Marina Mrdjen-Petrovic speaks to Sejal Patel, lead designer at Gensler, about the importance of turning clients into long-term partners and the importance of using your ears as the key designer’s skill.
From Qasr Al Sarab, a desert resort in Liwa, which reinvents the concept of traditional Arabic luxury, to Manzil Downtown, which focuses on modern and urban Arabia, Dubai-based interior designer Sejal Patel takes great pride when looking back at some of her previous projects.
“As a designer, it’s incredible to see how your designs can have a positive impact on people’s lives,” she starts her story, telling us that interior design was a conscious choice, not a coincidence.
Being born in the heart of the Indian textile industry, Patel recalls watching her father, a textile designer, constantly experimenting and trying different techniques to create unique designs.
“If his collection wasn’t different from other market offerings than it simply wasn’t good enough, and unknowingly this became my design mantra,” she says.
After she completed school, her parents suggested she should move to London. Not knowing which design industry to consider, she decided to take up an art and design course for a year. From there she joined London Metropolitan University where she received her degree in interior design. Patel, however, believes design is an inbuilt passion.
“Either you have it, or you don’t. Education is only a tool to enhance that talent,” she says.
She’s been working in the region for nearly 13 years. She first joined the HBA Dubai office, climbing the career ladder from junior to senior designer, before moving to Gensler a year ago as a lead designer within its recently established lifestyle and hospitality division.
“Our strategic plan for this office is to create our Gensler international centre of expertise for hospitality interiors,” Patel reveals. “Obviously, we have been immediately involved in a few exciting projects, both greenfield and refurbishment, in the region, and considering the sensitivities about the confidentiality of these opportunities; we will only be able to share them once completed.”
Founded in San Francisco in 1965, today Gensler employs more that 4,600 professionals in 44 cities around the globe. Patel’s team has a strong collaboration with the Gensler architecture team, allowing them to create a seamless language between the exterior and the interior of any project.
“I am blessed to have a very dynamic team of individuals who share a great bond,” she says. “Each one of them is very special to me and unique in their own right. As a team, we understand it’s not individual strength but collective efforts from all of us that makes us successful.”
Motivation and inspiration, are two constants that Patel says she always works with.
“I see this as a two-way street, I am their source to move forward in their careers, and they are my inspiration to do better and improve myself.
Referring to Albert Einstein’s quote “creative is contagious, pass it on”, Patel says her design philosophy is very simple.
“I believe amazing things happen when we move away from our everyday approach and usual perspective: design is the greatest catalyst for change,” she adds.
When designing, Patel says she always strives to develop a story, “like a red thread”, a subliminal narrative, which translates into a one-of-a-kind design language.
She continues: “With every project, I try to create a standalone personality; public spaces, as well as guest rooms, are constant opportunities to create authenticity. All elements of design, like materials, furniture, forms, become the most powerful way to connect. The secret sauce is the strong human local connection paradigm, defined in creating a sense of place, an experience, which is a true reflection of our being right now, a genuine and refreshing moment facilitating connections among people, their families, their friends and engaging travellers on a strong personal level.”
In the past few year, as Patel notices, the hospitality business has changed at much faster pace and there is no ready-made recipe to a successful hotel design. She also stresses the importance of not having a set vision or a preconceived idea of what a space should be.
“I listen to all parties involved, and as a designer, I challenge the hotel operators as well as, the clients. I feel the best results are delivered with a collaborative effort.”
When asked what her strongest skill as a designer is, Patel says it is the ability to listen.
“To listen to my clients and understand their brief, listen to the market and understand the market gaps and how my clients can benefit from this, and listen to my team and understand how best we can deliver the project,” she says.
Patel feels that the timeless design has its own niche within the local hotel industry but feels that Dubai and the region still lack boutique hotels.
“Although we are seeing the introduction of new young brands like Mamma Shelter, Venu, 25 Hours and the likes, ‘timeless’ is here to stay as it attracts all market segments. I think what I would like to see more in the region is a playoff of timeless with a twist of the boutique element,” she says.
With the increasing importance of social media in business, Patel says that nowadays designers are constantly challenged to reinvent and introduce novelty.
“All hoteliers would want to take advantage [of this] to get their brand/ property recognised. Creating these Insta moments has become a key part of our thinking process when we design, in particular, the public areas.”
Knowing the client is the first step, according to Patel, to create the best and customised pitch for the opportunity.
Patel says: “This is a very important part of the process and it can make it or break it in a way. The first thing we do is study the client in detail and being part of a large organisation our CRM system is highly advanced, and we can understand quickly the history if any with Gensler and also connect with our colleagues around the world to glean any useful information.
“For the pitch, we create a strong narrative focusing on the client brief and the best practices all over the world, always keeping a very strong local perspective. Even though we are well into the digital age, we experience that clients still like materiality and presentations in the form of customised beautiful books are always very welcome.”
Having said that, her team often works at more technological ways to present pitches. “As we speak, for instance, we are creating a beautiful short two-minute video, because one of our VIP clients always travels, but loves technology. So, video is the best way of making sure he can revisit the content anytime anywhere.”
Patel believes “you are as good as your contractor” and designers can create beautiful concepts but “all fails if they are not executed well”.
“At this stage of the project we the designers almost become client’s reps and ensure the design intent is maintained,” she says. “We work very closely throughout the process of shop drawings review to prototype inspections, and snagging on sites. Through our drawing packages, we try to give as precise information as possible to avoid guessing, but there were many occasions I have ended up visiting factories and directing the workers actually doing the work. From experience, it makes the process more effective when you engage with the work directly.”
Patel believes that many projects suffer due to poor management of value engineering.
“We understand the importance of working within the budget and insist the client shares this from the inception of the project to minimise the risk of design loss,” she says. “We work closely with the design team to ensure the design intent is retained as much as possible.”
When commenting on some of the issues the regional industry faces today, Patel touches upon people and the market. “Despite finding ourselves in one of the top regions in the world for real estate development, we always experience a scarcity of available local high-profile talent, so once we succeed in having them on board we do our utmost to retain them and make them grow. The workforce is moving around at a higher rate than in any other part of the world, so we always strive to give the right compensation and a plan for the future.”
Patel adds that projects are often suffering or delayed since during crucial phases there are changes in leadership.
“Secondly, here as everywhere since 2008, the access to funding for projects is more complicated and people have got creative with new ways like the recently announced Real Estate Investment Trust in hospitality. This creates a situation where any project can be stopped forever or interrupted for long periods of times; this has an impact on us but also on the final results. On a positive note, this could also be an opportunity to redesign or refresh a project, which was on hold for a long time,” she says.
Commenting on the perfect designer-client relationship, Patel says that it’s crucial to base it on trust, but also on “being of service”. That’s her recipe in turning clients into partners.
“This is what we do as designers; we aim to design a better world for people,” she says. “As opposed to the so-called ‘stellar’ designer, I have a humble approach. I listen a lot and try to help all I can, by suggesting appropriate solutions to best of my ability. Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to work with many different clients and operators, and luckily, I have not managed to upset anyone.”