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Interview with Helen El Mettouri: Keeping it candid

Interview with Helen El Mettouri: Keeping it candid

Dubai interior design firms, Helen El Mettouri, Interior design, Keane

Marina Mrdjen-Petrovic speaks to Helen El Mettouri, regional director at Keane, about the importance of being recognised not only for award-winning designs but projects that work operationally and commercially. 

Interior design carries the responsibility of creating environments that can welcome, inspire and captivate everyone who walks in. In short, this is an ethos that emanates throughout all of Keane’s designs delivered by its teams in London, Dubai and Singapore.

Recently, we caught up with Helen El Mettouri, its regional director in Dubai, to learn more about the company’s latest hospitality projects, including Aji restaurant on the Palm Jumeirah and Gold on 27 in Burj Al Arab.

“We recently completed Besh Turkish Kitchen in Sheraton Mall of Emirates, Gold on 27 in Burj Al Arab, Aji at Club Vista Mare on the Palm, Pret a Manger, Hudson’s Coffee and Wolfgang Puck at the Changi International Airport in Singapore.

“We are currently working on a great mix of projects including several F&B outlets in the W Dubai – The Palm, Tiger Beer Bar in Changi International Airport and creating the design platform for the world’s first Jelly Belly ice cream stores,” says El Mettouri.

Working with Keane in the UK since 2002 and for more than a decade in the region, we were curious to hear her thoughts on everyday challenges of managing the local team of designers, which is known for its quirky, hip and cool concepts. But, we also asked her to share her views on design and the industry in general.

“We have too much of everyone else’s ideas and concepts in the region, and we genuinely want to start creating concepts here that belong here, start here, and represent here. Every great food and beverage market globally has the range, and that is what we lack. Too many high-end hotel style restaurants and the usual mall-based suspects, and not enough fast and quirky mad things. The spontaneous combustion of a mad F&B idea coming to market almost by accident. That’s what we lack, and it is a culture that allows this, that is a big issue.”

She, however, feels that Dubai provides a great opportunity for those who work hard at it and produce great work. She says: “At Keane we strive to be commercially creative, meaning we want to be recognised not only for an award-winning design but associated with projects that work operationally and commercially.”

El Mettouri didn’t pursue an education in interior design but business and marketing, working the entire way through her education in the food and beverage industry.

“It is all I have ever known, and when joining Keane one year after I graduated, I was exposed to branding, concept development and interior design purely in the F&B arena. It was a huge baptism of fire, and in line with the company’s vision you just keep pushing yourself to be more and do more and get to the next level.”

Although she is not a designer by trade and doesn’t produce designs herself, El Mettouri understands it. From a design point of view, she describes her role in the company as being “an internal client filter”, making sure that all designs that Keane produces are to the brief and within the budget.

“I can articulate a design package and most importantly a design brief. It’s been quite a stint of ‘on the job immersion’ that it now just becomes instinctive, you know what a brief needs to deliver for all stakeholders and who the end user is going to be.

“I know whether our response to a design brief will hit the spot, or not,” she says.

A designer needs all the creativity, technical understanding and software skills, but El Mettouri finds that people skills are essential in becoming good or great.

“Design is a not a commodity. When working in the field of commercial design, a brief has to deliver against commercial and business objectives. It needs to deliver the required experience for the end user, with the optimum operational performance and at the right budget. And the client should be inspired, reassured and enjoy working with you throughout the process,” she says.

Describing her studio as a business with a can-do attitude, El Mettouri and her design team work with their clients from strategy development, market positioning and branding through to interior design.

“Many of us have been in the business for several years. In terms of keeping people motivated, we are a fast-paced company that provides the opportunity and learning to work on a broad range of F&B projects from the very casual to the exclusive. We are small and nimble enough to offer the exposure and progression and large enough to offer the structure and stability,” she says.

The best way to understand F&B design, as El Mettouri puts it, is to have worked in the industry.

“It’s fairly pragmatic. What is the perfect solution for the end user? It is that simple. As designers, it’s our role to get that just right. That doesn’t mean giving the end user what they expect, far from it. It means coming at the design loaded with knowledge of the end user and inspirational ideas that’ll blow them away.”

She feels though that the hospitality market here is saturated and although the interior design plays a part in the success of an outlet, design alone is not enough.

“A concept needs to be properly defined, own its market position, have amazing food and drink, entertainment and deliver a great overall experience,” she says. “This principle works for all F&B, whether it’s a fast casual mall-based outlet or the finest of the fine. And it needs to provide a return on its investment.”

Still, keeping the ideas fresh and giving her team enough time to focus on a creative part of the job is something she never wants to compromise.

Whether it is the unique ceiling design above the bar in Gold on 27 or a colourful mural in Aji painted by a local street artist, creating Instagrammable moments is yet another essential element that her design team is now taking into consideration.

“People, particularly the younger generations, live and showcase their lives through social media. Yes, we need to create the ‘wows’ and memorable feature in a scheme but the ‘Instagrammable moments’ come from how the end-user engages with the concept as a whole – be it through the product, the service or the environment.”

When predicting the main trends in hospitality and F&B interior design, El Mettouri thinks in colours.

“I think colour and optimism are going to be big. Big strong colours that uplift and energise people and the space they’re in. As the market becomes achingly competitive, it is the owners and designers responsibility to create standout and wow.”

With clients often expecting shorter time frames for project delivery, El Mettouri says it creates a pressure but also “a great level of focus and intensity to the design process”.

“Design shouldn’t be too laboured and overcooked,” she says. “Yes, it needs to be considered, and it needs to work, but the process is better with an energy behind it. Then, of course, you have to consider the practicalities of materials and fittings being available.

“We love the energy of a fast-paced project, but this does need to be realistic and considered and to ensure we get feedback from stakeholders at the correct stages in a project.”

On a personal note, being a mother of a three-year-old “hi-energy little boy” and expecting her second one later this year, El Mettouri admits it is an ongoing challenge to find the work-life balance.

“I am fortunate that Aidan Keane, the owner of Keane and our global managing director, Jeremy Scarf, have been supportive throughout my journey into motherhood,” she says.

For her flexibility and trust are the key, and she feels that motherhood has made her more focused than ever.

“I love what I do – being in the studio with the team, being out in the field with clients and I love being a mother,” she says, explaining that she has ditched the notion of finding the optimal work-life balance.

“I’m not sure there is such a thing, you just need to look at it all as a whole and ensure that it is working for you, your family and the business – set your priorities and definitely ditch ‘the mummy guilt’.

“Fortunately it works for us all, so all is well,” El Mettouri concludes.

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