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Design duo

Jean Habis, co-owner of HDD Interiors discuses the changing task of designing in Dubai and the increasingly pro-active role of the client.

HDD Interiors? founders and co-owners, Jean Habis (left) and Elie Dib.
HDD Interiors? founders and co-owners, Jean Habis (left) and Elie Dib.

Lebanese-born Elie Dib and Jean Habis decided to fuse their respective expertise in architecture and interior design and create HDD Interiors. Focusing predominantly on retail and hospitality design the company now counts Chanel, Nestle and Damas among its core clientele. CID speaks to co-owner Jean Habis about the challenges and triumphs of launching and running a design firm in Dubai.

What is your background in commercial interior design?

Elie's academic degree was in architecture whereas my degree was in interior architecture with a year studying environmental design. After that finished I then did my Masters in Design in Sydney, Australia, which encompassed every type of design.

I decided to move to Dubai just over ten years ago and worked in the exhibition industry for six years executing the design of exhibition stands and showroom interiors.

Why did you decide to leave exhibitions and move into more mainstream interior design?

I felt like the time was right to handle my own business. I had involvement with a lot of clients, my face was very familiar in the industry. I had various options, and the best one was joining forces with Elie. Our personalities clicked as soon as we met and our respective talents and expertise complement each other.

How did you meet each other?

We were introduced by a mutual friend, literally hours after I first arrived in Dubai and obviously we had no idea that one day we would own a company together. We have a common history and the partnership works very well.

What does HDD do?

We now have three prongs to the company: Interiors, Exhibitions and Point of sale promotional stands for cosmetics.

We have Chanel as our main client ithis area and we do all of its animations for campaigns. Our clients for exhibitions include Nestle, Data Scope and Al Barari among others.

And what interior design projects have you been involved in?

With interior design we are very prolific in two main areas: restaurants and jewellery shops. We are the official design consultants for Damas and for the Bin Lahej Hospitality Group who has numerous brands including Chili's; Macaroni Grill; Pizza Company; Bread Talk and Cantina Laredo.

We also do shops and offices. To be honest, I am not particularly interested in doing residential projects for individual clients as it is very personal, we much prefer commercial interior design.

What are you currently working on?

We are in the process of doing 10 restaurants: Five in Abu Dhabi in Khalidiyah Mall and five in Jumeirah Beach Residence. We have just completed a few retail outlets in Dubai Festival City, such as Braccialini and Patrizia Pepe and numerous outlets through our association with Damas.

Why did you choose Dubai to set up your company?

It wasn't a conscious decision of ‘right, of all the places in the world this is where we are going to launch an interior design business.' When I first left Sydney, I knew I wanted to move back to the Middle East, and due to the economic situation around 1997 I decided to come to Dubai. I told my parents that I was going to stay here for four years and I am now in my eleventh year. I am happy here and Dubai is a good place to be. There are many things here that you cannot get in other areas of the world, and some things that you wish were more like more established markets. But Dubai is a package, you can't say, ‘I like the lifestyle, the money, the opportunities, but I don't like the rent hikes, the traffic, the weather.' You take it all or leave it all.

How has the interior design industry in Dubai changed?

Ten years ago the market was very small and I would talk to my friends in Sydney and Europe and feel as though I was behind them in what I was designing, but this has completely changed. In the last four years Dubai has caught up with the more mature markets and has started to realise the architectural value of design. When you look at a project like Emirates Towers, this is the level of excellence that we all need to aspire to. The region is now attracting big architecture firms, with Abu Dhabi and even Qatar bringing big names to help redesign its skyline.

Do you think Dubai's booming design industry will continue?

I can forsee enough work for five years definitely but we have no way of telling what will happen after that. I think people still want to work here, I get this impression when I travel. When I say to other designers that I meet that I work in Dubai their reaction is always ‘Wow! Dubai!' Even in Tokyo recently that was the response I got. Dubai is marketed very well and all the world's designers want to have some impact here.

What are the challenges of working as an interior designer in Dubai?

Do you want the politicians answer? Honestly, it is very difficult to build a good team, recruiting senior members of staff is very challenging. When it comes to the execution of the design, finding skilled workmen for carrying out complex custom designs is a real struggle. Also it is sometimes difficult to communicate with the labour team due to both language constraints and because they might not have the skills that you require. Due to the transient nature of people who live here, it is hard to build up a good reputation, but then by the same token, sometimes a bad reputation won't affect you in the same way as it would in another country. There are people operating here that are thieves and are not professional, but because new clients are setting up here all the time, they hire firms without knowing who to trust in.

What are the current design trends in the UAE?

Clients want to follow the European styles and to be contemporary. Most of them understand that to be modern you have to include simplicity, and many want very high-tech interiors, and then it's a challenge to make it pure and timeless, so that it doesn't go out of fashion next year. Clients are now very well informed about what they want and how to do it. They often draw a sketch of how they envisaged the interior and have their own ideas about materials, colours and scale.

Is that good or bad though?

It's good on one hand but as a designer, you want room to be creative and think up your own concepts, so it has its downside too! I always consider that whatever design I give to the client should be a benefit to them.

I am not the type of designer that sticks to my original designs regardless and refuses to amend to what the client wants. Of course I try and convince him to my way of thinking, but in this country it is very difficult to convince the client that your way is the best way.

What is your own personal style?

I like simplicity, but done in a clever way. I really like the contemporary Japanese style, which is actually very European. I like the shapes, the form, the colours and materials of the designs. Sometimes you change your attitude towards what you like; ten years ago I wasn't a fan of modern design but I accepted it over time and now I appreciate the pure lines and the angles of contemporary design.

The Construction Movement 15 years ago taught me that you justify design choices only with how it makes you feel. A window may be crooked and a staircase may be straight. Nothing is wrong or right, it depends what you like and what will work in the space you are given to fill.

What are your favourite materials?

It constantly changes. I have always loved wood, and will always try and use it. But three years ago I started to use more metal and glass in my designs as you can do many creative things with both materials, creating different brushed effects for instance.

When was the last time you went ‘wow' at an interior?

Because I mainly design restaurants I am subconsciously drawn to them, so I was walking through this shopping mall in Bangkok and I saw this very simple open plan restaurant, done in a very Oriental way, with the use of wengé wood and green glass.

I never really liked green before, but the glass was so beautiful I had to stop and take a photograph of it. Their use of pure space and the combination of wengé and this bright green glass was really striking.

And is there anywhere in Dubai that you particularly like?

I was recently very struck by the entrance to Quatro restaurant in the Four Seasons Golf Club in Dubai Festival City. The door seems about 7m high and is very stunning. As an architectural designer it really appealed to my sense of scale and proportion.

The whole place has a very nice design, but that entrance really appealed to me. Sometimes design in Dubai is overly fussy and they lose sight of the whole picture, so simple but stunning interiors really stay with me.

How long do you spend designing?

I would love to be sitting and designing full time, but unfortunately it doesn't work out like that. Clients often want the designs in a week and so I will do the initial sketches and concept drawings, and then we work as a team developing the design and the presentation. I like to do the first and last touch, but we have a team that are highly skilled interior designers and architects and designs can really profit from a collaborative brainstorming session.

Does time permit this?

This is the worrying thing. Clients say: "I am paying rent on the building, I want to move into it, I want to open my business as soon as possible." And if we were to go back to them and ask for a few more weeks to fine-tune the design, they would be horrified! But what they often don't understand is that when you squeeze the contractor price or time wise then corners can be cut and quality suffers. When the contractor is more relaxed with the timescale and budget then that is when you get the quality work.

What are your future plans?

We have plans to expand in the near future, but in the long term, who knows? We've been here for ten years but we are still just visitors here, so we cannot predict where we will be in another ten years, as long as the projects are still here and we are still working at the pace we are now, then we will stay and be happy.

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