When Ellen Bishop came to Dubai nearly 10 years ago she stepped off the plane, having left the freezing dark weather in Norway, to look for challenging interior design projects, which she heard were all the rage in the Middle East.
Her brother, who works in finance, played a big part in her decision to move to the UAE because he was and still is established here.
It was after Bishop visited him for Christmas in 2002 that she returned to Norway, sold everything she owned and moved back to the country, all within a period of nine days.
As a graduate of interior design at IDS (Technical Institute for Interior Design) in Oslo, she spent time during her studies designing kitchens for the Scandinavian furniture chain IKEA .
She admits she found her passion late in life, after taking a Bachelors degree in business development and marketing. But has since found both degrees to be useful and got her first job in the region at Presotto Middle East (an Italian furniture manufacturer) in the interior design division.
At that time, Presotto was still growing, with only five to six employees so Bishop was thrown into a challenging environment, which proved to be a solid learning curve, working on everything from sales, project management, site coordination to marketing and finance.
She remembers taking her toothbrush to work and sleeping overnight in the showroom and credits her mentor Rami Kadri, managing partner, Presotto, for honing her skills. It was this that gave her the incentive to set up her own firm and after almost three years moved on to pastures new.
Tell us how you set up Bishop Design Associates?
In 2005, I was ambitious to start my own company and luckily I found three other partners to open a design studio with me. I still felt that my expertise was limited in some ways and suggested to my partners that we bring a consultant into the team who had been working in the Middle East for at least 10 years and who had solid experience.
I googled ‘best interior designer Dubai’ and Paul Bishop popped up. We met and he started consulting for us three times a week to help build up the team, expand the library, gave assistance and guidance on some of our first projects.
We naturally went head to head in the beginning as we both have strong characters but strangely enough everyone around us thought there was a growing attraction between us. It wasn’t obvious to us at the time
because we are both stubborn and would not admit to it.
I can still remember saying ‘no way, he is amazing at what he does but rude and impolite’. Eventually though we had to admit there was a connection and we married in 2006.
At this time, Paul had just started Bishop Design Associates and had three to four staff working for him out of a small office in AMBB’s joinery factory in Al Quoz. We felt strongly that we should build a future together both professionally and on a personal level so I moved over to join him.
We started our company focusing on three key principles; small and manageable, low overheads and no third partner with financial support. As we had both had our fair share of challenges in the Middle East and also knowing how a small mistake can ruin everything you have spent years building up we luckily agreed on our strategies and future ambitions. In addition to this, Paul and I focus on different roles in the company, which makes it easier not to go head to head.
By 2007 -2008 we had about 20 employees and 40 projects ongoing at any time so you could say that there was a rapid growth and Bishop Design Associates became a well known firm in the media and all around the Middle East.
In 2007, we also won our first award in the prestigious ‘Commercial Interior Design Awards’ for best Retail Design, in 2008, for best Residential and Retail design and in 2009 we were awarded ‘Interior Firm of the Year’. In 2010, we won best ‘Leisure and Entertainment’ for one of our restaurants in Oman.
What challenges do you see in the industry for commercial interior designers in the Middle East? How do you overcome them?
The biggest challenge is competition with international firms: I find that locally based interior design companies are not recognised enough internationally, and it seems like we are not trusted to compete on an international level or to tender for bigger international projects.
There is a misconception that locally based designers are not up to the mark and therefore many clients sign up with larger international firms. However, what they do not realise is that the service is often less personal, design does not always match local requirements (for example with religion), there are challenging time differences and different weekends, which makes the design process complicated and there is a lack of understanding for use of materials in this climate which often causes problems.
Quite often, we are approached by clients who were previously engaged with larger international firms who have come to us because projects have not been prioritised and they have not been receiving the level of service they were expecting or promised.
Paul and I are lucky in many ways and one of them is that we have repetitive clients who are loyal to our firm and trust our capabilities.
We try to overcome challenges by convincing clients who have previously worked with international firms to give us a shot on, to begin with, a smaller project to have them discover the advantages of working with us and not to mention a lower cost for design fee – this has also been how we have established our clientbase over the years to the one we have today.
We also try to get publicity in magazines like Frame and Metropolis Magazine New York. Luckily, we have been appointed by big international names like ‘Fauchon Paris’ to design all their venues in the Middle East. These are our target clients, as beside from of course getting repeat business, it puts us on the map internationally.
We have also designed for other big international clients like Aston Martin, Franck Muller, The Fairmont Group, Caramel and Research in Motion (Blackberry).
How did the economic crisis affect your business?
The economic crisis is still ruling this country and it will continue to be a challenge for the future.
Clients are also now approaching contractors directly to cut costs with an outcome that is rarely successful.
Most people keep saying that ‘things are picking up and it is going to get back to the way it was’.
Interior design companies all over the Middle East are again increasing their overheads and comfort level just because we have seen a bit of an increase in projects going ahead. We believe that it is getting better but the situation is far from stabilised.
The way we deal with this is first of all realising that we need to learn lessons from what happened and play it safe and be careful about financial planning in the future.
I believe the smaller firms have proved that they can weather the storm probably due to a more manageable operational cost and less time spent on strategising their future plans and awaiting approvals from the hierarchy of a larger firm before action is taken.
We feel that most boutique practices have been more successful in taking the correct measures and appropriate actions faster to sustain themselves through the recession. Paul and I overcame and are still overcoming this challenge by making decisions fast, and even more importantly, taking action before it is too late.
What value do customers place on interior design in this region?
There is still ignorance in the Middle East in terms of the value of having a competent interior designer onboard and accepting the fact that it is crucial to successful projects in terms of budget, future business for the owner as a result of the way the venue is planned/designed, the branding, look and feel etc. People view interior design as a luxury service as opposed to a necessity and many projects suffer because of this terrible misconception.
This challenge is one of the worst to fight so the only reasonable thing to do is that when we meet a new client for the first time we evaluate if he or she understands the processes of what we do and if she or he can appreciate the necessity of our services. If not, there is no reason for us to take on the project.
Both clients and interior designers suffer from a lack of trust and confidence. Even though a client pays an interior designer to take on a project they sometimes cannot help themselves and interfere by changing the design again and again.
Of course, some changes will always happen as we appreciate a client’s input but sometimes they can ‘take over the project’ and this, unfortunately, rarely comes out with a successful result. Often a client will realise later that the first design was the better option but often it is too late.
We try to overcome this challenge by being 100% confident in our selections and knowing the products/items we specify and by educating ourselves in every aspect of our field – that way we are able to explain and educate our client with reasons as to why we have chosen a specific design direction and/or items.
Most Clients appreciate and respect our choices as they are being educated throughout the design process and as a result of this their confidence in us will grow.
How important is it to educate clients about interior design?
Often interior designers are brought on board in a project last even though we should be appointed from the very beginning to work with the architects. This way clients will get a better overall look and feel, MEP can be planned from the beginning, the space planning will be more functional, etc.
This will save time and money for all parties, but especially beneficial for the client. Another challenge is that in the hotel industry, clients sometimes appoint an interior designer even though it has not been finalised with the operator.
This is a total waste of time as the operator will always have different requirements and the hotel has to be totally redesigned.
The way to overcome this is to create awareness. We also have to educate people, if it is not already too late, in the process of a project.
Tell us about the difficulties you face concerning a lack of communication between interior designers and contractors?
Unfortunately, interior designers and contractors do not always see eye to eye and a project suffers. There could be many reasons for this, such as not enough or accurate information in the designers drawing package, lack of communication and cooperation throughout the execution process, mock-ups not produced for approvals, delays and frustration, variation in cost from contractors etc.
As Paul and I have been here for many years we have luckily found good contractors who understand our design and expectations and the process runs smoothly. It is crucial for any interior design firm to find partners in the market who can translate and build their design – otherwise the design intent and final result will suffer again and again.
What is your favourite project to date and why?
Over the last two to three years, The Fairmont Dubai has undergone a total refurbishment headed up by the management of the hotel. It has invested in the total renovation of Bridges Lobby Bar, Spectrum On One, Cin Cin, The Exchange Grill, all 394 guest rooms and suites and the three Imperial Suites.
Bishop Design Associates has been the appointed design partner throughout the renovation process and were are also the designers of the original concepts of Cin Cin, Café Sushi and Exchange Grill in 2005-2006.
As we have been working on this project for such a long period of time, it has been one of my favourites, particularly Spectrum On One, which is the final piece of the puzzle.
In addition, it is one of the most challenging projects I have dealt with because of the open space yet dealing with five different looks and cultures.
The restaurant’s main focus is to represent various international cuisines including Chinese & Thai, Japanese, European, Indian and Arabic. We felt that the previous design was not only a little bit out of date, but did not express the signature and beauty of the different countries and their cuisine.
We chose to focus on fabrics, staining of wood, wallpaper, lighting and various wall claddings to give more relevance to the culture represented in the different areas.
As a Five-Star restaurant we also felt it was important to offer the guests exclusive private dining rooms as an option, so we upgraded the selected areas to accommodate smaller gatherings and parties.
What’s next for you?
Paul and I are staying positive to the changes that are happening in the market and we are currently focusing on the Middle East as a region and not only obtaining projects in Dubai. We have also recently been lucky enough to meet some interesting clients with projects in India, Lebanon, UK and Iran, as we look to expand internationally.
Bishop Design Associates is also going through a rebranding and in that context we are opening our own showroom showcasing an eclectic mix of our own designed furniture branded with our signature with carefully selected items sourced from different parts of the world.
These items will be exclusive only to the clients who we design projects for. Our objective is to design one off pieces that are unique to our clients. We have extensive experience in furniture design in addition to our interior design background and we feel it is time to put that talent in full use. Summer and Ramadan is more quiet than usual so it gives us time to sit down and think about our future plans and strategies.
We are also excited about expanding our portfolio with new projects and continue to dedicate ourselves to doing something that we love.
Bishop Design Associates has one of the most varied portfolio of projects you can find in Dubai from a Sikh Temple to nightclubs, an indoor football centre to an art gallery, which is what makes every day a challenge.
We are often pushed outside our comfort zone, which we believe is important for our individual and