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Allen key to unlock the Middle East market
Stuart Allen, founder of Allen Architecture Interiors Design, recalls the memories of working on high-end projects in NYC and London and shares the challenges of setting up business in the UAE from a hotel room.
British Airways’ new lounge at Dubai airport, General Electric Innovation Centre, HSBC new headquarters in Abu Dhabi, Rogo’s rollercoaster restaurant — these are just some of the places recently designed by Stuart Allen, founder and director of Allen Architecture Interiors Design (AAID), formerly the Middle East wing of UK design company Artillery. Having been in the industry for more than 25 years, work has led him to design retail and hospitality environments in many cities and countries including London, Houston, New York, San Francisco, Monaco, Puerto Rico, India, Hong Kong and Ireland.
“It’s been a very fortunate opportunity to go to all of these different places and work, and hopefully it is only the beginning,” says Allen, who relocated to Dubai five years ago to set up a Middle East branch for Artillery.
“The company was founded in 1987 and what’s unique about it is that it has always embraced different cultural backgrounds by hiring people from all over the world. After the Melbourne branch was founded, the opportunity came to start the office in the UAE and I was willing to take it on board. I came out here as a one-man show working from a hotel room and my job was to secure work and build the team, all of that on a very minimum budget.
“When I arrived, I was comparing Dubai to New York and other places that I’ve been to. It was very difficult to find the soul of the city, but it’s there when you look for it. It took some time to adjust since I had to integrate myself first within the community, but I knew this is the place I could make work. To run a project by myself, to build and manage the team was never an issue. However, I had to learn how the process worked with approvals and authorities and to gain trust with vendors, contractors and project managers.”
THE ART OF LISTENING
In last five years, Allen and his team have been designing and delivering innovative commercial, retail, hospitality and educational projects to the GCC region. As he explains, AAID’s design philosophy and aspirations remain simple – with each and every client he tries to provide design and deliver solutions that respond to clients’ needs.
“We are in the business where communication is the key. How we communicate our ideas, drawings and presentations or how we communicate with our clients, contractors and project managers is an essential skill for every interior designer. Many designers don’t spend much time on site, which is one of my favourite parts of the project. That is when you get the experience of knowing what can and cannot be done. When working with people on site, you learn about certain limitations and you can take that knowledge to a next project,” says Allen.
FUN AND TOUGH PROJECT
As for the listening to the client’s brief, Allen says that designing the interior for Rogo’s rollercoaster restaurant was both fun and challenging. Set across 14,000sq ft on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, the principle of Rogo’s involves highly technical interaction from the visitor with food ordered through the computer system at each place setting. A tornado-shaped gigantic spiral is the key restaurant highlight. Making food a superstar of the venue, designers wanted to create a place where people can hang out, talk and have fun.
“The principle of Rogo’s is to have fast gourmet food delivered to you. The restaurant has a network of 30 individual roller coaster tracks, so the challenge was to come up with a design around this highly engineered system. We had to think how the food would come down from kitchen to the dispatch area, but also how to get the dirty plates cleared, so all technical challenges have been integrated into the design,” explains Allen.
Rogo’s interior is dark to enhance the theatrical spectacle of the tracks. The entrance and architectural enclosure are veneered to provide a calm and inviting entrance. Key features for the entrance, lift and staircase are clad in a striped panel system so they are easily identifiable. And feature lighting adds movement emphasising the tracks, with pendant lights to provide overall ambient lighting.
THE FUTURE OF WORKPLACE
AAID was recently appointed by HSBC to design its first headquarters in Abu Dhabi. Located on the 30th floor of Etihad Towers, the client wanted a contemporary office and dynamic environment that reflects modern philosophy combining eastern and western cultures.
“The CEO is going to be housed in this office so he was very active in the design process of what he wanted to convey to his private banking clients. While he wanted a certain look, HSBC has strict guidelines of what you can and cannot do, so we had to be a middle man and please both entities.
“Our process involved a site analysis to provide high levels of natural light and panoramic views as well as places to dwell, points of interaction and movement. Functionality was critical and the environment provides a working space that efficiently accommodates more than 100 people, with discrete built-in storage, supporting video conferencing meeting rooms and in-house lounge areas to support both client-facing areas and staff areas,” says Allen.
The design includes modern features, clean lines and a sophisticated palette of materials and colours that are brought to life by the dynamic lighting patterns. The work environment supports the culture of collaboration. By combining hot and cold materials, such as marble and carpet, the corridors are one of the strongest features.
“When we are talking about the workplace, people are not necessarily assigned at the desk as their only working space. Now the office is becoming less a static and more dynamic environment where flexibility is the key trend. One of the big aspects that we are focussing on is the idea of lifestyle. Bringing lifestyle into the work we do. Live, work and play are the key elements. The workplace used to be just for work but now, since people spend so much time at the office, it has to facilitate their lifestyle as well.”
When talking about lessons learned, Allen says that the art of listening and communicating was the first skill he acquired even as a young architecture student, making his way through studies at the University of Texas and out into the big wide world. He ended up in New York where he had the opportunity to work on some high-end projects, such as the Escada store on 5th Avenue, Park Avenue apartments, houses in the Hamptons…
“From my mentor, I learned more what not to do then what to do and I believe that is far more important. Graduate design students come out very assured of themselves thinking they can conquer the world and it doesn’t take them too long to realise they actually don’t know much. The school gives them a great foundation in what design is, but it gives them no relevance to a working world and how to apply this knowledge. It is important that the right person introduces them to the ways the profession works. When they come to us, we are a stepping stone in their career and I embrace the fact that we can launch someone’s career and help them move forward.”
Allen Architecture Interiors Design has just announced its independent status with a new identity and refreshed business strategy. The business will continue to be led by Allen who joined by his sister Deborah Allen in the role of co-founder and director for the London office. Besides architecture and interior design, Allen would like to get more involved in the residential market, but also to grow the design department by developing products and furniture under the AAID brand.
“This is an exciting time for the business, we are very proud of our heritage with Artillery and shall continue to be an organisation that defines itself through the collaborative spirit of creating design,” says Allen.
“We pride ourselves for being a bespoke firm. We are not trying to beat big players in the market and we want to maintain this bespoke attitude by keeping it small and being approachable. Our team counts 20 and that allows us to work on large as well smaller projects. We get a lot of repeat business and that is the biggest compliment,” concludes Allen.