Regardless of the industry, every so often we hear inspiring stories about people who were brave enough to jump off the corporate hamster wheel to start their own businesses. And succeed. Such new beginnings often start with a small bedroom, but involve a big appetite to do things differently.
Elevated from a freelance practice to a company that is now delivering 300-key hotels on the Palm Jumeirah from its sleek office in the heart of Dubai Design District, the story of Pallavi Dean Interiors (PDI) fits the fairy tale.
Delivering designs across commercial, residential, hospitality and public sectors, the small but efficient team led by Pallavi Dean, Christina Morgan and Agatha Kurzela, recently picked up the prize for Interior Boutique Design Firm of the Year at the 2017 CID Awards.
Commercial Interior Design magazine sits down with its co-founder and design director, Pallavi Dean, to dissect the studio’s DNA and find out why they all feel that boutique is the way to go.
“Christina, Agata and I have all worked at big firms, and we all chose to work for a boutique for a reason: the atmosphere and culture are so much more relaxed,” says Dean. “Don’t get me wrong, the big firms are great: they produce some awesome work, and they’re often very good at nurturing young talent. But something happens to a company when you get above a certain number of people – I don’t know what the magic number is, maybe 50, maybe 100. When you get to that scale you need an HR department with rules, fixed working hours, a chain of command and so on. We don’t want that.”
When scoring the submissions for this year’s CID Awards, the judges were looking at the submissions with the best description of company values, design principles as well as taking into account the number of successfully completed projects. One judge noted that Pallavi Dean Interiors ticked all these boxes perfectly. Besides the strong portfolio, the judges also commended the studio for putting its people first, regardless of position.
“Treat people like they’re creative geniuses, not like staff,” adds Dean. “The best example I can give you is work hours – they’re not fixed. Sure, we like people to come to the office for a few hours every day, because a lot of our work is collaborative. But for the deep, focused work when you’re on your own with a sketchbook or laptop that can be done anywhere.”
Commenting on the challenges of running her own consultancy, alongside her husband Richard, Dean says she is facing the so-called “producer/manager” dilemma.
“Harvard Business Review invented the term 30 years to describe the problem facing people who run consultancies: you get paid for doing your day job – interior designer, architect, lawyer or whatever – but when you’re in a senior position you also have to run the business. That means sales, marketing, looking after the people who work for you. Hiring Wendy, my PA and office manager, was the best move I made because she’s given me an extra 15-20 hours a week by taking care of admin, finance, filling the coffee machine etc. That’s more time to design,” she says.
And with shorter time frames for project delivery, that extra time is often necessary. “We find our clients are reasonable – if something is physically impossible we can convince them on extensions. But I like working quickly. We’re lucky at PDI that Richard and I are very different. Richard’s a thinker – he likes to spend time researching projects in depth, considering all the possibilities, writing reports. I’m the opposite – I’m a doer. I get things done. I can’t stand procrastination. For me, the quicker the better.”
PDI’s flagship projects include the new Delano and Yotel hotels on Palm Jumeirah, along with the recently completed Mrs B beauty salon, Sheera Entrepreneurship Centre in Sharjah and Edelman’s new headquarters.
“Well the big advantage [working in the Middle East] is that we have projects. Most places in the world don’t have anything like the volume or scale of projects that we get to work on. Some interior designers are grumbling that the market is slow at the moment, that there’s not as much work, and that fees are being squeezed. There’s some truth in that, but I’d argue that there is no better place in the world to be right now as a designer of buildings than the UAE,” she says.
Commenting on the client-designer relationship, Dean says the best interiors happen when there is a close collaboration between a client and designer. She adds: “The Edelman office in Abu Dhabi is a great example; the management had strong ideas on the goals they wanted to achieve, but gave us a great deal of freedom in how to achieve them.”
Research is one of the most powerful tools for developing a solid working relationship, according to Dean.
She continues: “We’ve developed a research methodology that we call UXD (User Experience Design). It’s quite a lot of hard work right at the outset of the design process, but it pays off. Often clients don’t know exactly what they want when they hire a designer – they have a vague idea, and maybe a couple of images they found on Pinterest, but not a clear vision. UXD helps us understand their problems, needs and desires better than they do themselves. If you establish this common ground at the outset, it really helps the relationship going forward.”
Looking at the local design scene, Dean praises Dubai Design District’s mission to change the region from being an importer and consumer of design to an exporter and creator.
“I’d say we’re getting there. Education is key. I’m 36 now, and I was the second cohort to graduate in architecture from the American University of Sharjah back in 2003. So in some ways I’m part of the first generation who studied design in the UAE that’s now entering leadership positions in the interior design, architecture, construction and real estate industries. It’ll be interesting to see how that influences the design language of the region,” she says.
Currently, both Morgan and Dean lecture at the American University of Sharjah (AUS).
“This is for our benefit as much as theirs. It is a great environment for talent spotting and learning from the next generation of designers. My students taught me to use Rhino,” says Dean.
As an AUS alumni, Sharjah is close to Dean’s heart, and is also one of the studio’s biggest markets.
She comments: “We’re working with a lot of clients – both government and private sector – who really understand the value of strong design. Clearly Abu Dhabi gets it too – just look at Jean Nouvel’s Louvre museum.
“Still, it’s fair to say that Dubai is leading the way: you could argue that the opening of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel in 1996 was the first effort to use architecture as a marketing weapon, and Dubai is continuing that legacy with the Calatrava tower coming up in Ras al Khor.”
Dean believes that designers who went to design school and learned the foundations of design should be able to apply it across all sectors. Last year, the studio launched Tension collection, a line of furniture during Dubai Design Week; this year it is stationery.
“In terms of interiors, there are so many learnings that can be applied when you work across different sectors in parallel. You take ideas from hotel design and use them in offices; you take lessons from school design and use them in a family home,” she says. “Plus, it means you never get bored.”
Dean says that sometimes she personally gets some backlash for being “over-exposed” in the media.
“What people don’t realise is how much work it is – writing articles, constantly coming up with new ideas, creating content that’s worth a magazine feature and importantly being available. The truth is the opportunity is there for everyone – you just have to go out and make it happen for yourself.
“How would anyone hear about a little boutique studio if I didn’t?
“The great thing is that now we have some brilliant designers who are at least as senior as or more senior than me, so the coverage we get is more about the firm and less about me personally, which is a good thing. It takes the pressure off me being the only face of the company.”
When starting their own design practices, many interior designers choose to build their brand around their name. This is something Dean and her team are agonizing about.
“In simple terms, I don’t really like having ‘Pallavi Dean’ as the name of the firm. It’s about so much more than me. We’ve thought about changing it, but marketing experts warn me that, like it or not, it is a recognisable brand in our industry now. Then there’s the question of what to change it to? If we come up with something amazing, we’ll change, but nothing’s jumped out at us yet,” Dean concludes.