Having lived in Dubai for the past 30 years, with a two-year stint in London along the way, Pia Sen, 58, is a well-known personality in the regional industry. Since 2001, Sen has worked as an associate at LW Design, which won the interior design firm of the year at the 2017 CID Awards. She has won the interior designer of the year at the 2012 CID Awards.
When we finally meet for this interview, she tells me that she had only just returned from the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, where she has been designing restaurants for the new Four Seasons Hotel. The property has been designed by the renowned Canadian design firm Yabu Pushelberg. “We’re excited to be working on this project, as it’s a new area for us,” she says. “We’ve been given the 21st floor, where we are designing an Asian brasserie and a bar, which has amazing views. I’m quite excited to see it completed in the next few months.”
“We’ve been quite busy this year as we are working on a lot of hotels and food and beverage venues, in addition to several refurbishment projects,” says Sen. “We’re also working on the Raffles Hotel project which is due to open at the end of this year in Shenzhen.”
As one of the pioneer contemporary design firms in the region, LW Design has worked on some of the most trendsetting interior design projects such as Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort and Spa, Raffles Dubai and Vida Downtown among others.
Sen shares that some of the upcoming projects for the firm include Edition Downtown hotel, a Dubai outpost of the well-known London culinary brand, Hakkasan, on the Palm, and more Vida hotels.
Despite having so many Middle East projects in the bag, has it been a conscious decision to expand into other territories? “I personally feel that Dubai especially is quite saturated now, and there is only so much you can keep doing here,” says Sen. “It’s interesting for designers to work in new areas because inevitably, your design is informed by the local context, and that brings more variety to your work.”
With the industry growing exponentially in the UAE and the region, there has been a significant improvement in the quality of design. Sen agrees that the industry has changed tremendously since she first started out here. “It has developed a lot and the quality has improved in terms of innovation,” she says, adding that there is a lot of interesting design being created by up-and-coming designers. “It raises the bar for everyone.”
Tough competition notwithstanding, LW Design remains one of the most preferred firms in the UAE when it comes to hospitality projects. However, Sen admits that with the evolving design industry, the practice has also kept pace with the times. “When I look at some of the design we worked on 10, or even five years ago, I feel that it’s so different to anything that we do now,” she says. “There are so many layers. It’s a lot more dynamic now.”
With an influx of global hotel and gastronomy brands in the region, opportunities abound for design and architecture firms to create groundbreaking concepts. From high-brow luxury hotels to the recently opened Form Hotel, the region’s first member of the Design Hotels organisation, and leisure hotspots, which cover the entire gamut from fine dining to nightclubs, such as 1OAK, the design industry is on an upswing.
“Indeed, there are big opportunities for designers in this market,” concurs Sen. “We are lucky to be working on world-renowned brands, but importantly, we’re quite fortunate to be in a position where we develop a lot of our own concepts, and create projects which imbibe the best quality.”
Being able to conceptualise and build on those ideas is a luxury not available to many designers, but over the course of years, LW Design has established itself as a practice which is commissioned due to its contemporary sensibilities. She points out that even a firm like LW Design, which is recognised for its signature contemporary style, no longer prefers to be confined within a preconceived mould. “This is a direct outcome of the diversity in design,” she says.
But surely the evolution in the industry has been more dynamic than just the improvement in quality in the past decade? Sen says that there are many reasons that the quality is better. Arrival of international brands and competition are two of the most obvious reasons. “An important influence is the UAE’s multi-cultural population,” she adds. “There are people from different backgrounds, which reflects in the design and gives diversity to the projects. Even within our company, there are so many different nationalities. It has a strong bearing on the work the designers create.”
Danish-born Sen – of mixed Indian and Danish parentage – first came out to Dubai in 1987 to start her career in the region at LW Design’s earliest incarnation called Swedish Design, founded by the legendary Lars Waldenstrom. She stayed with the firm until 1999, after which she moved to London for a two-year stint with GA International.
“I missed Dubai much more than I thought I would, so I came back in 2001, and joined LW Design and have been here since,” says Sen, adding that Dubai does give you a lot more opportunities for career progression than Europe.
“I had worked on very high profile projects here such as the royal palaces and once I moved to London, I was working in the FF&E sector, which wasn’t very exciting.” LW Design now has more than 100 people working out of its offices in Dubai, Hong Kong and Sao Paolo.
Describing her own design preferences, Sen says details and materials are important to her. Her recently completed project, Brasserie Du Park at Park Hyatt Dubai Creek, formerly known as Traiteur, has undergone a name change and a complete overhaul. While it has retained its culinary offering of chic French cuisine, it is now part of The Promenade at Park Hyatt Dubai Creek, a destination that includes two other dining venues alongside the creek.
“We were honoured to redesign such an icon of the Dubai restaurant scene. The new look is very aligned with the sophisticated crowd that dines there and had to work for both daytime and evening,” says Sen.
The space boasts a large interactive kitchen that is fully open for guests to wander through. A central banquette sits at the base of a double volume space, which is broken up by a striking brass and blown glass spheres chandelier. Details include rich oceanic colours, a visible gold-coloured thread woven through the painted timber wall panelling, marble counter and table tops. Mohair, wool and leather textiles have been used throughout. The three-dimensional timber flooring draws the design together through its use of the nautical hues.
Being the hotel’s signature restaurant, a lot of attention has been paid to details – from the brass beading on furniture to the mirrors that allow guests with their backs to the main space to feel more included. The original distinctive three-dimensional wall feature has been retained but painted white with brass strips. Large French doors open to the terrace, which is set up for al fresco dining, inspired by the sophisticated beachside aesthetics of South of France.
Other two restaurants Noepe and Seventy Seventy were designed by Sen’s colleagues and senior designers at LW Design, Rachel Kidd and Pooja Shah-Mulani respectively.
A previously under-utilised mezzanine area, above Traiteur restaurant at Park Hyatt Dubai Creek, has been converted into a bar and lounge, called Seventy Seventy, styled to exude a comfortable and residential ’70s vibe. “We feel that we have stayed true to the original design concept throughout the choice of furnishings and details such as the blown glass lighting details. These are typical of the ’70s era and add a retro glamorous atmosphere to the bar,” says Shah-Mulani, lead senior designer, who designed the space along with Jesper Axel-Peterson, senior designer at LW Design.
The timber wall cladding, discreet low-level lighting and a warm glow give the area an inviting, cosy feel, something which Sen describes as hyggae (pronounced hue-gah), a Danish word for comfort, and now a worldwide phenomenon particularly popular in boutique hotels.
The homely nautical theme interior of Noepe is a nod to the spacious holiday homes in Hamptons or New England. An eclectic blend of elements has been layered into the space overlooking the creek to make it both relaxed and inviting. Painted timber works as a calming backdrop for the bright cushions that sit atop loose cover sofas and cane chairs. Pulley rope lights and colonial-era inspired fans are suspended from the ceiling and individually framed art pieces adorn the walls. “The external verandah allowed us to make the space feel a lot bigger, and really created a connection between the interior style and the waterside location,” says Kidd. The concept and strategy for all three restaurants was created by Meraki & Modus, with interior design and completion managed by LW Design.
With her portfolio featuring such popular projects as Buddha Bar nightclub and Toro Toro latin restaurant at Grosvenor House hotel, Sen has set her sights on upcoming projects such as the Vida Marina hotel (formerly the Dubai Marina Yacht Club), and projects in Vietnam and China.
Her favourite designers include Christian Liaigre, Yabu Pushelberg, Japanese firm Super Potato and Joyce Wang, the Hong Kong-based designer behind the recently renovated Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in London. “You have to doff your hat to Philippe Starck simply for the eclecticism he brought into design,” she says.
Talking about the challenges faced by designers 10 years ago versus now, Sen agrees that the changes in the industry at large are equally reflected in the challenges. “Even years ago, clients used to come to us to ask for contemporary design, but unconsciously, the brief was still influenced by traditional design,” she says. “But that’s beginning to change now as more people from the region, especially the locals, frequently travel overseas, and stay in a lot of international hotels and visit different restaurants. They are more open to new and innovative concepts. Getting people excited about new ideas would have been challenging previously, but it’s much easier today. So it gives designers a wider scope to do something really fantastic at a more international level.”
However, as is the case with most new-found appreciation, clients’ design discernment also comes with its own challenges. “Often, when a client travels overseas and sees a hotel or a dining concept which they like, they come back to us and ask for a similar concept to be recreated here,” says Sen. “This can be quite difficult because in Dubai, we drive to hotels and give our cars for valet parking, whereas in the cities in Europe or the US, more often than not, you’re walking off the street and into these hotels, which sets a completely different vibe. Also, a lot of these hotels abroad are situated within heritage buildings, while in Dubai, everything is new. This can be a real challenge.”
But which is a more daunting task – to preserve the essence of a historic building while trying to create a contemporary space within, or creating something new from scratch? According to Sen, building something completely new is a lot harder than working with something that already has a story behind it. “When you are restoring a historic building, you’re already half way there,” she says. “In Europe, you have these buildings that are hundreds of years old and they feature beautiful details. In that respect, it’s not the same here. So when you’re working on a new structure, you are also thinking about the shell as well as spatial planning.”
Among the hospitality properties in the region, Sen counts One&Only Royal Mirage and the Four Seasons in Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) among her favourite hotels. “The One&Only Royal Mirage feels small and intimate and still reflects local heritage. The Four Seasons in DIFC is beautiful and it comes closest to being a small boutique hotel that is well designed and has a very high level of interior quality,” says Sen.
But considering boundaries are fairly blurred between work and play these days, how do designers create a concept that can cater to a wider audience? Sen, who specialises in food and beverage design, is inclined to think that there is no “one size fits all” formula. She says: “You can’t cater to all tastes. For instance, the Royal Meridien Beach Resort and Spa wasn’t originally designed as a beach resort although it was intended to be one. We completed its refurbishment last year, and it now has a more beachside vibe that is light, modern and airy. On the other hand, a business hotel needs to be designed to run more efficiently and cater to the corporate crowd. You can’t necessarily meet everyone’s expectations, but can definitely make a property more relevant to its underlying manifesto.”