Diane Thorsen is the design director for Pringle Brandon, which opened an office in Dubai in November 2010. She has worked in the interior design industry for over 25 years and studied at the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, followed by a placement with Anglo American Properties, in the same city.
After five years of working for an architectural practice, she opened her own consultancy called ‘Design Effects International’ in South Africa which is still operating to this day.
Her portfolio includes international corporate clients, mall design in all parts of South Africa and Mauritius, hospitality design for reputable operators, boutique hotels for private clients in wild game farms and vineyards in the Cape Province including the restoration of an historic Cape Dutch Homestead, large government buildings and retail design for major brands such as Nike, residential architecture and design for private clients including remote islands off Mozambique.
It was during one of her business trips abroad to Lebanon, that she travelled through Dubai and met a designer based in the region who agreed to join forces with her on a pitch for the Commercial Bank of Dubai (CBD) building.
This saw the start of her ties to the Middle East, when she began commuting to Dubai on a regular basis. Years later, Thorsen was approached to join the Design and Build company as design director. She moved here in 2008 at the height of the economic downturn.
“As we know from experience, any crisis is accompanied by opportunity. For Steven Charlton (my business partner) and I, this came packaged as two very forward thinking, architects from London, Jack Pringle and Chris Brandon, seeing the potential for setting up a design consultancy that would subsequently position their successful UK practice for global reach.
“Thus in November 2010, Pringle Brandon ME was formed and has grown from strength to strength,” she added.
What projects are you currently working on in the Middle East?
Our teams typically work on a few projects simultaneously challenging one another in brainstorming sessions, which result in some wonderful conceptual ideas that evolve and translate into design solutions.
We are fortunate to be working with discerning clients and project managers in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Nigeria, South Africa and India who strive for excellence and who share our work philosophy and commitment to producing great design with unprecedented attention to detail coupled with the intelligent use of quality, sustainable materials.
We are currently working with Microsoft delivering their new Abu Dhabi office. The project requires us to integrate their technology into their spaces whilst applying their way of working which is inspiring and creative. Pringle Brandon London delivered an exceptional Microsoft office in the UK, while here in the UAE, we are following suit, designing a space that will ensure a truly creative office that is LEED compliant.
Others include Deloittes offices in Dubai and TAQA energy company in Abu Dhabi. This is an exciting project for Pringle Brandon and the client team has provided an exceptional brief with an opportunity for us to create a space with them that will ultimately shape their business. They are an energetic client and desire to create the best working environment for their staff with attention to sustainable materials.
We are also working on some confidential hospitality projects in Qatar and Dubai for local clients that have allowed us unbounded freedom and creativity. Hospitality and residential projects are perhaps the most exciting market for designers in this region.
Research into Andalusia architectural styles for one of the projects has been totally inspiring to us especially incorporating rich patterns and intricate design details, these projects promise to yield exceptionally beautiful results.
What’s the biggest challenge interior designer’s face today?
Challenges are positive opportunities and I thrive on them. From a design perspective, this part of the world doesn’t exhibit its own particular design language.
The original nomadic Bedouin tribes living in these parts did not settle or put down roots until recent history, resulting in limited examples of tangible architectural style that can be referenced. We should be working to develop and refine that style rather than applying meaningless decoration to surfaces.
By examining the history of Arab nations like Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, we can identify many influences which are rich and distinct, then adapt and apply them with cultural sensitivity to our projects.
I would like us to challenge the relentless time pressure project managers put us under, client budgets, inconsistent contractor quality – but for now perhaps we can just focus on overcoming the mind-set “economic downturn” – we are afterall creative beings so we just need to work with this – often it’s during difficult times that the best ideas are born.
What’s your favorite project to date?
At the start of each project I tell our team “this is a fantastic project – the best,” and my brain starts racing with ideas. It has to be the best – nothing we’ve used before can be repeated. When we finally get to hand over the project, when the last 10% has been dealt with and no matter how trying some aspects of the project might have been, we are so immersed that the project is the favourite.
If I had to single out a truly remarkable project, it would be the game farm I did for a very discerning Swiss client, adjacent to the world famous Kruger National Park.
Being in the middle of this remote and pristine game reserve really impacted all of my senses. What an exhilarating landscape to be working in. Guest suites were themed after specific African tribes, honouring the history and customs of the ancient land.
We incorporated much of what we found around us including porcupine quills which we inlaid into floors, we used ostrich eggs for lighting and a wall finish, while Kudu horn served as light supports. The resident tracker discovered perfect lion paw prints in the mud of a nearby riverbed – we made casts of these, then imprinted them into the wet concrete floor, exactly as they had been positioned in the riverbed.
Every piece of furniture had to be custom designed and then handmade by local artists and crafts people, and upholstered in natural locally made coverings. Our SA team was very privileged to have been part of this extraordinary experience.
My husband, a photographer and graphic designer was commissioned to create and produce a coffee table book for our client, telling the story of the creation of the lodge, as a gift for his wife when the project was completed. At the time he needed a single copy to present to her, but the print run minimum was a thousand – today he proudly presents each of his guests with a signed copy.
What advice would you give someone starting out in the profession?
To succeed, designers need to be extremely passionate, you need to live, eat, drink and sleep design, being a designer is a lifestyle, not a job. A good designer needs to be analytical, observant, sensitive and creative – they need to see opportunities where for others ‘none exist.’
Throughout their career they must continually challenge the way of thinking and doing without losing sight of the fundamentals and practicalities of design. Perhaps the most important aspect is to surround ourselves with like minded people who care about what they do. Design surrounds and envelops us and it is so much a part of our lives.
My advice would be to work for a company that loves competition and want to make a difference to peoples’ experiences. Never stop learning.
What’s next for you?
Steven and I want to ensure that Pringle Brandon is recognised as the leading consultancy practice in the MENA region – then India, Singapore and global connections beckon. There’s always the next fantastic large hospitality project on the horizon with a great team, client and budget.