Interior Designer of the Year: Interview with Diane Thorsen, Perkins + Will

As design director of Perkins + Will, one of the region’s most successful design firms, Diane Thorsen has a lot on her plate and she seems to be managing it all quite effortlessly. Since realising the power of art as a child, it seems that Thorsen’s passion for creation is stronger than any clout of stress.

“I knew I wanted to be a designer from when I got my first set of colouring pencils,” says Thorsen. “So that was one of the best gifts I have ever received—this box of all these beautiful pencils in different colours that you could create amazing things with.

It was this ability to translate what you imagined and what you dreamt, and it was this concept to imagine something that doesn’t exist until you think it and suddenly it becomes. That for me was the most extraordinary experience.”

As a young child, Thorsen found inspiration in her family. According to the South African designer, one her aunts was an established artist and took to expressing her eccentric character via nonconventional wardrobe choices. Observing her aunt helped Thorsen come to certain conclusions about the world that would ultimately lay down the foundation of the designer’s outlook toward not only design but life itself.

She says: “When you meet someone who is free-thinking and has the ability to just express themselves visually, because we are all visual, I think that’s an inspiration. That’s how I came to decide that this is what I wanted to do.”

For Diane, design is all about expressing your personality and according to her, everything around us is designed, regardless of whether it’s good or bad.

Before moving across borders, the designer studied architecture, interior architecture and fine arts in South Africa. Thorsen also spent a brief period of time studying with an Italian artist whose saying: “Art is not about whether you can draw or not, but about how you see things,” has stuck with the designer and reinforced her focus on conceptualising and connecting with the people around her.

Thorsen explains: “Everything is about how you see things and interpret them and I think that’s just a way of looking at life in general. I think design is more about understanding what a brief is and what the client’s requirements are, and design is also about understanding the spirit of something.

“Design is really meaningful when it has a really, deeply-considered thought process. It’s like when you write—you choose your words very carefully. Design is the same, you’ll chose to consider everything from a practicality point of view and see what it’s contributing—is it meaningful? That way, you’ll have something extraordinary.”

Though Thorsen started working in Dubai nearly 12 years ago with her South-African based firm Design Effects, it wasn’t until 2010 that she joined Perkins + Will as design director and began building its regional team.

According to the designer, in three years she and Perkins + Will principal managing director Steven Charlton have managed to grow the firm’s staff of three to 48, which stands as a marker of the company’s immense success.

“I’ve had people who worked with me for many, many years and they’re still in the business which is extraordinary, because design is about the people you work with and it’s not just about an individual. Design is never the product of that single thought process, it’s always a team of people, creative thinkers who work together and that’s when you get outstanding results,” Thorsen says.

And according to Thorsen, when a group of people work together they need to buy into the same ethos in order to do well and deliver great projects. At Perkins + Will, a strong focus is placed on design excellence as well as sustainability.

She adds: “I feel privileged to work with my team. You can create amazing things when you’re all together in the same thought process. We’re not trying to create a culture of stars, we actually are looking to just create beautiful work and I think that makes a huge difference.”

As design director, Thorsen has a hand in every project delivered by Perkins + Will. She explains that in her position, it’s her responsibility to ensure that Perkins + Will’s key elements of design excellence and sustainability are consistently maintained in each project.

From Johnson & Johsnon’s office in Dubai’s Healthcare City to Legatum’s award-winning headquarters, Thorsen’s style and design tastes seem to differ heavily from one project to the next, which also reflects Perkins + Will’s ability to deliver a wide variety of designs. According to the designer, each project is different form the next as they not only are meant to reflect the people using them on a daily basis but they should also symbolise the corporate identity of the inhabiting company.

“I think when you’re designing a space you have to think very carefully about the functionality and all the designs need to represent who that client is. Designing an interior is not just about designing a space where people occupy, but it should also reflect what that company stands for. So each project should be different and each is a piece of art in itself.

“Johnson & Johnson is one example, but one of my favourite projects is the Legatum project…working with that client was an absolute joy from beginning to end and I just really loved that process because they are so discerning and they really respect quality. That design has far more meaning than just how it appears on the outside. It’s about how you use a space, how a door handle feels, how leather actually looks and the touch of it. So when you work with a client like that it’s an absolute pleasure.”

While Legatum’s interior design won the CID Awards 2013 office category, 2014’s awards seemed to be a bigger show of recognition for the company’s hard work and fantastic output during the past 12 months. This year, Perkins + Will not only took home the office category again for its work on BP Dubai, but it also won Young Interior Designer of Year for Laila Al Yousef and Interior Designer of the Year for Thorsen.

And while the firm seems to be hot on the wheels of success, it doesn’t look like it plans on slowing down in the near future. According to Thorsen, the region’s design market is experiencing a huge drive toward hospitality with an “enormous crossover between hospitality design, corporate design and residential design.”

Thorsen adds: “All spaces do a similar thing, because businesses are becoming more hospitality driven in the way that they greet and meet people and also in terms of where people work…We connect more through social interaction than we do through sitting at a desk and doing individually-based knowledge work.”

At the moment, Perkins + Will is looking at a number of private residences for upcoming projects, which Thorsen is thrilled about. For the designer, working on private projects allows her to observe the interrelations of a family and witness how they function together in a space. The firm has also taken on a number of hotels throughout the region.

On an individual level, Thorsen seems intent on staying in Dubai for a long time. As she refers to the region as a “melting pot of architectural and cultural styles”. While she has a bucket list of places to visit, living and working here appears to constantly replenish the designer’s energy to create and contribute to the making of great spaces.

Thorsen concludes: “I always say as designers we need to be like psychologists because we need to be able to read between the lines, and I think that’s possibly one of the things that’s fundamental about being a designer. You need to be able to hear the unspoken, because sometimes we have to capture the essence of a design even if it can’t be communicated verbally. I find a line can be so many things and there’s so much expression in that, and I love that about art and design.”

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