Andrea Sensoli and Cecilia Morosi of SuperFutureDesign* studio believe that pared down splendour is beginning to make an impact in the region.
In 1998, husband and wife architect-duo, Andrea Sensoli and Cecilia Morosi, founded their design practice SuperFutureDesign* (SFD*) in the quaint and historic city of Florence, Italy. A decade later, in their quest to explore new experiences and opportunities, the designers moved to Dubai to open an international outpost of their firm. “We moved here in 2008 as we were seeking an international context and new challenges,” says Sensoli as they celebrate 20 years in the design industry.
“A lot has changed in the past decade. When we first arrived here, there was a lot of scope in commercial sector for modern design, but residential interiors was still not open to contemporary. Now, the trend is changing, and I feel very lucky to be here at this time,” adds Morosi. The duo are convinced they have made the right decision in moving to the Middle East. They observe that Dubai is pushing the boundaries in design whether it is hotels, restaurants and museums. “With the opening of Etihad museum, the impending Museum of the Future, there is a concentration of so many architectural and interior expressions in just one city,” says Sensoli. “For architects, it’s a good place to be. In Italy, things are very slow, which may be for a good reason but for architects, it can be frustrating.”
Morosi and Sensoli have also been keenly watching the ongoing transformation in Saudi Arabia, where they have been working on projects for the past few years. “We recently met some people involved in restoration process of heritage buildings in the country, a glimpse of which is included in this year’s Biennale di Venezia,” says Sensoli about Saudi Arabia’s debut in one of the most prestigious architectural expositions in the world which is held biannually in Venice, Italy. Morosi is optimistic about the changes taking place in the country. “There’s a good energy. The young corporate executives are well-educated in prestigious universities overseas, and they are ready to take charge of all the new opportunities that are knocking on their doors,” she says.
With a range of luxury projects in retail, residential, and food and beverage sectors across the region, as well as in their native Italy, Sensoli and Morosi’s studio has become associated with exclusivity. As arbiters of understated luxury and minimalism, SFD* has recently completed The Kape and Alessandro Dell’Acqua designer boutiques in the new extension of Fashion Avenue in The Dubai Mall and Oriana Spa in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia among other villa projects. So how do they define luxury, which can be a subjective topic? Sensoli agrees that it’s a difficult question to answer. “Luxury can be exclusive, or it can be just something that is very difficult to achieve in terms of perfection, but not necessarily for a niche audience,” he says. “Sometimes, we relate luxury with a great view or when we can afford to waste space.”
For Morosi, it is an intangible trait. “It’s no longer defined by any special materials that cost a fortune,” she says. “We are now doing a project in Riyadh, where the clients seeks minimalism,” she shows me blueprints of an austere expanse of space, highlighted only by the striking structural details. “For him, luxury is not showing off too much,” says Morosi.
The architect couple is also keen to explore other dimensions of perceived luxury in the region, such as sustainability. “We are trying to work with local materials. In the GCC, it is the sand and natural rocks that are easily available,” says Sensoli. “We are trying to use rammed earth in a couple of projects.” He notes that it’s not a new technique to them but that they have not used it in any of their projects before. “We like this material a lot – both in terms of its final outcome and what it contributes to sustainability,” he says, adding that it’s really about using the local materials to construct a building. Recently, vernacular architecture has gained popularity among those who favour sustainable building due to the inherently environmental-friendly nature of such structures.
Although Sensoli feels that it has taken a long time for sustainability to be taken seriously here since it was first mooted, things are certainly moving in the right direction. With the sustainability debate gaining momentum, how is SFD* contributing to the conversation? “We have worked in the luxury industry for a long time, not only with the business and strategic decision makers, but also with several artisans, engineers, architects and designers,” says Sensoli. “This overview of how different components work together gives us an edge.”
Despite the growing and intense competition, the region continues to teem with opportunities for designers and architects. “The UAE and the rest of the region are growing fast, which makes design one of the most basic aspects of urbanisation,” comments Sensoli. “Everything has to be designed, engineered and built up.” While they are aware of the increased competition, both Morosi and Sensoli feel that they have been able to work with a diverse range of clients here compared to their projects in Italy. “We may be a small practice, but our projects have found acceptance among a very different clientele,” shares Morosi. “In Italy, we mostly work with the same, local clients, with a smattering of English-speaking foreign clients who have been investing in Florence and Milan.”
She attributes this to the fact that the studio communicates in English, making it easier for them to understand foreign clients, a language which is not very popular in the relatively small town of Florence. In addition to their design expertise, language skills have earned them clients in Italy, who regularly commission them to work on their projects around the world.
Among the various sectors, Morosi opines that retail industry has tremendous scope, followed by the food and beverage businesses, to experiment and introduce new concepts. “Especially in Dubai, you see new styles and themes. In Italy, even though we have a lot of design, there aren’t many international cuisines, the presence of which can also inspire the interior of restaurants,” she states.
However, both make it clear that although they are open to new ideas and concepts, they eschew stylistic influences which provide no context or meaning to the project. “We like simplicity, but we also like to mix contemporary with antique pieces,” says Morosi, who shares that their own villa is a white box which is peppered with things collected from around the world on their travels. “I collect statues while Andrea collects nicely packaged bottled water,” she says about their eclectic collecting hobbies.
Sensoli’s personal approach is to only incorporate those elements in the interior which have a meaning. “We are happy to do fewer projects; we have worked on commissions that have appealed to us – from a luxury villa to a small 60m2 store. We tend to stay away from trends and fads, and include only those elements which actually add value to the space,” he says, expressing their disdain for everything superfluous. At the same time, he feels that there is no one way of designing meaningful spaces, and that there can be more than one way of doing so. “We like to transform spaces through structural and lighting design,” adds Sensoli.
If there are opportunities galore, there is no lack of challenges either. What are some of the biggest hurdles they face? “Other than the regular time and budget constraints, one of our biggest challenges is finding the right audience who share the same vision as us,” says Sensoli, who mentions that not having the same goal as the client may lead to misunderstandings and arguments. “We say that the architect is like the mother and the client is the father and they must work together to achieve the same result,” he says. Their luxury portfolio often attracts clients who do not share the same understanding of design. “It’s not everyday that we find clients who are on the same page, but when we do, the results can be awe-inspiring,” adds Morosi, citing the example of the villa project in Riyadh, which produced “spectacular” results because the client was in sync with them.
To make the clients understand their thought process better, Morosi and Sensoli turn towards technology. The firm has been actively investing in resources which aid the process of presentation to clients. “For us, 3D is fundamental,” says Morosi. “Our 3D specialists are qualified architects, and not just technicians. Now, we’re working on embedding virtual reality technology into our presentations, which will help us share with our clients what the actual space will look like, including real time modifications in materials.” She adds that such presentations are not the final iterations, rather they are tools to engage the client and encourage discussion with them, as most clients do not possess the technical knowledge to visualise the space through renderings. Although the process of making a coherent presentation using these advanced technologies might be time consuming, Morosi feels that they help avoid misunderstandings later on. However, Sensoli believes that you can’t always meet misplaced expectations, but using technology can make the details more transparent for everyone.
Sensoli continues: “These technologies help us put together the two different but vital components in any spatial design – the first layer is the solid ground earth which represents our basis and the second is more ephemeral, which can be replaced with the help of technology.”