Happiness is the key to success

From humble beginnings working in her grandmother’s studio in Spain, Isabel Pintado went on to join GAJ, winning CID’s Interior Design Firm of the Year 2011

Isabel Pintado, associate partner, GAJ, claims her introduction to interiors came through her paternal grandmother who had a small decorating shop where she sold furniture and undertook projects.
From the age of 13, she started working weekends at her shop/studio, and this is where she developed a passion for design.

“I loved putting schemes together with her help and seeing them come to life,” she said. “Interior design and decoration fascinated me and drove my mother insane as I changed my room every couple of months. You could say that I started decorating and then after university moved on to designing.”

At the time, Pintado’s options in Spain were limited to studying architecture or interior decoration so she moved to the UK where she first took a foundation course in art and design in Brighton followed by a degree in interior architecture at the University of Wales.

In the last year of her studies, she started working part-time for architect, Patrick Williams on the redesign of Aberystwyth University Student Union in Wales.

“After completing this project, the studio I set up with my husband and a colleague from university took off and we spent many years designing restaurants, private villas, pharmacies, clinics and stands for fairs. A superb learning curve where we supported each other and undertook tasks we thought we would never do,” she said.

Pintado moved to Dubai 11 years ago, looking for a change of scene and new sources of inspiration from the Middle East.

She was introduced to Brian Johnson, through a friend, and after working on a couple of projects on a freelance basis, he invited her to join GAJ (formerly Godwin Austin Johnson).

“With Brian’s support and trust in my abilities, the interior design team grew from just me to a team that reached 24 at our peak. Our staff have been with us for many years, some have moved on to other countries, some we sadly had to let go through the recession but the overall feeling is of a team that supports each other and craves to achieve the best possible work,” she said.

Over the last six months, many of the projects GAJ had on hold during the recession have come back to life, together with requests for new work.

The team is currently working on a series of hotels; Millenium in Muscat, a 4 star hotel at The Wave, Muscat, a series of private villas in Jeddah, Abu Dhabi and Muscat. A golf club house in Scotland, and an apartment in Paris.

It is also completing a series of projects in Sharm El Sheikh, in Egypt, for Citystars urban development, from a 5 star hotel and apartment blocks to a nightclub.

“The extension to Palm Tree court, at the Jebel Ali Hotel has restarted on-site and we look forward to many of our other projects to reach site as to allow us to transform all our ideas and hard work into the finished project,” said Pintado.

“I see a year full of promises, new projects, new team members and developing the relationships with our current and new clients. A year that I am hoping will bring back the full potential of the team.”

For Pintado, the main challenges over the past three years have been getting projects to site. She said many of the ideas clients have had, and commissioned to GAJ to translate into designs, failed due to a lack of funding.

“Managing client’s expectations for the budgets, that have over the last couple of years been allocated to projects, has not been an easy task. Value engineering is a word that I have come to detest as design intents have been hard to maintain and sometimes lost.

I believe this point could and can be resolved through the involvement of qualified and experienced quantity surveyors involved at each stage, it would eliminate unnecessary abortive work and it would allow projects to run in a smoother manner,” she added.

“Good project managers, a key component to the consultant’s team, are not always considered necessary here and I believe all medium to large scale projects need them.”

For the first year after the financial crisis GAJ faired well in the industry as the majority of its projects were in North Africa, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt and they were less affected by the global downturn.

It was in the spring, the company found hardship due to the unrest in these countries and many projects came to a standstill and it had to let go of a few members of staff.

“For better or worse, the crisis has acted as a purge of companies and I believe this has left the region with a better albeit smaller pool of design firms,” she said.

“Refurbishments and upgrades of existing buildings have picked up over the last year and I see these as a promising source of work. Colleagues that specialise in office fit-outs have seen a very good year and I see enormous potential in the UAE and the region.

“From a design point of view, I would like to see it progress into an authentic interpretation of the region. An interpretation that avoids pastiche copies; where the history, the essence of the location of the project is distilled and applied in a creative way. I have always believed a project is as good as the client and luckily we have been blessed with them.”

Pintado said her advice to someone starting out in the profession is; expect to work hard, listen to their senior designers and ask as many questions as they need to get things right. Really listen to what the client says and doesn’t say and always remember that they are the client and the end result must meet their brief. Egos are a dangerous thing in interior design and knowledge comes from experience and not from getting it right first time round,” she said.

“I would suggest seeking work in a firm whose design philosophy meets their own, where looking at the work they produce makes them want to discover more about themselves and where, once they have managed to get some work experience, they feel they would be happy. We all spend many hours at the office, more than at home and you need to be happy and be supported to produce good design.

“Above all, have enthusiasm for what you do, try not to become overtly complacent with your designs and study what other designers are doing and their work constantly.”

GAJ is currently focusing on creating good quality design and running a team that feels proud of what they produce. Pintado said she wants to work in an environment where the design team can focus on ‘creating unique spaces, spaces that make people stop and look around, spaces that evoke emotions and achieve the client’s brief’.

“An environment that leads to creativity and happiness in the people around me. Where will I be? You never know, life is full of surprises,” she said.

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