Marina Mrdjen-Petrovic speaks to Christian Merieau, managing director and partner at MMAC Design, a Dubai-based boutique design firm specialising in hospitality design.
With more than three decades’ of experience in interior design, Christian Merieau relocated to Dubai as managing director for Samuel Creations. After spending nearly 20 years with Samuel Creations and designing projects for brands such as Hyatt, IHG, Millennium, Rosewood, Marriott, Starwood, Forte Hotel Group, and Accor, three years ago he established MMAC Design, a boutique interior design consultancy in Dubai that specialises in hospitality.
“Samuel Paillat, who was the company founder and owner, gave me the opportunity to develop a deep understanding of the trade by allowing me to work over the years as a draftsman, an FF&E designer, a site engineer, an interior designer, a project manager and, finally, as director of the Dubai office,” he says.
Merieau set up his own design company, alongside his former colleague, Anil Mangalat. Soon, several other members of the team joined them.
“The true challenge was not to create the company, but to start by working on a very large project with a very tight deadline, without any equipment or a team to support me. I very quickly got to realise how immensely talented my previous team was. The first month offered very few hours of sleep, but thankfully Anil, who is now my business partner, decided to join me. He also urged me to remain involved in the design process, and offered to carry out some of the administrative duties. This definitely makes me a much-satisfied man today.”
The first year, they kept the cost very low by working out of Merieau’s villa, but as the team rapidly reached 10 people, they decided to move to Dubai Design District (d3).
In the past three years, Merieau and his team developed 40 hotel concepts in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and Jordan, including the four-star BarMuda Rotana, five-star Luxury Collection Aqaba, and four-star Mercure Sohar.
His team is currently working on 16 hotel and restaurant projects in the GCC region and Asia, and has just been appointed as interior designer of a 250.000m² mixed-use project in Saudi Arabia that includes four- and five-star hotels.
When asked if he is limiting the business by staying too niche, Merieau says that he doesn’t plan to expand the scope of work and wants to remain specialised in mid-scale and luxury hospitality design.
“I’m sure that we are missing out on some other projects, but on the other hand, we are a very small team, and we have found that we are far more efficient this way,” he says. “Everybody knows exactly what they are supposed to do. We have processes that are very streamlined, and we are able to deliver our projects with more precision and within a shorter period. It has also helped our team, our suppliers, and our clients to understand who we are and what we can deliver.”
Merieau has found that plenty of clients now prefer to work with smaller design companies, due to the closer relationship they can establish with the design team.
He continues: “The economic crisis made it easier for us to do business, creating more demand for smaller companies like ours. I don’t think that we are the best or most talented designers, but we have always been very honest about the work we do, and we always deliver. I would say that we are a safe bet.”
Discussing the pros and cons of delivering projects in the Middle East, Merieau says that creative freedom and a strong project pipeline are some of the advantages. However, a reduced number of qualified fit-out contractors, a poor value-engineering procurement culture, and inconsistent project management quality are often struggles his team faces.
“We want to be able to control our projects better and to impose quality within them. Luckily, we are getting more projects with clients that will not value engineer. We also put a lot of time into post-contractual services, even when we are not payed for it. We want to make sure that what’s being delivered is what we sold as designers.”
Merieau adds that after the economic crisis there was a lot of value engineering. “Luckily, many clients have now realised that in reality cheap actually costs too much,” he says.
“Also, a lot of manufacturers and suppliers that used to be unaffordable are now coming to us and are more open to collaborating directly with interior designers. They say: ‘If it’s too expensive, come to us, and we will copy our own stuff’, because they used to be copied a lot by others and they’ve lost control. So, a lot of the lighting and furniture that we are using is custom-made, which is cheaper, since manufacturers don’t have to pay design fees when they are designing it with us. A lot of the products that we are using are evolving from a catalogue-based to custom-designed, giving an extra value to projects.”
Last year, MMAC Design picked up two accolades at the CID Awards. Merieau says that participating and winning the awards goes beyond marketing strategies and actually helps when dealing with clients.
“It gives you a credibility in front of clients,” he says, adding that they refuse to get involved in projects for which they cannot fully succeed.
“We don’t do free designs as a matter of principle. You’re just undervaluing your work and basically saying ‘my work can be done for free’. And then it gets extremely difficult to justify your fees.
“Furthermore, the fact that we have a small, highly specialised, and motivated team allows us to deliver a complete hotel project within a very short time span. As a matter of fact, we have found that projects dragging over a long period are often less successful and profitable. Our design fees are never too low, and this allows us to dedicate sufficient staff to compensate for the tight timeline.”
Merieau is now looking to expand the business into Africa and Asia.
“It is still very difficult to get projects in Africa, and it is a long process, but we see a phenomenal potential there in the next 10 to 15 years. Dubai is such a hub that all of our clients from Africa are doing business here in Dubai. There is a very natural move for us to compete for projects in Africa, and there is a very little competition.”
“Crafting destinations – designing the experience” is the company’s slogan, which MMAC’s founder describes as a core value within its design philosophy.
“We believe that a strong concept has to be built on the combination of a real understanding of the local culture, and a true partnership with the hotel operator, the client, and all other consultants that are involved. This is why we spend a fair amount of time with our clients, to understand their vision and requirements down to the smallest details before we start any design,” he says, comparing MMAC’s design process to that of the layering used in painting.
“The underlying base coat would be distinctly related to the brand DNA, on top of which we add restrained elements of the local style and craftsmanship. We then add materials and colours to accentuate the ambience. The final touches would be added through the appropriate use of relevant decoration, accessories, and lighting.”
Commenting on regional design and whether it has moved past the fictionalised vernacular of the Middle East, Merieau comments: “One of the challenges that we’ve encountered has been to match the expectations of hotel operators and owners. It has sometimes been difficult not to overdesign a hotel, or to remain on-brand upon request of a local owner. It has been equally difficult to insert a sense of local culture into an international brand. It is, however, becoming easier, as international hotel brands become increasingly design-oriented and locally relevant.
“On the JBR hotel [2016 CID Award for the Best Interior Design Concept of the Year], for example, we laid our focus on minimalist architectural spaces that were clad with simple materials while incorporating a strong sense of place through the use of fine details, with a deep sense of authenticity and craftsmanship.”
MMAC Design has also infused the Mercure Sohar with a strong sense of place by using a piece of local folklore, finding contemporary ways to incorporate Omani tribal patterns, ethnic artwork, and architectural photography within the interiors.
“We still have some rare requests for authentic Arabic design. We are currently working on a Luxury Collection Resort in Aqaba, which had to be as authentically Jordanian as possible. The interior design draws inspiration from the old houses of Amman, marked with their restrained usage of Islamic style and a strong emphasis on the stonework. Custom-designed terrazzo tiling and beautiful wrought iron and wood craftsmanship have all been integrated into the design.”
Merieau believes that hotel design is moving away from international standardisation and aggressive branding towards local relevance and a more human, interactive experience.
“In tomorrow’s hotels, we will have to utilise space differently,” he says. “Rather than thinking of a hotel as a functional building with single-purpose areas, we will have to provide guests with spaces within the hotel that offer a whole new level of flexibility. As designers, we will have to provide a variety of environments supporting the changing mind-set of the guests as well as locally relevant choices giving access to new experiences.
“The old design guidelines and brand standards were often difficult to implement or contradictory to local culture. This made for a difficult negotiation with the local authority and investors. Input from an experienced interior designer has become more relevant and impactful. We can be more creative within a less stringent brief.”
MMAC Design’s team of 13 comes from Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe ,and most of them used to work with Merieau and Mangalat at Samuel Creations.
“Anil and I are strong believers in ‘servant leadership’,” explains Merieau. “We think that the manager’s role is to create an efficient and organised environment where people can succeed, freely try things, and make a mistake, expressing themselves without being judged and simply having fun. We don’t, however, compromise on the fact that the work has to be properly done, and in a timely manner.
“We do not impose stringent working hours and accept the fact that people have to stay home to take care of their children or themselves. We believe that some work can be done better at home, or even at the beach. We have found that people with young children are particularly efficient and comfortable in such an environment.”
Merieau believes that this approach has created an atmosphere in which the company’s people feel both respected and empowered.
“We put tremendous emphasis on people’s personalities during the job interviews and make sure that whoever we hire is a good fit for the rest of the team. Some are calm and detail-oriented, and others are hyper, creative, and just very fun,” he says. “It is sometimes a balancing act but, in our firm, respect remains the key.”