Appealing spaces

Leila Abdulrahim talks about the thrill of designing stylish hospitality projectsImage Credit: Supplied

For interior designer Leila Abdulrahim, the thrill of watching an empty space come to life is a joy unparalleled by anything else. A Director at Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA) Dubai, a global hospitality design firm, Abdulra-him has had the opportunity to design numerous projects in the UAE and the region, including the St Regis Abu Dhabi and the Ritz-Canton at Dubai International Financial Centre.

Born in Beirut, Abdulrahim credits her artistic flair to her mixed heritage, coming from a Palestinian-German family, and her travels around the world. She has been in the industry for more than 25 years, the last ten of which were devoted to creating beautiful hotel interiors in the Middle East and North Africa.

In an interview with PW, she talks about her work, passion for art, the regional industry and how the aesthetic sensibilities have changed over time.

What is your personal style and what aesthetic sensibility do you bring to the table?

I believe in understanding the needs of a project. I enjoy finding that solution and then creating an interior space that is customised to the need at hand, regardless of whether it fits my taste. That, coupled with an ability to create well-balanced interiors, is what I bring to the table.

One current example of this is the beautiful resort Saraya Aqaba Al Qasr Hotel in Jordan that we are presently working on. The objective is to create a slick, modem, luxurious five-star hotel, yet with a very comfortable resort feel.

As a team, we went through a lot of back and forth to find the right balance. Here, success is the result of a very eclectic team, an amazing client and the support of an excellent operator. Teamwork is key.

In the past 25 years, how has the industry evolved in the region?

As it did anywhere else at one point or another, interior design went from being a craft or a trade, to a legitimate profession. At the same time, the client is increasingly exposed to various interiors around the world, and with that comes more involvement and greater expectations.

I remember just 12 years ago needing to convince a client that proper drawings were needed and that a sketch on a napkin would not do. What is amazing here in Dubai is how quickly this awareness occurred, and how accepting the clients have become.

How is the Middle Eastern client different from those from other parts of the world?

The standard of living and the standard of education of the Middle Eastern clients I have worked with is very high. This quality of life has allowed these clients to travel and be exposed and see a wide variety of hotels and apartments.

Local clients have a great appreciation for luxury and will often not limit spending when justified. In the past Middle East clients preferred more ornate and elaborate designs. Today they appreciate the "less is more" philosophy, and find satisfaction in understated luxurious minimalism.

What are the key trends in the design industry?

Clients are generally still looking for clean, timeless hotel interiors that have a sense of place. However, there is an increased focus on creating more unique solutions for the customer's experience. Every moment is being challenged and re-thought, from check-in to entering a guest room, to what a dining experience should be.

Technology is also playing an important role in improving the guest experience, with tablets increasingly being used for check-in and check-out, restaurant reservations, in-room dining orders and shopping, all at the touch of a button.

In the UAE and the wider Middle East, we are also witnessing an increasing demand for renovation projects and completion of projects that were put on hold a few years ago. The renovations help older properties compete with newer hotels that offer modern amenities and features.

One of HBA's most recent renovation projects is the refurbishment of the Kemp-inski Hotel Mall of the Emirates lobby. With several new properties emerging nearby, the client ensured the continued success of this well-known hotel by deciding to give it a fresh yet authentic and timeless look.

Another emerging trend is incorporating artworks into the design of a hotel, with some properties featuring entire collections. Works of art, especially pieces by home-grown artists, help immerse travellers in the local culture, while also giving back to the community.

In the renovation of the Kempinski Hotel, we incorporated the works of Emirati artist Mohammed Al Qassab into the recently remodelled lobby. In a Fairmont Hotel being designed by HBA Dubai in Lagos, the owners have an extensive art collection, and the overall appearance of the hotel is being designed to complement the pieces.

All of this makes this a very exciting time to be an interior designer, particularly in this region.

Hotels in the region are often associated with opulence, especially with ones such as the Emirates Palace and Burl Al Arab. How has this changed?

Properties such as the ones you mention made quite an "entrance" when they were created, and still stand tall today. Though high-luxury hotel interiors are still very much appreciated in our region, the desire for more subdued and understated luxury has been equally sought after.

Also, following an initial supply of predominantly five-star hotels, there is now the increased need for four-and three-star property.

Describe briefly some of your key ongoing projects and what kind of work you are doing with them?

We have projects ranging from Jumeirah Hotels at the stunning Saraya Aqaba resort in Jordan, to the fabulous Harbor Point Fairmont Hotel and Residences in Lagos.

We are also working on some great projects in Dubai, including a luxury residential tower, The 118 Downtown, where we actually designed the interior layout before the architect created the envelope of the interior spaces.

When the client first came to me with this request, I wasn't sure about the approach. This client has also been very keen on the use of high-quality materials and fittings and insisted on no compromises. The result is a luxurious residential interior that is customised yet flexible, and that truly caters to the needs of the target client.

We have also been refurbishing the Al Manzil Hotel and have enjoyed creating a beautiful blend of modern and Islamic elements.

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Source: Sanaya Pavri, Features Writer


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