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designMENA interviews Perkins+Will’s design team in Dubai

designMENA interviews Perkins+Will’s design team in Dubai

designMENA visits the Dubai office of Perkins + Will, which recently won CID’S 2016 Interior Design Firm of the Year Award.

Established in 2010 by just three people, the Perkins+Will office in Dubai has grown in just six years and today employs a team of 100 people. The rapid growth has brought many positive changes, such as attracting talented designers and architects, delivering bigger and more exciting projects and working with high-profile clients. Now the main challenge is to maintain the company’s essential family-like atmosphere.

From the founding members to young designers, Commercial Interior Design talks to them about mentorships and career development, what has caused the firm to grow so fast, about balancing the roles of managing and designing, pitching for new projects and dealing with clients’ expectations, as well as what keeps them all motivated.

Diane Thorson, Design Principle

Diane Thorsen joined Perkins+Will as design principal in 2010, building its regional team together with managing director Steven Charlton. Her experience encompasses a diverse range including international projects for large blue-chip corporate clients, large governmental buildings as well as boutique hotels, residential and retail projects across Europe, Africa and the MENA region.

Leading the creative design direction and managing the design process at Perkins +Will, Thorsen says that the company’s growth is, in fact, the result of having and retaining the right people and focusing on design quality.

“The fact that we have people from so many different nationalities is a huge benefit,” says Thorsen. “They have different exposures to design languages and our studio acts like a melting pot of fabulous ideas. When you have a group of creative people doing creative things, you attract the best talent, and that’s the result of our growth.

“We’ve made such an emotional connection with people in the studio. They could move for more money, they could move for more opportunities, but they choose to stay because of the people and that’s what makes this group so incredible.”

Commenting on the challenges of managing such a diverse team, Thorsen says they are not seen as a group that focuses on a product of a single mind.

“While I am design director, I actually embrace everyone’s ideas and look to bring out the best idea,” she says. “Design is my passion, and I love to be involved with every project. I cannot be involved hands-on, but with my experience, I have a different eye and know what is going to work in this region specifically.”

Despite its rapid growth, Thorsen says that the company’s ethos hasn’t changed, especially when it comes to supporting young designers and their careers.

“It is not just paying the lip service to that; it is understanding individuals’ career growth and where they like to go, where they see themselves in years to come and how can we be part of that growth. Because that’s essentially our legacy – growing individuals to become the best they can be. And that’s what Perkins+Will is all about. When people come here we really get to know them as individuals, we understand their families; we know how many children they have and we understand where they come from. At the end of the day, people do business with people. They don’t do it with a company.”

She says that, particularly in this region, there is an expectation that because of the speed of project delivery, young designers will “leapfrog over the traditional career path”.

“But, this is an industry where there is a lot of liability and responsibility in how we design,” she says. “So, typically we will assign a mentor to work with someone, so they won’t be just thrown in the deep end and expected to swim. But, there is this expectation that their careers are going to be on a very, very steep growth curve and they are. They are extraordinary people who just swim. They really are.”

Focussing on designs that will stand a test of time, Thorsen says that design in the Middle East is often about decoration rather than design quality.

She continues: “On the other hand, there is an extraordinary vernacular architecture from this region and that’s what we have been focusing on. Historically, there is a clever and quality design from the region, using natural shading or the oasis concept of greening spaces and there are lots of things that we can draw from the history. It is almost looking back to look forward.”

Thorsen was designing hotels and high-end residences before joining Perkins+Will, whose primary focus has been on corporate interiors.

“There is such a crossover of design now, from corporate into hospitality into residential and into food and beverage. They have all started to merge, and I feel it is almost like a mixed design language. Residential towers have F&B venues on the ground floors while corporate interiors now have a hospitality feel and often include coffee spaces. In the end, design is about creating beautiful and functional spaces that people love to be in.

“However, we want to grow the hospitality division. Healthcare is also crucial to us because we truly want to make a difference in people’s lives. We believe this is what we stand for and that good design can transform people’s lives. It is such a powerful statement, and healthcare can transform someone’s experiences from being stressful to something that is calming.”

Thorsen also says that she wants to integrate all of Perkins + Will’s disciplines, from architecture and landscaping to interior design, into one human experience.

“The landscape becomes part of the fabric of the building, the building connects with the landscape, with the place and the region, so the human experience of buildings becomes just one overall experience,” she says.

For her, design doesn’t feel like work and being surrounded with creative people that are happy to come to the office is what keeps her motivated.

“Getting up every morning and thinking that you are going to come to a group of people who are happy to be here and who are motivated themselves is enough motivation for me. When you do this kind of work, you have to love it. Design surrounds us, and it is part of the fabric of who we are. Every single thing that we touch, someone had thoughts about it, drew, built and made it.”

Steven Charlton, managing director

In 2010 Steven Charlton became the managing director of the studio, which was originally named Pringle Brandon. By 2013, it had grown to 25 staff and the team was doing key projects within the region, which attracted the attention of Perkins + Will, a major design consultancy looking to expand globally.

“With the acquisition by Perkins + Will that added more firepower, giving us a better reach since we became an international firm rather than just a UK and Dubai firm,” says Charlton. “We started so small, and we all knew each other well,” he says. “Diane [Thorsen] and I worked together for seven years, and Juliyana [Mitic] has been with us the same amount of time. Every time the business doubles in size, it changes the structure so that’s always a challenge. Once you go from a 50 to 100, it is a different business. The pressures are different, but then again the opportunities are different, too.

“We don’t do just corporate interiors, but also hospitality, healthcare and residential, so when one market dips a little bit another market picks up, and we can level it out. We try to be agile and adapt, but we never want to repeat, to use same the products or designs. We don’t really care about what everyone else is doing, and it is more about what we are doing and how we can be the best. As soon as we start to look at what competitors are doing then we are doing something wrong,” he says.

From globally renowned companies such as LinkedIn and Google to local giants, Jumeirah Group and Emaar, Perkins + Will has established a diverse portfolio of clients.

Charlton comments: “When we set up the business, the questions we were always asked were: ‘How many staff you have? Where is your office? What projects have you done in the region?’ which is quite difficult when you are starting the business from scratch. Now, we don’t have that challenge at all. We have a beautiful office; we have 100 staff and projects with major clients, so we don’t get asked those questions anymore.

“I think we are now in a position where we tend not to do free designs for our clients because it is really a guess. When pitching for work, it is almost your interpretation of what you think they want without actually going through the design process. I find that we are doing less of upfront work and are more able to say: ‘This is who we are, and this is what we do’.”

Juliyana Mitic, associate and projects director

Juliana Mitic has 16 years of experience in the field of design architecture, mixing both interior and architectural disciplines before moving to Dubai 10 years ago and committing full-time to interior design. Mitic started working with Thorsen and Charlton (partners at Perkins + Will) in 2008 and continued once Perkins + Will was set up as a firm. She is currently managing teams on corporate, hospitality and mixed-use projects.

“Juggling jobs has to do with experience,” she says. “Throughout my career, I was exposed to a number of different project types, and this has given me the knowledge and confidence to work on any given project.”

She adds that sometimes the job requires you to wear different hats, but never when designing.

“Design is always design, no matter what you are working on. Your aim is always to design a space where people feel good, not knowing why they feel that way. Our job is to create that sense of ambience that makes people feel great,” Mitic explains.

Although her job involves a lot of management, design is still her passion and creative driver.

“For us, design starts from a conversation about the project all the way through all the processes to completion. When somebody says to me ‘I only like working on the concept design stage’ (which thankfully doesn’t happen here), it’s OK, but that’s not the only part of design. I believe design is everything. It is a single, holistic approach. It is everything we have around us.”

Creating a relationship with clients and deciphering their needs also falls under Mitic’s many responsibilities.

“I think our job is exciting because it’s not just about providing design consultancies and creating spaces, it’s also about an emotional investigation and finding out what each client wants to achieve and what resonates with them, and sometimes educating them, from technologies to simpler ideas such as material choices,” Mitic says.

She explains any client resistance is a chance for a designer to teach them and to help them see eye to eye with the designers.

“Research is one of our passions, so we can advise clients on the right solutions and convince them that our choices are right for them and their vision. And what is sometimes interesting is when we have clients from who we can learn as well and it results in a great exchange of ideas.”

Mitic insists that education hasn’t ever stopped for her either and that she is constantly working on improving her idea of working with people as part of her own personal education.

“To me, managing people is inspiring people. I believe that the moment people feel free to express themselves – when they feel absolute freedom – that is when the best creations and ideas happen. Managing people is about working with people to help them release their creativity and giving them a chance to express themselves, and then you step in to guide that creativity with your own experience and the experience of others, to create a beautiful final product.”

Mitic believes in encouraging young designers to explore new perspectives and doesn’t view the different ways of thinking as a clash, but rather something to be celebrated and developed.

“I am very inspired by the young designers at the office,” she says. “We have some wonderful conversations where they are always coming up with fresh views, and we exchange ideas and other things that interest us. It’s more of a partnership and a positive exchange. We don’t want to shape them to think exactly like us. It’s all about using new perspectives as inspiration.”

Matthew Sexton, director of corporate interiors

Matthew Sexton joined Perkins+Will in 2013 after working for several years in the region for various international design practices. His years of experience in office design and workplace consultancy are paired with experience delivering projects from concept to handover, and he is now in charge of corporate interiors within the studio. Most recently, Sexton and his team picked up this year’s CID Award in the office category for their work on the LinkedIn head office in Dubai.

“It was one of our clients where we got an opportunity to execute the concept, which included multipurpose areas, game rooms, collaboration spaces and lots of greenery. LinkedIn was really committed and gave back a lot to its employees, and everyone says how much they love to work there,” says Sexton

.For this year’s CID Awards, his team also submitted the design concept for the Google office in Dubai. Following Google’s commitment to putting staff needs first, the design team created different areas for “third space” working, formal and informal meeting rooms, quiet phone booths, a nap room and a separate games area.

Sexton calls it a readjustment to an open-plan office concept.

“It went way too far with the open-plan office,” he says. “It was a big driver on cost as people were looking to maximise the space and use it for as many people as possible. Open-plan fosters collaboration to a certain extent, but then it becomes disruptive. So now, we see a pull back where people have started to realise that we don’t need to go back to standard offices, but we need to provide spaces that will support different functions throughout the day.

“We are starting to see a lot more of it, and it is not just with corporate interiors it goes into hospitality and residential as well. There is a common thread to it. In hotels, for example, we see a lot of people working on their laptops in cafes and lobbies. On the other hand, we see a lot more lounge type furniture within the office environment. People are still a bit resistant to this concept because they still see it as luxury space rather than a requirement, but it has started to change.”

Despite the recent sharp fall in oil prices, Sexton says that this year has been the most successful for his division, working with clients such as Adidas, PWC and Ford.

“It is becoming more and more driven by the budget and cost and that’s fine. The oil prices have dropped, and clients want to get the most out of their money. When it comes to creative process, internally we are trying to be very structured so we can allow us as much time as possible for people to be creative. For example, one of the jobs that we picked up this year is with the really exciting client Adidas. It had tight budgets and timeline, but the project looks great. Restrictions often help creativity because you have to think a little harder,” he concludes.

Bianca Bouwer, architect

Bianca Bouwer’s internship programme with Perkins + Will led her to a full-time position with the company after receiving her Masters in Architecture from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa. Four years later, Bouwer has moved on to work full-time in the hospitality division of the company.

Bouwer says Perkins + Will has guided her in her development as a design professional, both in terms of knowledge and skillset; but most importantly, with its concept of openness and freedom of creativity.

“The knowledge you’re exposed to and the guidance you receive from the different designers and seniors here is wonderful,” she says. “Everyone has their own style and a particular way of thinking and mentoring. When you compare it to a university education, it is entirely different. It’s a big change.”

She continues: “Being a young designer, you want to absorb as much as you can, and that’s what’s been so great here. It’s all about educating designers about what the company does and how they do it and what results will come out of it.”

Regarding the changes in attitude between younger designers and those who have been in the industry for a long period of time, Bouwer agrees that there is a difference in perspective between the two, but that young designers are sometimes misjudged.

She explains that the younger generation of designers differs in their more fluid approach to work, which may be misinterpreted as a lack of loyalty and commitment, but she assures that this isn’t so.

“If young designers are in a workplace where they are mentored and guided, then they will feel that there is a potential for them to develop as people and as professionals because that is ultimately the goal,” she says. “It’s all about finding the correct fit for you and being able to channel that younger way of thinking and doing things that will ultimately develop you.”

She adds that a lot of companies have realised that there is a lot to learn from young designers, from fresh perspectives to innovations in technology.

Bouwer believes that the classic student-mentor relationship is still alive, but with a twist.

“I think that in the world that we’re in, a lot of the younger generation seem to think completely out of the box, in fact, sometimes there is not a box. When as the generations mature, they become more set in what they know. But I think that the design industry has realised that you need to marry those two ways of thinking and we are doing that. That mentor-student programme is still being fostered and being nurtured today,” she explained.

Bouwer is currently leading Perkins + Wills’ Emerging Design Leaders Group.

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