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Dubai is peppered with what seems like a gazillion cafés, bars and restaurants, satisfying all tastes. However, it isn’t just the culinary side but also the ambience that attracts a loyal customer base — standing out from the crowd is crucial for success. Such is the philosophy of Creneau International — Dubai, the firm behind the popular Belgian Café concept. PW caught up with Dirk Van de Haar, the firm’s director, to talk about design and crazy ideas.
Creneau has an interesting philosophy whereby it applies snippets of wisdom to its design and embraces chaos, dares to make mistakes and be different. Howdo these influence your designs?
Our logo, the flying monkeys, really sums it all up. We reach for the stars, letting crazy ideas flow and communicating them to our clients. This gives us a lot of freedom. In Europe this type of an approach is often preferred.
Your concepts, such as Leopold’s of London, Belgian Café or Ultra Brasserie, don’t necessarily look crazy, but rather rustic, elegant or colourful.
Well, you could replace crazy with antiordinary. We adapt our concepts to the situation.
Take, for instance, the Ultra Brasserie at Emaar Square. It isn’t a calm design because our guests are office employees and offices tend to be boring places with neon lights. So, they would want something lively during their break. That’s why we developed a restaurant with very colourful walls and furniture, integrating artistic elements, so people feel refreshed and go back to their office energised.
At the Ritz-Carlton DIFC we designed Cake, a patisserie and café, making sure it was distinctly high-class to reflect the Ritz-Carlton [brand], and at the same time bringing a local artistic element to it. That’s how we try to be as creative as possible.
Some of your concepts, such as the Belgian Café, are global. Do you have to always adapt them to the location?
No, not always. For example with Maison Mathis, we didn’t need to adapt the design, but having the same food offering simply didn’t work globally. For Belgian Café we kept the brand as it is back home and it worked. The concept is rustic. The fire regulations here are very strong so you have to treat the wood right. We use wood from our own factory in Indonesia to build all the Belgian Cafés. We will now use it for full fit-out of hotels as well.
You also design hotel lobbies. How do you manage to adapt to trends and brand standards, yet be unique?
You can’t play too much with strict brand standards, yet you need to follow the trends. We have helped hotels stay ahead of the competition in terms of trends over the years.
However, reinventing the wheel is difficult; you can’t change every design completely, but you can integrate innovative elements, making them special to that hotel. We brainstorm with our teams here and in Belgium to come up with creative ideas.
Which hotels are you currently working on and how are you making the design unique?
We work with the Rezidor Hotel Group worldwide, as our headquarters are close together in Belgium. We are designing The Radisson in Kampala, Uganda, where we tried to infuse the local heritage as much as possible into the design.
We used the shapes of traditional houses in certain elements and painted the rooms and corridors in the skin colour of the impala. We try to be different by bringing a local feel into our designs with a modern twist.
What about the latest trend of having open lobbies and plenty of technology in some hotels?
My philosophy is that there is a reason why it is called hospitality — it means service. A person should be welcoming you at the reception. If we go too far with technology, we move away from why hotels were built in the first place. Business travellers, of course, prefer to check in via technology.
You can do a lot of cool things with technology in rooms, but lobbies, checkin counters and restaurants should be as traditional as possible. The best lobby in Dubai is at Emirates Towers. Open space is always good, but again, business is different from leisure.
How easy is it to convince clients to go with unusual design ideas?
We show prospective clients in Dubai the elements we have already completed and how much time and money we spent on them. We like to work with existing clients expanding their portfolio. If you become too big your personalised service will be diluted and that is one of our strengths.
It’s also important to make sure that what the designer thinks is beautiful gels with the operational side. We have to listen to clients and change elements, but if a certain element has to be in the design you have to convince them about it.
I guess this integration comes easily to you as your company also operates its own restaurant.
Yes. Although Creneau is a pure design firm, in 2011 we decided to invest in restaurants as the rents were good at that point. Our own operations include the Belgian Café at Souk Madinat and in Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) and Maison Mathis in RAK, Arabian Ranches and Emirates Towers, and Cargo. In Abu Dhabi we franchised the Yas Island and Novotel Belgian Cafés because it would be very difficult to control our operations. We do have more design clients in Abu Dhabi, including Rotana and Leopold’s of London.
You mentioned how rents influence investments. Do you advise your clients in this aspect?
Yes, we discuss the right location and rents. As investors we believe there must be a correction. The prices are going through the roof at Dh450-Dh500 per square foot. If you have 10,000 sq ft, that is Dh5 million a year in rent for a restaurant. At The Beach, I would pay Dh750 a sq ft, but not out in the desert. It is about the location. Souk Madinat also has high rents but they make sense.
Can you tell us about your future projects?
We finished the design for the French brasserie Chez Jacques at Crowne Plaza and an all-day dining restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton DIFC, where we already did the Café Belge and No 5 Lounge & Bar. At The Address Dubai Marina we’re doing an officerestaurant conversion, and designing a full lobby/lounge area for Four Points Sheraton Bur Dubai, where we already did the Picante.
On The Palm we did the initial design for Waldorf Astoria, which later changed, and are talking to Nakheel about some restaurant concepts.
Will you move to the Dubai Design District (D3) and expand your in-house design academy?
Of course we would consider moving there. The design academy normally takes in interns in Belgium, and we took in only one internal graphic designer, as our team of senior designers is smaller. You need to give interns the guidance they require to grow in your company and recommend you to others, so you have to invest time.
At the moment we are not ready to set up an academy outside our company, but if there is interest in a joint venture between three or four design companies to find talent, we would be willing to assist.
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Source: Nicole Walter, Special to PW