Interview: Chris Barnes shares why industry recognition and competition are important

Interview: Chris Barnes shares why industry recognition and competition are important

Broadway Interiors, Chris Barnes, CID Awards 2017, Dubai interior design

As the highly commended Interior Designer of the Year at the CID Awards 2017, Chris Barnes, 53, founder of Broadway Interiors, with a stellar portfolio of regional projects, has myriad reasons to celebrate. 

He is the creative visionary behind the popular Black Tap burgers and shakes chain of eateries, which are due to open in Yas Mall, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Lebanon. “It’s an evolving franchise that we started working on last year, and this year, we’re going to introduce a new design aesthetic to its upcoming outlet in Dubai,” says Barnes.

Having established a thriving practice in Dubai over the past 20 years, the UK-born designer is convinced that the time invested in the region has paid off through a referral network. Only occasionally, when he feels convinced enough about a new project on the market, he might consider pitching for it. “Primarily, our business model is based on referrals. For example, one of the projects we are working on in Saudi Arabia came to us as a direct result of another project we did in Port Khalifa three years ago,” says Barnes.

At the same time, he strongly feels that you’re only as good as your last project, and that consistent and equal attention to all projects is what sustains the hard-earned success. Talking about fame and success, Barnes feels that recognition plays an important role in endorsing the work designers do. “The CID Awards are, undoubtedly, the most relevant for our community,” he says, “as they bring a certain level of credibility to the work we do on a day-to-day basis.”

The soft-spoken designer sees immense value in showcasing projects to a larger audience, adding that the awards are also a form of media, which needs to be fed with good content, and nominations are very detailed and transparent. “There is nothing more humbling than receiving recognition from your peers,” says Barnes, who, by his own admission, doesn’t work his PR machinery as much as he should.

Inner City Zoo nightclub at Rixos Premium Dubai

But even before the industry awards nomination process begins, Barnes and his team have their own internal selection procedure, during which they pick one of their projects for submission. How do they decide which project makes the cut for nomination? “It’s always the first feeling about the end result. If it’s something you really take pride in delivering, it’s worthy of a submission,” he says, adding further that each project’s merits are assessed objectively by the entire team, and that the decision isn’t entirely taken by him.

So does he think that competition in an emerging industry is beneficial to all? “We’re in a cosmopolitan market and competition is a good thing, which will only lead to more creativity. It’s good that we have peers who are pushing boundaries. It also helps motivate your own studio to do better and think of new ideas,” says Barnes.

Despite his successful career to date, there are still challenges that Barnes feels affects most design firms. Echoing the sentiments of a round table discussion hosted by CID late last year (read about it in the December 2017 issue) on the topic of intellectual property protection, he says that it’s one of the biggest concerns among the creative practitioners here.

“Due to a lack of clear and precise directives on the subject, it’s hard to find any instant solutions to it,” he says “but continuing the discussion in the community will help create more awareness about it.” He links it to a dilemma designers face while negotiating. “On one hand, you don’t offer any content until you have a contract, but the flipside is that you could be assessed purely on the fees and that, potentially, isn’t a good thing either.”

The overtly used and at times, stereotyped trend of contextual design isn’t lost on Barnes, who feels that there are additional dynamics in the region that don’t necessarily apply to the western world or aren’t appreciated by them. “Cultural sensibilities, in relation to design, come with time and understanding,” he says. “But, I’m still convinced that it’s always good to be challenged by new players through competition.”

RTA Centre

He especially emphasises the role of the CID Awards as the galvaniser of fresh talent, who help move the industry forward – creating a domino effect for the whole community at large.

In addition to being a sought-after designer for hospitality spaces, there is a diverse and eclectic range of projects that Barnes is currently working on, including: a fitness concept in Dubai’s arts hotspot, Al Serkal Avenue; a corporate office in Riyadh; and a coffee-centred eatery in the recently unveiled beachfront address, La Mer.

The regional design industry is still evolving, to say the least, a fact that Barnes reckons is what makes the community and the projects more dynamic. “It’s always good to have a balance, because sometimes one sector can help derive fresh ideas for another sector, and you can blend those styles together,” he says.

Balancing different perspectives of clients from different sectors demands being open to all viewpoints, yet staying true to your design ideology. One of the reasons Barnes has been successful can be attributed to his acceptance of the commercial value of projects and how they enhance his clients’ assets.

“We’re a service industry, so it’s very important that we deliver the client’s vision and enable their property to operate and function in a good way,” he says, adding that being a perceptive listener is a great quality for any designer. “We must listen, and give our opinion on what we think is right, but ultimately, we’re the service providers and it’s important that we deliver the goods in line with the clients’ requirements.”

KHDA offices inspired by biophilic design

Barnes believes that design studios need to be flexible and tailor services to suit their needs, categorising them broadly into two types: clients who give you an open brief and say go deliver; and more discerning clients, who have a vision that they need you to facilitate. “Each client is different and needs a different level of attention,” he says.

Between the two types of clients, which, according to Barnes, is more challenging to work with? “I think the way design has evolved, it’s easier to communicate design intent now than historically,” he says.

Previously, plans were produced first, and the visual content later, whereas now, the visual content is being produced almost immediately and details come retrospectively, followed by design development. To Barnes, there hasn’t been a better time and place to be a designer as he feels it’s much easier to deliver clients’ expectations now than ever before.

With an industry that is growing exponentially, those at the helm of commissioning projects are also much better informed. One of the most ground-breaking developments that Barnes has seen accelerate awareness is the establishment of Dubai Design District (d3), an initiative that aims to be the region’s ultimate creative hub.

“While most clients have a level of understanding when you’re working with them, now they are receptive to new ideas as well. I’m most excited about the second phase of d3 (under construction), which will feature the design university and elevate the design movement to the next level.”

Client expectations aside, what is the underlying thought process by which he aims to convey his designs? “We like to communicate realism, life and authenticity, possibly in a different form to its original guise,” says Barnes.

Black Tap eatery

“When we’re developing an interior, we love to incorporate biophilic design, often transposing those elements into the DNA of our project, but always in a way that feels real and authentic.”

He cites the example of an ongoing project for the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority’s corporate office, which occupies 13 floors in the city’s Nation Towers. Following the brief to create an interesting and welcoming space for everybody that is both flexible and allows ideation and collaboration, Barnes has turned to biophilic design, a trend gaining ground, thanks to the sustainability movement.

“It’s completely different to the corporate office they presently have – we have respected culture, incorporating prayer rooms, collaboration spaces, a town hall meeting room, barista station and smaller meeting rooms,” he says.

The designer is quick to point out that, contrary to the general perception, government institutions in the region and especially in the UAE have readily embraced the need for design reinvention, adding to their design appreciation in the process.

“Last year, we did a big project for the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) which involved redesigning their control room, and the year before, we worked on an award-winning project for the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA),” he says.

In an attempt to create holistic workplaces that are a true reflection of how our real environments should be, government institutions in the UAE have been actively promoting people’s well-being and sustainability through design, a strategic public development push seen as beneficial to the workforce.

What are the other principle trends that are driving the industry? Reiterating the growing demand for biophilic design combined with sustainability, Barnes feels that the much bandied-about word has come a long way from being a transient trend.

The lobby of Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum International Photography Award organisation

“Many people recycle or use materials that are sympathetic to the environment and as the industry demands more of such materials, there is a bigger availability among suppliers,” he says.

But looking at the bigger picture, Barnes feels that most trends run parallel to the economy. With each fluctuation, trends change their course too. But he’s happy to admit that the prevalent design aesthetic is more casual and comfortable and far less glitzy and glamorous than in the past decade.

“Even if they’re drawing inspiration from historic designs, the materials and the way they’re put together are certainly more about the care and attention to details and not so much about using high-end materials only,” Barnes opines.

While trends have their place, the primary mandate of an interior design firm is to provide timeless, emotive design. “Unless the brief dictates that the client intends to refresh the space within the next few years, the designer has to provide the client with an asset that is economically and functionally viable in the long term,” says Barnes.

Providing alternative solutions to preconceived ideas that clients might have should be every designer’s responsibility, especially when it is slightly misdirected. “Clients pay for our profession and knowledge, so the onus is on the designers to express the maximum potential of the project under discussion.”

Lock, Stock and Barrel bar at Rixos Premium Dubai

Barnes has opened a regional office in Manila to cater to rising demands in Asia. “It’s a testament to how far we’ve come on many levels,” he says. “If you ask me to describe our company, we’re a design studio, but first and foremost we’re a family.”

He further mentions a few of his staff who’ve been with the company in excess of 10 years and have not only seen the company grow, but achieved personal success as well. “A few years ago, we nominated one of our team, who started with us as a CAD operator, in the behind-the-scenes category at CID Awards, and now he’s the design director in our Manila office,” says Barnes proudly.

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