Marina Mrdjen-Petrovic talks to Kevin McLachlan, head of interior design at GAJ, about managing creativity, global projects and building a team.
Kevin McLachlan has a worldwide reputation for restaurant, hotel and leisure interiors, but his first passion was in another area of design – cars. The head of interior design and partner at Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ) never got to design automobiles, but his childhood dream drove him from one design course to another, building up his knowledge in product and graphic design and eventually gaining his degree in interior design at the renowned Glasgow School of Art.
Today, with more than 25 years experience and more than 240 projects under his belt, McLachlan is responsible for iconic designs around the world from Glasgow’s Groucho Club Hotel to Ibiza’s Café Mambo and major food and beverage outlets in Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah.
He joined GAJ, one of the largest and longest-established architectural and design practices in the UAE, in 2012 as head of interior design with the intention of forming “a tribe of designers” that would accompany him on a journey to push back the boundaries. That tribe is now 42 strong comprising 20 different nationalities.
“We have designers from Spain, Portugal, Finland, Argentina, Philippines, Mexico, Canada, South Africa, Australia, Brazil… Sometimes it is very challenging because they don’t speak the same language, which means they also speak different design languages,” says McLachlan. “If you are British, you have a certain way of reflection and humour, whereas Dutch designers have a lot of quirkiness, which can’t always be implemented in our designs. They also come from different educational backgrounds and schools that taught them design differently. They find it frustrating sometimes, but I find it interesting and this multiculturalism really adds value to the whole team.”
The GAJ portfolio of work is extensive with a wide range of built and ongoing projects across the region, including Fairmont Ajman, Al Bait in Sharjah, Chedi Khorfakkan in Sharjah, Cranleigh Abu Dhabi, Jewel of the Creek in Dubai, Ritz-Carlton Marrakech, Millennium Hotel, Muscat and the Raffles hotel in Dubai.
“We’ve recently established a Furniture, fixtures and equipment department, led by Hilda Impey and bespoke lighting design headed by Regina Santos. We now have a great project management team.
Before, they were told what to do, but my idea of managing people is to guide them and give them the freedom to create,” says McLachlan, adding that he is still involved in every individual design.
“Knowing about everything that is going on in the office is sometimes very challenging, but it is quite difficult to let go. I generally set the direction of the design and most recently I was involved in redesigning of the Bab Al Yam restaurant in Burj Al Arab. The interiors are quite contemporary and sophisticated with lots of whites, wood and beautiful marble with metal inlays.”
Throughout its 25 year history, GAJ has created some of the UAE iconic buildings, such as Dubai Creek Golf Club, Bab Al Shams and the Arabian Court Residence and Spa at The One and Only Royal Mirage, Dubai. McLachlan says that design can be deeply rooted in the local vernacular, but still be contemporary. Most recently, his team designed Al Bait hotel in Sharjah, offering modern interiors within a traditional Arabic souk.
“Some may call it Disneyland, but we create experiences. In the past, we’ve created a lot of Arabic architecture and designs, but it doesn’t stop us from doing very contemporary projects. Brian Johnson, founder of GAJ, has a very holistic view and approach, we are a service to deliver client’s needs.
“One of the reasons people travel to Dubai is to see the Royal Mirage. They don’t come just for the Burj Khalifa, but also for the sense of place. Life is colourful all around the globe and we focus on the storytelling, representing in that local sensibilities.”
Dubai Creek is set to be transformed and GAJ has been appointed as design consultants for the Jewel of the Creek project, which comprises hotel, food and beverage outlets and residential buildings.
“This project pays tribute to the historic importance of the Creek and local heritage. We have done a completely different design for more than a dozen restaurants, which will be located within a destination food and beverage mall on the Creek side. We are currently designing a three-star hotel, a four-star hotel, and a non-alcoholic one, which are targeting different types of guests,” says McLachlan.
For its work on JA Manafaru Resort Maldives, GAJ won last year’s CID award for International Project of the Year.
McLachlan says: “One of most fundamental design directives was to change the philosophy of the maintenance of the island since the buildings were continually painted, sometimes twice a year. We proposed to change the colour and finishes for the whole resort from orange stained timber to natural oiled grey accepting the beauty and habitat of the island, which resulted in maintenance reduced to less than once a year.”
With projects in Marrakesh and the Maldives and the potential to design a 900-bed hotel in London and a resort in Seychelles, McLachlan says GAJ is now focussing on building a global design practice.
“The Middle East is a global leader in the hospitality design industry and as designers we have the experience and the knowledge now to deliver designs that go above and beyond around the globe.
“With technology advancements, we can work worldwide from our Dubai office, but we also put people on the ground. We find that it is actually easier dealing with clients to the west of this region since there is a time difference, so by the time they wake up, we’ve made all the changes to design.”
Commenting on current design challenges, McLachlan says: “The speed of delivery is the biggest challenge. To do a good job in a short time frame is near impossible. Now customers expect things to be done even faster, and technology helps to maintain some balance. We do at least 10 times the amount of work that we would normally do in Europe.”
Following the global economic downturn, he adds that the influx of global practices is challenging local businesses and that GAJ’s ID department is now competing with long-established global practices.
“I would say that we have a good mix of design practices and friendly competition,” says McLachlan.
In a world where copycat imitations are becoming more and more acceptable, McLachlan prides himself on originality in design.
He says: “How do you handle the fact that now everything is accessible? Knowledge is now completely available in the palm of your hand. Somebody is doing a design in California and someone else can just copy it and put it in this region. How do you stop that and should we stop it? This won’t change so we need to rethink how we do things and our approach.
“It does make a lot of sense to copy and improve a design process because that allows us to be more efficient, but copying ideas is actually dreadful. I always tell my designers: ‘this is your design, your opportunity to express an idea’.