As the announcement of Steven Charlton’s move from managing director at Perkins+Will Dubai to his new position as managing director for Perkins+Will’s London studio, breaks news, Charlton talks to Commercial Interior Design about his time in the UAE.
“After a decade in the UAE, my time here has come to an end and I find myself reflecting on the changes I’ve seen during my tenure, changes both in myself and in the industry. In a phenomenon fairly common among us Dubai expats, I arrived here with the intention to stay only for a few years and, yet, this place became home.
For me that loose, fast and in many ways, the immature industry I entered, back in 2007, seemed a lifetime away from the demanding and sophisticated London market I had just left. Deadlines were seemingly not important, design quality could be described as ‘copy and paste’ and given the prosperity for design & build at that time, all that really seemed to matter was getting the biggest margin possible and getting the team to the next job as quickly as possible (even if it meant cutting corners). Thankfully I saw this as an opportunity to create something special rather than jumping right back on a flight to the UK in those first six months.
The catalyst for this change was the financial crash that reverberated around the world and finally hit the UAE in late November 2008. It was a blessing in disguise for both myself and the design industry in this region.
For me, it opened my eyes to exactly how I would not want to run a business. I vowed to myself never to treat employees as commodities and instead look after them as not only talented and creative individuals but also as a family that requires nurturing, trust and a belief that they would always do their best. For our industry, the crash decimated the idea of profit over quality, of short-termism versus creating a sustainable and considered design solution. Just as importantly it filtered the talent and those who stayed were the exceptional and dynamic individuals in our industry. We created new design studios and fresh design thinking and our bench was filled with the best we had from around the world rather than those who were just here to live the tax-free lifestyle. The people who lived and breathed design rose to the top of the pile and it was wonderful to have been a part of. For me, this really has been the turning point in the growth of the company, from the two designers we started as to over 100 incredibly talented architects and designers we have today.
In creating Perkins+Will’s Dubai office in 2010 (formally Pringle Brandon) quickly building a core team of people who knew each other, had worked together before and had bought into the vision of being the best, I believe we achieved something that has not been done before in the region. In a very short space of time, we were competing with the established names, winning awards and growing the company 60% year-on-year, which as a competitive individual gave me a reason to smile on a daily basis.
I am often asked how we did this, and my answer has always the same: by creating a family ethic within the team where we always focused on being the best at everything we did. Clearly, there were lots of business strategies, corporate tools and great global networks involved, but all global firms also have this at their disposal. What we ultimately did which separated us from our competitors was hire and look after great people who want to do the best for one another as well as themselves. With this came challenges, naturally. Our ethos of being the best was sometimes counterproductive to traditional business strategies as there have been many instances where we have chosen to lose money on a project in order to deliver design excellence rather than risk a lower quality. We do this because not only we are in the business of design and we are only ever as good as our last design, but because we invest in the long term.
As we move into 2018 and beyond I see a heightened maturity in the regional design community where breakout design talent will begin to make waves on the international scene. I expect a heightened sense of self-developing in the UAE’s architectural identity which will eventually be adopted in other design-focused regions.
I am immensely proud to have been part of this industry’s development into a sophisticated ecosystem where our collective design ideas are able to stand up on a global stage. We have done this with local, regional and international talent, creating boutique and powerhouse firms with a pipeline of talent as highlighted in the annual CID Awards for Young Designers and emergence of new and exciting design studios. I will have a keen eye on the region as I take up my new role as managing director of Perkins+Will in London and look forward to bringing some of the dynamism and agility that thrives in this region to Europe.”