Sheraa Entrepreneurship Centre at the American University of Sharjah is designed by former AUS student, Pallavi Dean, and her team.
Located at the American University of Sharjah (AUS), Sheraa Center provides support for students to become entrepreneurs after graduating. The design of the centre was completed by Dubai-based designer and AUS alumna Pallavi Dean.
“Everything Sheraa does is student- or entrepreneur-led,” says Najla Al Midfa, general manager of Sheraa. “Our logo was designed by a graduate of AUS, Salem Al Qasimi, founder of Fikra Design Studio, while our co-working space was designed by Pallavi Dean.”
The design of the space had to be completely flexible, to host a variety of events, ranging from workshops and intimate meetings to large-scale seminars. Together with her team at Pallavi Dean Interiors (PDI), Dean designed a series of collaborative workspaces, casual meeting lounges, seminar rooms, workshop rooms and a quirky amphitheatre for product and business launches.
With the use of vibrant colours in unexpected places, PDI’s interpretation of this entrepreneurship hub has been rendered with a light hand to create an inviting buzz. The corporate colours and graphics are used throughout the space to reinforce the brand, and also serve as playful design statements.
Commenting on the brief, Dean explains that the client wanted a relaxing and comfortable environment that would aid in the flow of ideas and be a place “where the creativity and problem-solving skills of young people could be harnessed to create innovative business ideas”.
The design team divided the large, rectangular volume of the space into sub-areas, which denote functions through the placement of furniture. A curving, white, bean-shaped reception desk sits in the centre, surrounded by various work areas.
“Suspended above, Kvadrat acoustic clouds have been used as a ceiling feature over the main reception area. A space such as this can be quite noisy, so some means of sound absorption is a good idea.
Moreover, the massive faceted shape, in shades of blue and grey, is enhanced by the shadows and light from adjacent tracks, even as it drops down the scale and picks it up again through its undulations,” says Dean.
The wave-like formation also recalls the nautical associations of the brand, since Sheraa means “sail” in Arabic.
“This took a few hours for my colleague, Haniyeh Mansoor, to put together – but she persevered. We were very hands on with the site works for this project,” adds Dean.
The open-plan space is utilised by students, faculty, and entrepreneurs alike to meet. It also incorporates an in-house coffee shop, Blends and Brews. On the periphery of the hub, small boxes project into the larger space, enclosing areas for workshops, meetings, seminars, training, or collaboration. As Dean explains, the firm’s previous experience in education design served the team well on this project.
The concept of navigation and discovery is referenced subtly in the design.
“The interiors are created with multi-functionality at their core – the design narrative revolving around the idea of an entrepreneur’s journey. The entire space is designed to be flexible. The furniture can be easily moved around and re-configured to create private or semi-private spaces as needed by the users,” says Dean.
The classrooms and offices feature custom-designed lockers and upholstered pieces. The flooring is Tarkett vinyl, an acoustic concrete for the main area juxtaposed with wood-effect vinyl in certain sections.
“There is a quirky amphitheatre for product and business launches,” she adds. “We created a tiered, organically shaped object to match the typography of the centre’s logo. This wavy structure is a nod to the concept of seafaring, doubling as a stage for presentations and panel discussions, and has auditorium-style seating for when the centre hosts larger presentations and events.”
Dark grey, circular cushions are movable, adding to the informal feeling of the space. The green wall at the back is graced by recessed spot lights, and a whiteboard wall offers a canvas for brainstorming sessions.
In the cafeteria, round mirrors suspended at different angles populate the ceiling. Lockers have been custom-designed in the corporate colours, with painted lacquer finger-pulls, while pegs on a wall spell out the corporate logo. Appealing to the youger generation, rocking chairs and swings complete the variety of seating options.
Two large seminar rooms are separated by sliding folding doors to accommodate different-sized workshops and talks. Each room has a colour identity through the use of furniture and the ceiling cut-out within each space.
“In one of the rooms, chairs in three different shades of blue provided cost-effective variety and visual interest,” says Dean.
The seminar rooms and amphitheatre area have exposed ceiling “colour reveals”, which house the ducting and services, turning them into a design element. A coral ceiling in one room is echoed by a punch of red on the wiry legs of a table. Concealed LED strips in a hidden cove run around the periphery of the puncture to highlight the colour reveal and provide indirect lighting to the space. In other areas, the red pipes for sprinklers are treated similarly.
“We have experimented with the mechanics of how design works and highlighted these features, resulting in moments of surprise,” explains Dean. “Track lights are dispersed throughout the open-plan space and the down lights are focussed to draw attention to specific areas – the painted white ceiling reflects and bounces both the artificial and natural light within the volume. Luckily, the space has abundant natural light, with floor-to-ceiling windows.”
Artificial lighting has been strategically placed in various zones through ceiling-recessed directional spots or a collection of decorative lamps. The Arabesque wall graphics within the knowledge docks are integrated with a wall light. These serve as a one-on-one meeting and study spaces.
Dean continues: “We also custom-designed the dome-shaped light fixtures that are suspended over the informal meeting areas in the open-plan space. The dome shape references the campus architecture at AUS. The interiors of each hemisphere were painted in gold to add a touch of drama and glamour to the space.”
Grand as they are, these lights escape being overbearing as the white of their exterior merges with the largely white palette of the space.
The pendant lights within the working offices were sourced from Huda Lighting, and feature inverted bell-shaped wire mesh shades around a naked bulb, casting interesting shadows and patterns.
The booth seating has pale gold upholstery and tall backrests for privacy. Appropriate for either studying or private meetings, the space doubles as a lunch area. Wooden panels at the back of the sofas have a pixelated pattern.
“We call it the ‘light wall’ – the LED strips behind this panel diffuse ambient light in the small space and enhance the texture of the material. This pattern creates an interesting graphic and light feature all in one,” says Dean.
A nautical graphic on the wall of one booth and a dream-catcher on the other, reiterate the corporate colours, branding them at a subconscious level on the psyche of viewers.
“Since the campus of AUS has Islamic architecture, it was important that the design language in the entrepreneurship hub reflected the same spirit,” says Dean. “The Arabesque references, the use of the colour gold, and the typology, subtly tie the imagery to the site. This design is contextual, and is specific to Sharjah.”
As an advocate for biophilic design, Dean decided to add the Happy Bird by Magis as the “design pet” in the space.
“Creating connections between nature and man-made environments has proven benefits, including helping office workers become more productive,” she says. “The bird adds a playful element, reinforcing the views of the tropical vegetation unfurling from the windows.”
Dean’s design facilitates knowledge-sharing and the generation of new ideas.
“If turning dreams into realities is the need, this is the space in which to do it,” she says, concluding that although the space may seem fun and light-hearted, “the intention is serious business”.