free-flowing spaces, dotted with asymmetrical furniture designed by Hadid, who passed away in 2016. The glass skin stretched over the void functions like an overscaled sun-catcher, creating magical plays of light and shade in the day, and dramatic displays at night.
We are here to meet Noriyoshi Muramatsu, the 49-year-old Japanese designer who has created many a stunning venue around the world, and in the UAE too. His latest project, the Dubai outpost of German-born chef Rainer Becker’s Roka, is slated to open mid-March at ME Dubai.
To Muramatsu fell the task of designing a restaurant within a neo-futuristic building designed by one of the world’s greatest architects. His response to the challenge was to go the opposite route. From the expansive, sunlit space of The Opus, we enter Roka through a dark, moodily lit tunnel – the collisions of outside and outside, of the public and private realm heightens our anticipation. And this was Muramatsu’s intent.
“This building is hyper modern, unique in its design. It’s a very different feeling here, which I think is good. When there is this contrast, it makes more of an impact,” he says.
The first Roka opened in London in 2004; and is still considered a trailblazer. Dubai will be the fifth iteration of the robatayaki Japanese restaurant. The interiors are a warm, tactile symphony of wood, stone and metal – we are told this is a Roka brand standard, with a few unique touches incorporated in every new restaurant.
Seeing a restaurant before it's fully open, without the buzz of diners or busy chefs at the robata grills, the ‘beating heart’ of Roka, lets one appreciate all the details in the industrial chic aesthetic brought alive with raw wood, metal mesh partitions and exposed ductwork.
For instance, there is the feature wall in the private dining room, clad with pieces of reclaimed wood.
“We created the wall out of pieces of wood leftover from scaffolding tunnels on the construction site. The end piece which is chopped is normally wasted; we took it and stuck it on the walls,” Muramatsu explains. “It feels Japanese but it’s not traditional. This is contemporary. We wanted to get the sensibility but not directly, more of the essence and spirit of Japanese design. Like you see in the kimono – it’s a very old garment but today you can see versions where the cut is so modern, but it’s still very much a kimono. I like this concept.”
Muramatsu says he has been obsessed with natural materials, ever since he started working at 19. A graduate of the prestigious Kuwasawa Design School, he worked with Shiro Kuramata – one of Japan’s most famous architects. “It was a very difficult interview and I basically asked him if I could work for free. I had that passion; it was a very exciting time.”
From 1990 to 2001, Muramatsu was chief designer for the world-renowned Japanese studio, Super Potato. He then went on to found his own atelier, Studio Glitt.
In 2002, a serendipitous meeting with chef Rainer Becker kicked off their partnership. “My assistant met and married his assistant. There was a big party to celebrate the wedding at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, where Rainer was executive chef for six years. I ended up sitting next to Rainer at a long table, we got chatting and he discussed his ideas to make a Japanese restaurant.”
Becker left Tokyo for London, calling on his Japanese friend when, along with partner Arjun Waney, he decided to open Zuma’s first London outpost in Knightsbridge. It was a runaway success, and the Rainer-Muramatsu duo has since then collaborated on many more restaurants around the world.
“At that time Nobu was the It-restaurant – trendy, sophisticated and designed by Philippe Starck. I knew I had to do something different, so Zuma wouldn’t seem like a copy,” Muramatsu recalls. Searching for inspiration, he trekked up a mountain, looking for a stone that would become a counter in the new restaurant.
When he found the perfect slab, he drew on it – the cutting and polishing were kept to a minimum and it was installed in all its rough-hewn glory in London. “I liked leaving it natural. Today live edge wood tables are popular, but at the time when we did them in Zuma, diners would ask when the tables were going to be finished.
“I spent most of my time not drawing designs, but sourcing stone from the mountain: going there, looking for stone, learning how to cut and drawing on the stone directly. I do the same for the wood, looking for the logs and chopping them up for the counters. I respect nature – it’s already beautiful and needs very little human intervention to make it better.”
Muramatsu says he enjoys designing restaurants because “people spend time in them, they are spaces for celebrations and they make people happy.” Studio Glitt is mostly designing restaurants and residences right now.
A Dubai office is something Muramatsu is seriously thinking about. “While living in Japan is comfortable, most of my projects now are in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and the UAE. Dubai is a very convenient place to open an office to service the region, Europe and North America.”
Muramatsu is especially proud of the fact that the interiors of the restaurants he has designed are still going strong a decade and more later. Even in Dubai’s saturated restaurant sector, Zuma Dubai has maintained its standing by remaining consistent and unchanging since it opened doors in 2009.
“Design needs to be timeless. It is a tool to help the marketing of the restaurant brand. When spaces are too trendy, their design becomes short lived and the ensuing renovation is a big cost for an operator. The restaurant needs to be closed, which is bad for business. I have designed restaurants that haven’t needed to be refurbished for 18 years, like Zuma London. The operators are still happy. It’s still good. That’s the power of a strong concept. The most important thing for me is to help my client’s business do well.”