Not many people get to experience the buzz of working in a South American country such as Brazil, but that’s just what Joakim de Rham did when he graduated as an interior architect from the Ecole d’Architecture Athenaeum Lausanne (EAAL), in Switzerland, to go and work with the renowned architect Sig Bergamin in São Paulo.
According to de Rham, it was one of the best experiences of his life because the city was full of so much energy. He said it was a real contrast to his hometown, Lausanne, as it was constantly full of movement where the arts, architecture and interior design blend into a way of life there.
It was here, the Swiss interior architect learned to develop his skills before moving to Dubai to set up Swiss Bureau Interior Design, with his business partner Maher Al Zarooni in 2003.
De Rham came to Dubai to change his creative outlook after working with Siavosh Adeli at Adeli & de Rham Interior Design, where he worked with various UAE clients on commercial and residential projects in Switzerland.
In his new role, the ‘boutique’ agency designs and executes turnkey interiors for offices, restaurants, retail and residential projects.
It has a portfolio of international companies, government entities, consulate and local businesses.
Why did you come to Dubai to set up Swiss Bureau Interior Design?
In 2002, after a prospective trip to Dubai with my father, Hervé de Rham, who is also an architect (his father famously worked on a project for the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), of which HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, wife of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice-president and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, is the president), I felt the same energy here as in Sao Paulo. I was very surprised by the city and its developments; I was ready to move in.
I decided to launch Swiss Bureau Interior Design LLC in 2003 with Al Zarooni and started to work immediately on various projects. I was taking care of the whole process of each contract, and this taught me well on how to work in this particular environment. We started very prudently to begin with, just one project at a time because it was important for me not to make any mistakes.
I wanted to build the business on the quality of our services and use that as the basis for our reputation. So all of my concentration and time was dedicated towards each individual project we were working on.
In your country of origin, it is much easier to win contracts because people know you and work comes via word of mouth, but when you are in a place where nobody knows you, it is a different story and we had to earn the respect we have today.
What does your business specialise in?
In our profession we must be able to design anything from an office, sports shop, pizzeria to a simple display. But, for the last four years, we have been mainly focused on office projects.
I enjoy working in this industry because it reflects how a company wants to be perceived by others be it the employees, partners and clients. The space also needs to be productive in that it contributes to the performance of the staff.
It is not just about creativity and design, it is important to work with the right technologies and material, for example, the acoustics, lighting and energy savings, etc.
It is always interesting to understand the core business of our clients and the image that they want to portray within their interior. Corporate identity is paramount for any company, especially the values it carries.
We also have in our portfolio restaurants, coffee shops, retail and residential projects.
Last year we completed a 1,900m2 project for DED (Department of Economic Development) registration and licensing departments for the Government of Dubai and recently we started to design and produce one single POS display for the same client.
The size of a project doesn’t matter to us. Design is everywhere and each contract we win, no matter on what scale, has to follow the same methodology during its creation and execution.
What are your latest projects?
Lals Group headquarters in Jebel Ali (which owns shopping malls and retail brands in the Middle East), DED (in collaboration with IDEO design firm) in Business Village, the new offices for Mont Blanc and Van Cleef Arpels (Richemont) in Emirates Towers, Dubai, the Swiss bank: Banque Cantonale de Geneve in Park’s Place and the Consulate General of Switzerland.
What is your favourite project to date?
A project that I particularly liked was the Consul General of Switzerland in Dubai. I really appreciated the open mindedness of Gerhard Bruegger, the general consul at the time. He offered me the freedom to design something different from what you would expect from a Consulate.
It was a great collaboration and the result is quite retro, something surprising for the visitor. It is very different from the typical images we have of a Consulate in Switzerland, the visitor is taken aback by the design and I hope he questions the meaning of it when he enters that space.
We are currently working on a project that I feel will be one of my favourites. It is the offices for the fashion magazine, Mojeh, located on the 129th floor of the Burj Khalifa. We have a lot of input from the client and it will completely reflect her personality.
The chance to work and create a design in the Burj Khalifa is a unique experience. For me, the challenge here is not to make too much in the design, but to make the interior more abstract to focus on the real value of this space and the view.
For me, each project is unique. The inspiration, the client, discovery of information during the execution phase when it is taking shape, the multiple-experiences during the timeframe we have, all this makes each project unique, thus each one is my favourite.
Tell me something unique about your company?
Service, service and creativity. We are in a service industry. It’s in my nature to make people around me feel comfortable. So it’s only natural that I want my clients to be happy with our projects.
It is very important the client feels like a partner. In the end, it’s a collaboration on something which both parties need to agree on.
We provide all the necessary efforts to bring the maximum amount of satisfaction to the client with the design and quality of execution. I don’t mind if we have to redesign the same space, that has been approved, three times as long as the client is happy with the design, this is the biggest reward for us. And to get this level of service, I have to thank all my collaborators who are devoted to making it happen in a “Swiss way”, I feel very proud of them.
What major challenges do you face in the industry today, why?
In Dubai, I feel we must present our industry in another way. It is too focused on the business as an industry and not enough as a form of art.
I would rather lose a project because a client has preferred another concept to mine, but if it is a question of budget, then it is quite frustrating because we can always work again on the design and do some value engineering to reach the budget the client wants.
I always tell clients, ‘if you have pre-selected me it is because you like our design, our creativity so to save time for everybody, tell us what is your budget then we will design accordingly’. Just because the budget is smaller does not mean the work is easier. In fact, it is the opposite. We have to be much more creative and spend more time on designing something that will surprise my customer but allow for a low budget.
A project is something expensive and emotional that takes time, that’s why you cannot just choose the cheapest one, it is not a rational decision.
A project is first of all a relationship between two people that have the chance to meet, get to know one another and share ideas and strategies.
It is about sharing a creative process and emotions, it is similar to a human experience. In the end, it is a long adventure and when it is complete the client must be proud of what he has built with the designer.
How do you overcome the challenges between a client/designer?
I feel, one way it is better to communicate to the client what an interior architect does, his artistic and technical responsibilities. He must understand he is in front of somebody who will take care of his interests and must be considered as an equal partner.
For me, the relationship is very important, the good feeling must pass between me and the client, in almost all cases, I keep my clients as a friend after the site is completed and this is a great reward.
What trends do you see in the industry right now?
In regards to style I would say: more colour, simplicity and light. Simplicity in designs with plain surfaces is a symptom of the post-economic crisis.
Otherwise energy saving is the trend of the moment and it will be for a long time. As an interior architect, we have the responsibility to integrate our projects with some energy efficient solutions, but due to the high costs of these technologies, it is not an easy task to carry out.
Did you have to change your business model after the recession?
Yes, since the crisis did affect UAE, I feel there is much more pressure from clients to build projects with less budget.
This will not change our style of design but since there are less margins involved it means we have to work on more projects. For this we have to enter into more tenders than before and thus we have to invest more time to bid for those tenders. I think it is good because we are learning to better manage our time to be more efficient during the creation and proposal phase.
What is the market like today?
If we are talking about Dubai, I am much more confident about the market now than a year ago. I think that today Dubai is really on the map. When I arrived in 2003 until 2009 you just had to go outside to find projects. But, at that time, there was a construction boom. Dubai was such a hot topic in the world that everyone was coming here to make money in some sort of business related to the ‘construction’ industry.
The crisis has, in a way, ‘cleaned’ up the unusual market that it was. Today Dubai is ready. It is attracting companies. Not only to participate on the construction of a project, but by coming here to invest in the business hub it has become with all the advantages it offers. So, I feel it is a much more healthy and sustainable environment now than ever before.
Where do you get the majority of your work from?
My personal network helped me a lot in the beginning. After two to three years I have started to get a lot of work via word of mouth.
But, since we have had to get involved in more tenders I decided to set up a sales department to identify new projects for us.
Our next project will be for Mojeh magazine at the Burj Khalifa. We will start to build on that very soon and we had to find some solutions to drastically reduce the electrical load capacity compared to other projects.
We aim to save 40% on energy savings alone. It demonstrates that ‘low consumption design’ does exist and there are ways in which we can improve on it even more. So, for every new project we build, I want to communicate what percentage of energy consumption we are saving for customers available via our website to compare it to the normal usage per square foot.