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Learning by heart

CID catches up with the ever-colourful Isabelle Miaja

A master bedroom in the Trump Tower, India.
A master bedroom in the Trump Tower, India.
The lobby of the Trump Tower, India.
The lobby of the Trump Tower, India.
A Sofitel Prestige Suite bedroom.
A Sofitel Prestige Suite bedroom.
A modern Indian restaurant by MDG.
A modern Indian restaurant by MDG.
A luxurious bathroom for Sofitel.
A luxurious bathroom for Sofitel.

CID catches up with the ever-colourful Isabelle Miaja

Isabelle Miaja’s enthusiasm is infectious. Whether she’s talking about her latest project in India, the standard of design in Dubai or the daily challenges of running a medium-sized business, she is brimming with humour, mixed metaphors and eyebrow-raising anecdotes. She is quick to laugh – and to speak her mind.

Miaja’s is a career shaped by passion and heart. “If you work for money, you will never be happy,” she says.

“If you do something that you love, then money comes. But if you live without passion, and if what you do doesn’t drive you to get up in the morning, there’s no point.”

After graduating in Paris as a language major, Isabelle moved to California where she studied interior design. She completed her training in 1987 and founded the LA-headquartered Miaja Design Group (MDG) – initially Robisa Design International – with business partner Robert Arambulo.

The company made a strategic decision to move its head office to Singapore in 1994, and has since evolved into a 40-member firm with secondary offices in both Dubai and Manila.

The company’s Dubai debut was the result of a chance encounter with a local client and resulted in MDG designing the Radisson Blu Media City. From there, Miaja was appointed on Dubai’s Desert Palm resort.

A few years on and this region remains vitally important for Miaja, and is a place where she “really wants to count”. CID met her to find out why, and what the future holds for MDG.

What projects do you currently have underway in this region?
We are working on four big hotels – two for Rotana. One of these is a big resort hotel on Saadiyat Island and the other is the Rotana Al Badie Tower in the Capital Centre in Abu Dhabi, which is due for completion in 18 months to two year’s time. Saadiyat Island will take longer.

Then we are doing a Traders Hotel in Qatar, which is also around 18 months off, and we are doing a Millenium Hotel, also in Qatar. Those four projects are really quite hefty for us. We have someone based in the UAE and we also want to do some project management, while slowly building up the company here.

Why did you decide to establish a presence in Dubai?
I chose Dubai because I landed here and it was love at first sight. I would like to start really counting here. The Singapore office has 35 people and the Manila office is slowly starting to stand on its own two feet after being more of a support office. My bigger dream is maybe a London office in the next two years, or something like that.

Why design?
It was a fluke. I initially set out to do International Business and Languages, but business is not really my thing. I have one belief: if you work for money, you will never be happy. If you do something that you love, then money comes.

And somehow, it is enough money for you to live on and do the things that you want to do. But if you live without passion, and if what you do doesn’t drive you to get up in the morning, there’s no point, in my opinion.

My passion is art. For three years I was a curator for a few artists and I would like to start that again, but mainly with Indian artists. I have been in talks with an Indian gallery owner who I would like to partner with.

What are the greatest challenges that you face as a designer right now?
I still struggle with quality control. That is relevant to this market, but it happens everywhere. We are doing a Pullman in Jakarta and an island in the Maldives; we do projects all over the world, and this issue is not specific to the UAE.

Price is driving the hotel business and projects go to the lowest bidder. But I’m not 100% sure that the highest bidder would give better results – they would just make more money. So, at the end of the day, quality control is in your hands and it is important to not let anyone walk all over you.

One of the biggest challenges is standing your ground and making compromises that don’t kill your design. Because people will try and push you.

Why is this such an issue?
With hotels, it takes a long time to get a return on your investment. And although there is a trend towards ‘design hotels’, people find it difficult to strike a balance between getting a product that really grabs attention, and getting a return on that investment.

Clients are caught between two fires. In the old days, a Hilton just looked like a Hilton. But now, if a Hilton doesn’t grab you, it is soon forgotten.

The one benefit that we have in this market is that there is a lot of ego. That gives us that extra plus and is why the UAE is coming up with projects that are memorable.

If it wasn’t for their anxiousness to be better than their neighbours, we would end up suffering as designers. Other owners are far more pragmatic.

What is the market like in Asia?
It is good but at the same time, cautious. But then Asian people are so much more cautious in general. They know how to transform one dollar into thousands of dollars.

Here, they are ready to put in a dollar and get $50 back because they understand that there are other factors involved. They still see the need for quality and value here. They still want to balance profit and quality. In Asia, not so much.

Have you tapped into China at all?
No. I’ll be dead before that market is ready for me!

To what extent has the economic crisis impacted business?
It’s not that we don’t have the projects, it’s that payments have slowed. And that’s a killer because that’s what keeps you going.

It’s a battle on a monthly basis to make sure that everything you are creating is not going to waste.

We have to constantly remind the client that without payment it is impossible to run a business and pay the people that will create their projects.

What sets you apart in a highly competitive industry?
I don’t see it as a business. It is something that is driven by heart, and it shows.

People recognise that extra something that you put in when it is not just about the money. And I don’t think that you have to sell that. People should feel it – and if they don’t then they are not the right client for me.

The clients that I struggle with are those that don’t feel it. If it is too much of a business venture then I lose the plot. You have to make sure that the client also wants to pour their heart into it.

When you sign a project, that’s the first thing you need to feel. Can you get inside the client to be able to unlock that extra something that is going to make the project special?

In India we are working on the Sofitel Mumbai, which is such a labour of love. We have been working on this project for six years. It is a concept that is hell for everyone to work on. We have project managers that are working around the clock to make sure that the design is followed. They take months finding a material that I have specified.

It’s not just about the owner, it’s about the whole team working with you and feeling passionate and proud to be part of this whole adventure – and then they can use it as a stepping stone for themselves.

Everybody benefits from a good project. If you get the client to own it, they will spend the money.

I don’t think you can aim to be different; either you are or you aren’t. And if your difference makes a difference,
then you win.

What do you think of the standard of design in Dubai?
I am very proud of Dubai because of its daring architecture. They really put their money where their mouth is when it came to the architecture.

What I’m not impressed with is the fact that it all came up so fast that design became something that was done ten to the dozen. We ended up with interiors that look like they’ve been raped.

For every one interior that you find that’s been done well, there are ten that are bastardised versions of the original intention. I find that terrible because it is such a waste of money and materials.

It would be terrible for anyone to read this and think that this is what I think of their work, but the truth is, we had to deal with clients that were, in principle, inexperienced. For every one guy that has travelled the world and understood that less is more, you have the nine others who think that more is better.

One of the most abused elements has been the lighting. All of a sudden the craze for lighting went overboard. I see this avalanche of lighting and effects, and it’s a bit Disneland-esque. It demeans the whole authenticity that is being created here.

Are there any interiors that you are impressed with in this market?
I’m going to go with some of the classics. So things like Emirates Towers. I think that the ambience there is very chic. The One & Only Royal Mirage is another example because I think that things were done well in there.

The finishes, the detailing, the materials, the serenity; it all flows beautifully. Of the newer hotels, I love the Armani. You have to be fair, it is an iconic image that will stand the test of time.

But my admiration is not for designers. It is for the people that have spent the time to develop new materials and products that will make a difference in our projects.

My biggest passion is design shows. Without the people that spend the money to educate us, our world would be so lacking in flavour. I’m the biggest fan of the creators of objects and furniture and building materials and new technology.

They should be celebrated much more than we are, because we might be able to put things together but without them, we are nothing.

Have you done any product design?
Yes. For five years, I operated a furniture manufacturing division, called M&A Collections. It is no longer operational but it was a fantastic learning experience for me.

I am slowly starting to get back into it. At the moment, for the Sofitel project, we are working with a very famous plate manufacturer and we are going to create a special plate that will be used in the specialty restaurant. It will have our signature on it.

We went around Mumbai for four days taking pictures and those pictures will inspire a design for these plates. They will act as a gift for special clients and people will also be able to buy them.

I would love to do more product design. I believe that it is a natural extension of what we are already doing.

What’s next in terms of projects?
We have this most amazing Russian client with who we are working on a new island in the Maldives. This is going to be ‘James Bond on vacation’. It will have its own private yacht and we are doing a series of 15 floating villas.

We’ve done the architecture and design for the entire island, and are hoping it will be complete in around 18 months.

We are working non-stop right now. We are also doing a Pullman in Jakarta, which will be a hotel version of Calatrava. It will have a museum feel to it. It is going to have an industrial rawness, with beautiful sculptures. All of the bones of the hotel will be on show.

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