Kenneth Laidler discusses the changing role of interior designers and the need for industry professionalism.
Boasting 16 years of designing in Dubai, Kenneth Laidler is the founder of Kenneth Laidler Design and the president of APID. He talks to CID about the challenges of running a successful interior design firm while pioneering an association committed to raising the profile and standards of professional design in the GCC.
CID: How did you begin designing?
I formed my first company in the North East of England in 1979, as an interior design and contracting company. I was mainly involved in hospitality and leisure projects; we were working with breweries, designing bars, pubs, casinos and bingo halls.
CID: And then when did the move to Dubai happen and why?
I visited Dubai in May 1991 for 'Britain in the Gulf' exhibition. I came with a view to then working in Kuwait after the first Gulf war but by the time I arrived, all the Kuwaiti businessmen had already gone back to rebuild the city. And I can tell you that to this point today, I still have not had a paid commission in Kuwait!
CID: So you stayed in Dubai?
I did. The work I was displaying at that time was mainly highly themed hospitality design. Then by late '91, early '92 we were successful in bidding for and winning the tender for the Forte Grand, which is now Le Royal Meridien. We did this project in conjunction with, what was then, Swedish Design. Our second project was the Radisson SAS which is now the Sheraton Jumeirah, then the Sheraton on the Dubai Creek and as time progressed we worked on the Millenium Airport Hotel and projects in Tunisia, Ukraine and Karachi.
CID: Tell us about designing in Dubai in the mid nineties...
Around 1995-99 we ceased to carry out speculative design work and this was exactly the time that the boom in Dubai started happening, so right when we decided that we had enough track record not to have to carry out speculative design work any more, was exactly the time when all these other companies starting seeking their fortunes in Dubai and were offering to do speculative work. We lost an awful lot of momentum and we truthfully went through some tough times. We still survived, our staff went down from ten to two, and apart from companies carrying out Design & Fit Out, we're probably one of the longest surviving pure design companies around, but it's not been easy.
CID: How is KLD doing today?
We opened our first office in Abu Dhabi last year, there's some tremendous projects there and it's been a great move for us. The Dubai industry is booming and the variety of projects is amazing. Last week I personally designed hotel bedrooms, a swimming pool deck, a Japanese health club spa, nine floors of offices and a government facility. We're currently designing 25 floors of corporate offices for du and we're also working on some hotels, palaces, villas restaurants and bars.
CID: What is the main challenge you face in running KLD?
It is very difficult to find good professional staff. I find a lot of the young graduates that I interview are more decorators than architectural designers. I'm sure the universities are doing all they can to give them the technical education on construction matters but nothing like what they need to know on a day to day basis, like is this a structural wall and you can't move it, or is this a blockwork wall and you can.
CID: Is this a regional problem?
I think it's worldwide. The course content on design courses needs reassessing. I remember a few years ago seeing one course project where the student had to take the plans of an existing toilet block on a village green in the UK and turn it into a steak restaurant. Now this is real, this is what happens. When do students ever get a 53 hectare site to develop as a leisure complex? Apart from the UAE! I find that many students today are given these type of projects, or choose it for themselves. Which means that they do a lot of creative overall planning but they miss out on the detail. When someone gives you an unlimited site it's much easier, but life isn't like that. Life gives you fixed parameters and fixed budgets to work with and that's when you have to be truly creative.
CID: So how can you tell if a young designer has potential?
When graduates come into my office for interviews they often bring finished visuals with them and my first question is, "Show me where you came to that concept." Cue looks of alarm and dismay in their faces. And not a single one in the last five years has been able to explain how they achieved the final result. I can open my sketchpad and I can show you designs of furniture, kiosks, buildings, they're all mine, from doodles to more formal sketches. I can show you how the concept developed from scratch, and I never see this in any of the graduates' work. Furniture designs and concept designs, development ideas are all so important. That's the difference between being an interior designer and an interior decorator.
CID: Do you think the change has got to come in the design schools?
Students themselves are to blame as they're all searching for top grades and perfection, and it's not about the grade for me, it's about exploring and innovating and experimenting. Successes come from failures. If you have not failed you have not tried and therefore not learnt anything. I've never been top of the class in anything, but I have had to work really hard, and I want to see that detailed hard thinking in my staff.
CID: What other changes have you seen in the industry?
Interior design has changed. When I was chairman of the North East Region of the Charted Society of Designers, I went to a conference in London and they were mooting the idea of changing the name to Interior Architects and a lot of the old school designers fought against it, I disagreed with them at the time and I still do. I think that we are interior architects. There's the added element, that we create businesses. If they don't work we fail, it doesn't matter how beautiful it was. But the old guard fought against this change and maintained that the 'designer' part of our title is special.
CID: Do you think young designers are more creative now than before?
I think you can achieve things that you couldn't have done before, but that doesn't mean we didn't think of them, it just wasn't possible back then. I remember writing my thesis back in 1973 about creating a building with no walls; if walls weren't needed for structural purposes and they weren't needed for security because let's say that within an air curtain you could put electronic circuitry currents, and for privacy you could tint the colour of the air, then perhaps walls wouldn't be needed, and things of that nature are actually coming through now, you have glass walls that can change their opacity. It's still expensive, but it's possible. I think sometimes designers now design things purely to shock, to be different for the sake of it. The throwaway concept is moving into hotels, which is actually good news for designers - we get to redo it every five years, but it's not good value for the client.
CID: Is it common practice for design companies to be replaced on jobs?
I have discovered over the years that people say: "Oh those designers were thrown off the job," and it's taken as a black mark against the designer, but that's really not the case. We have replaced other designers, and we have been replaced by other designers. It doesn't mean they were bad or that we were bad, it just means that things change. We should never judge a design company as being guilty because they are no longer involved in a project. We're not painting pictures, if we were merely artists we'd do our work, sell it and move on, but the great thing about being an interior designer is seeing your work completed and then in use. So it's a shame when you're taken off a project. We need to see our work to completion.
CID: Does that happen because clients are becoming more demanding?
It could be that the designers are becoming more pedantic about their designs and here you really do need to bend a bit as long as you don't lose your integrity. I don't want to walk away from too many jobs on issues of pride because that sticks and I don't want to get the reputation of never completing a job. Even the world's most renowned designers operating here are governed by what the client wants, and if they don't give this to the client then they will be replaced. Simple as that.
CID: Should designs be client-led?
There's two schools of thought here; a designer can give the client exactly what he wants. Or, you could give the client something he never could have imagined himself, but it fulfils all the criteria. If you go with the former, then you are basically saying that designers are just fulfillers of dreams or visualisers of someone else's ideas, and I don't think that's what an interior designer should be. I think we should be creators. At university there was one chap who put on his letterhead, 'creator and innovator' and we all laughed at the time, but in truth, that's what designers should be.
CID: How did APID (Association of Professional Interior Designers) start?
Within the industry there has long been talk of having an association, I'd probably been talking more than most as I've been here 16 years and have often come up against a lack of professionalism, mainly generated by greed and the short-stay mentality of the ex pats. Also, it was becoming obvious that the clients didn't know the difference between professional interior designers and decorators.
CID: So how did APID form?
I travelled to London to visit the Chartered Society of Designers and after that visit I was convinced that we could do a better job ourselves. We had our first APID meeting, about 30 people attended, then we had the painful process of organising committees, producing the paperwork, registering with the economics dept and we pulled together some founding member companies. We started to bring on board the universities, and after two years we've had a couple of very successful conferences and it's pretty apparent that designers want some representation, and it's painfully obvious that project managers and architects here do not know the value that a professional interior design company can offer them.
CID: What's the next stage in the APID development?
We are going to Korea in October to apply for membership of the IFI. We are trying to bring in the rest of the GCC, so we plan to hold surgeries all around the region. We also need to provide some form of accepted documentation for contracts, fee bids, administration, which I've been working on for over two years. It will be a computer program as well as a book. A professional association should be able to guide its members on a range of issues - we don't purport to tell firms what to charge, but if a company is out there undercutting everyone else and not charging the going rate for work then it is not behaving professionally. We have got to have guidelines and a common list of deliverables so the client knows what to expect at each design and development stage. I'm not talking about standards of creativity but standards of professionalism.
CID: What has the response been?
I've heard people say: "It's a wonderful idea but it'll never happen because greed will come into it and there's an inbred history of commissions." The only other thing I've heard is: "Yes, that's a great idea, but I'm too busy to get involved." My answer is, well we're all busy, but if you really believe in it, you'll find the time. If some of the people that came here twenty years ago had taken a different view and worked to educate and provide a quality, professional service and help shape the industry in its infancy, instead of just trying to make as much money as they could, then the design community and clients would be far better served.
CID: How do you view your role at APID?
My job as president of APID is to try and pull everyone through, and sometimes I've been accused of being a bit dictatorial or autocratic, but if you don't take these things on, then they just don't get done because everyone's too busy. I'd love to get to the situation where APID is built and accepted. I wouldn't say has X number of members, because that's not important, I would just want APID to have reached a level of credibility, and have recognition for the quality of the advice and information it is giving to clients, designers and organisations.
CID: How can APID achieve this?
As APID is running without funds, we need sponsorship, but that is coming. Once we have adequate sponsorship we can bring on more full time staff which will help us develop the website, the database, the technical library, which will then generate income and our image is then projected further afield. We need more design companies and individuals to appreciate what we're doing.
CID: How do you balance your time between APID and KLD?
I've always been a mental juggler, I couldn't juggle two oranges physically, but I've always been able to handle many things in my mind at the same time. I'm planning to retire, but retirement for me is not just taking the grapes off my vines, I'll stay as a design consultant, I enjoy talking about design, I enjoy talking about APID, I enjoy sketching my ideas - retirement for me is doing all that, not playing golf.