From down under to Dubai

With a solid grounding in architecture, Collins Vergnaud is bringing timeless style to projects in Dubai.

Patrick Collins and Isabelle Vergnaud created Collins Vergnaud after working together in Singapore for Kerry Hill Architects.
Patrick Collins and Isabelle Vergnaud created Collins Vergnaud after working together in Singapore for Kerry Hill Architects.

The Australian design duo Patrick Collins and Isabelle Vergnaud have entered the Dubai interior design playing field in an impressive fashion - by designing the much coveted W Hotel in Dubai Festival City. Patrick Collins tells CID how this formidable partnership was conceived and how they are formulating an ambitious international expansion plan.

What is your personal background in commercial interior design?

Design has always been a passion of ours. I remember as a little boy I dreamt of building a round house when I grew up - a factor that may have influenced my choice after to study architecture at Melbourne University. Designing the Australian National Maritime Museum fit out in Sydney and a large pavilion for Expo 88 with DCM sparked an interest in quick turnaround projects. This was in reaction to previously designing for major architectural projects for several years and not seeing anything built!

How did your career in interior design progress from there?

In New York on my way to Spain in 1989, I was lucky to meet Andre Burgos who ran Andree Putman's office there. We worked together for a few years on beautiful projects, thus began my international interior architecture career. After a short stint as an architect in Brunei, I moved to Kerry Hill Architects in Singapore to manage interiors. Working in the tropics presented the best fusion of architecture and interiors, or inside/outside as most designers refer to it today. Doing this on some of the best projects throughout Asia, relating to local culture, materials and craftsmanship was inspiring. We tried to apply the same set of sophisticated, functional considerations to offices as much as resorts or residences.

How did you meet Isabelle and decide to set up a design company together?

Isabelle joined KHA after seeing projects published in France and contacting Didier Lefort. We worked closely for a couple of years and respected each other's ability and commitment. Isabelle studied at the illustrious Ecole Camondo in Paris before working in London for two years and then in association with Jean-Michel Wilmotte in Paris. With her refined taste and love of details our roles were extremely complimentary. We believed design and spaces should be imbued with meaning, relevance and quality, which can only be achieved through dedication and commitment. As we shared common design values and goals, the next step was to set up on our own.

Why did you settle on Australia to establish your own firm?

It was time to move on and after living around the world, the Australian lifestyle, while new to Isabelle, is very appealing.

Does Collins Vergnaud specialise in a certain genre of design projects?

We have purposely not wished to specialise in order to maintain freshness in what we do. It's interesting to continually diversify in terms of the type of projects. We have noticed though that just as the flavour of residential living came to inform what makes people comfortable in or able to identify with hotels (and to a degree vice-versa), so too we have been approached to create commercial workplaces imbued with those similar qualities (such as Publicis Mojo and Animal Logic).

It has now gone full circle where it is all beginning to fuse - we are currently doing very high-end commercial residential projects, which often aspire to that 'resort' ambience.

The inclusion of 'lifestyle' considerations and the blur between work and play means the market today desires the up-market, inclusive and comprehensive environmental experience we can offer. Our latest individual apartment project that embodies this concept is in St. Petersburg.

Does Collins Vergnaud have a particular house style?

We design things that last both functionally and aesthetically. If you make the effort to get it right, it satisfies - there is less need to change it and it lasts longer. This is how the 'timeless' element is achieved. Style will always date and therefore we avoid styles. Each project is approached on its immediate cultural context, contemporary (and developing) functional simplicity and psychological as well as physical comfort.

What is Collins Vergnaud working on presently in Dubai?

We are currently focused on completing the W Hotel in Dubai Festival City. It is exciting because the W brand emphasises cutting-edge design but in an inclusive and very sophisticated way. It will be something new for Dubai and with the facilities proposed will become quite a social focus for the younger, international set. Of course our aim is to establish ourselves here as our recognition grows, and being involved in high profile projects like the W Hotel is a great starting point.

Why did you decide to work on projects in the Middle East?

We were first approached to design the Hilton in Doha, and we've managed to build up a solid network of good friends and contacts in Dubai as a result. We admire the local people, can relate to the climate and have always been keen to establish in Dubai as a springboard to wider regional activity. Importantly, design itself will inform future development here in many ways, which is something to which we feel CV can make a real contribution.

In the time that you have been operating here, what differences have you seen both in the type of design the clients are asking for and the client demands/ building/ design practices?

We design to incorporate local building practices and economies so that has not been an issue. The continued influx of experienced practitioners in every field (and perhaps extensive travel) has led to rapid and welcome development of clients' expectations.

While the respect of local sensibilities is a driver, there is a very broad appreciation now of contemporary international design and a desire for respectable world-class results. That the world's best architects and designers are clearly now in demand here attests to this.

What challenges are particular to the Middle East and Dubai and how are these overcome?

The frenetic pace is exciting and we have never missed a deadline. Distance has been a perceived issue but this is not really the case. Communication technology makes it possible to service projects effectively from almost anywhere. With our New York partner, we can provide 24 hour attention. We are also pursuing local partnerships, which will raise our profile here and hopefully enable us to take on more projects in the GCC region.

When you are designing in the Middle East, where do you source your materials from and why?

Our sourcing is often a point of difference for our designs, whether it originates from Europe, USA, Australia or Asia. Almost everything is available now in Dubai and if not, it soon will be. So we have little restriction. Sometimes the client will have a penchant for particular suppliers or products, which we accommodate. Or other factors may suggest it's sensible to source in India or China where we have contacts. If a more traditional flavour is needed, we have found Turkey, Morocco and Lebanon to be excellent sources.

What do you think are the main differences between designing in Australia and Dubai?

The Australian Market is very finely focused in terms of the product, which can be limiting in the commercial sector. High labour cost means design must be very efficient.

However, at last there is appreciation of the premium that good design can add to your financial returns. We have always said that "good design adds value." This can be interpreted in many forms - even purchasing a piece of art as an investment is considered a wise move; you get something you like and can enjoy. Obviously, there are different motivations and pressures in the Dubai market to consider. But time, budget and performance demands are pretty similar everywhere.

What could the design industry in Dubai learn from more established markets, such as Sydney?

The notion of partnering between all players has proven to enhance performance and the building process considerably. Whilst the intent may be there, it can only happen by efficient communication and mutual respect for professionalism, and investing lots of time and effort.

What would you say are the current trends for international commercial interior design and how does this differ to 5-10 years ago?

Obviously 'green' is the new 'black'. In pursuing experience in the interior design field, the intent was to be able to provide an integrated architectural and interiors consistency. With the advent of energy and life-cycle efficiency requirements, environmental design is best achieved by exactly this - passive building design integrated with exciting internal spaces and by using appropriate materials.

Interior design can no longer be an isolated pursuit; global concerns such as sustainability influence many of our design decisions.

What do you predict for the future of commercial interior design? What trends can you forsee emerging in the next ten years?

We have always believed there will eventually be an appropriate emphasis on high quality design in the first instance. The greatest source of cost blow-outs and overruns can originate from the initial design phase. It seems to be often overlooked that rushing this phase may cost you months later.

With a well considered design, the projects are less confused, less wasteful, and the results more rewarding for everyone - including those who are not even involved but enjoy a more satisfying environment. Whilst there is an inescapable focus on sustainability, the market for suitable materials is far from mature. Even if it were, far too few people stop to realise that, for example in Australia, construction produces 12% of greenhouse gases, whereas the production of our food causes 28% and consumer items almost 30%! For water use, construction makes up only 2.7% of the total amount.

The key to change is recognition of our wasteful habits. This may sound strange to a place like Dubai but as a society, we basically need to buy less to have any impact on improving the global environment. The sensible result will mean that there will be demand for well-designed things that last longer, we like more and therefore, do not need to change them as often, reducing the unnecessary waste.

And finally, if you could have worked on the design of any project worldwide what would it have been?

We like the idea of responding to an oasis in Oman or perhaps the ancient city of Vijayanegara in India - I documented parts of it way back in 1982, so I know it well. Being part of a project that not only stands the test of time, but that inspires others is a consistent aspiration.

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