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The perfect space

Trisha Wilson speaks with Charlotte Butterfield on her first foray into interior design and her deliberate avoidance of cultivating a house style.

Founder of the multi-national interior design firm Wilson Associates, Trisha Wilson.
Founder of the multi-national interior design firm Wilson Associates, Trisha Wilson.

Trisha Wilson's eponymous interior design firm has been the creative brains behind the brawn of some of the world's most high-profile hospitality projects. Her team at Wilson Associates has designed the Atlantis Hotel, Paradise Island in the Bahamas; the Venetian, Caesers Palace and MGM Mansion in Las Vegas and more than a million guestrooms spread over the globe. Locally, her team is responsible for designing some of Dubai's best-loved hotels including The One and Only Royal Mirage and The Park Hyatt. She talks to CID about her personal experiences and the unexpected worldwide expansion that she self-effacingly puts down to 'opportunities' taken...

What is your first memory of being interested in Art and Design?

When I was seven years old I won first place in an art contest for my drawing of a dog! That was the first time anyone told me I was a good artist. I continued my pursuit of learning about art through high school, where I was inspired by a great art teacher, Ms. Mattie Childress. She really encouraged my love of art and passion for design and I then went on to study design in college. Several years ago I received a Distinguished Alumni Award from my high school. I took my former teacher, Ms. Childress, as my guest and took great pride in dedicating the award to her!

What is your academic background in interior design?

I received a Bachelor of Arts & Science degree from the School of Architecture at The University of Texas.

What was your very first commission?

One of my first interior design projects was a bit of a disaster, but it resulted in my making a dear friend in Manfred (Manny) Steinfeld, who is well-known in the industry. The project was for a disco in Austin, Texas. I found the perfect Shelby Williams chairs for the project and ordered them from Manny.

Unfortunately, the client went bankrupt! They couldn't pay me, and I couldn't pay Manny for the chairs I had ordered. I approached him with my problem, and he graciously agreed to let me pay him over the next few years. His understanding meant the world to me! Since then, Manny Steinfeld has been a dear friend and role model. His philanthropic activities helped inspire me to create The Wilson Foundation, which is a true passion for me.

Where did you work before setting up Wilson Associates?

I worked in a department store, selling mattresses. When people came in looking for someone to help them with their interior design, my boss recommended me, but the customers thought I was too young to know what I was doing!

When you first decided to launch your own interior design firm, what was it like in the beginning?

Like many new businesses, I started out in a very small and modest way. I had one employee (who still works for me today!) and a small office with rented furniture. My big break came when I was hired to create the interiors for the Anatole Hotel in Dallas, Texas. That job enabled me to immediately expand my staff and my office space, and I have kept going and growing since then!

What prompted the expansion into the Far East with the Singapore office?

We were originally doing some business in Japan, and we recognised that there was a tremendous amount of design work to be done in Asia. We established an office in Singapore for its convenience to the entire region, and that office has grown at a very rapid pace. We are very proud of the fact that Wilson is a brand name in Asia and we have been privileged to work on some truly extraordinary projects in this part of the world.

How did your entry into the Middle East come about?

We had the opportunity to design a personal residence in Abu Dhabi for someone who had seen our work at the Palace of the Lost City in Africa. That was a large job and enabled us to establish ourselves in the Middle East. To some degree, it was a matter of being 'in the right place at the right time.' From that initial project we became known in the Middle East market at the same time the hospitality market started booming, and we have been fortunate to work on some of the most exciting hotel projects in the region.

You've designed two of Dubai's most loved projects; The One and Only Royal Mirage and The Park Hyatt. These two hotels seem to appeal to the local Arab community and the ex-pats and tourists alike, why do you think this is?

With both The One and Only Royal Mirage and the Park Hyatt, we invested a lot of time and effort in learning about and understanding Middle Eastern architecture, culture, customs, and geography. We also worked hard to know everything we could about the international travel market and the kind of guests who would be coming to visit these properties. We are very proud of our work on both of these projects. The One and Only Royal Mirage reflects a traditional Moroccan architectural style, while the Park Hyatt is a modern reinterpretation of Arabian architecture. With both properties we used light, shadow, and texture to reflect the architectural details and we also integrated the surrounding environment into the design. We believe this helps to make these properties feel warm, hospitable and inviting to both the local Arab community and international travellers alike.

Would you say that you have a signature style running through your projects?

Interestingly, I have worked hard not to have a signature style! We like to say that Wilson Associates designs for the market. What I mean by that is that we create each project to interpret the vision of our clients, whether their design style may range from traditional to contemporary.

Are there particular considerations for designing in the Middle East that makes it more of a challenge than designing in Singapore or the US?

When designing in the Middle East, Arabian culture and religion must be respected. There are a number of issues to be considered, such as sense of place (e.g. separate men's and women's dressing areas in the spa), alcohol licensing laws, choice of artwork, etc. Recently, we had a design team working in the Middle East during Ramadan, so they adjusted their meeting schedules out of respect for the religious observance.

How do you view the interior design industry in the UAE compared to the other more mature markets?

I think the boom in retail and hospitality construction is fantastic for designers because they have the opportunity to explore different aspects of influential design. Architects and designers want to go to the UAE because there is so much work there - the business in our industry is just booming. Dubai has formed a very strategic long-range plan as a centre for finance, and I believe it will become the Hong Kong of the Middle East. It is also a growing 'hot spot' for tourism. Everyone will want to be a part of it. What is happening differently there is that they are very open and interested in cutting-edge design. There is a sense of great eagerness to complete projects, so work is being performed around the clock.

What projects are you currently working on the Middle East?

We have a number of projects in the region, including: Atlantis, Palm Jumeirah; The Fairmont Hotel, Abu Dhabi; Between the Bridges, Abu Dhabi; Old Town Commercial Island, Dubai; and Tiara Towers.

How much input do you personally have in the designs of these projects or have you had to swap your designer's hat for a CEO's one?

Like any company CEO, it's a real balancing act to meet the daily demands of running a business while also staying involved in the creative process. I still love to be involved in design work, and I spend a lot of time talking with colleagues all over the world about projects we are working on. Because we have offices all over the world, there is a Wilson office open literally around the clock. This has been a tremendous advantage on many occasions, because I can call someone on the other side of the world to work on a design for me, and it will be sitting on my desk the next morning!

What are your plans for the future of Wilson Associates? Do you plan to expand into other countries too?

What has been wonderful about Wilson Associates and its growth over the years is that we have grown and expanded where the hospitality market - and our clients - have taken us. My business philosophy has always been to take advantage of the opportunities that come along, and that has always worked well. That is what led to our expansion into the Middle East and more recently, to establishing an office in Cochin, India.

Did you ever consider that your own firm would be responsible for designing some of the most coveted hotels in the world, or was this all part of your ambitious game plan back in 1975!

I wish I could say that I had some 'grand plan' when I founded Wilson Associates years ago, but the truth is that I have been extremely fortunate in my career. I have tried to take advantage of every opportunity that came my way, and I pride myself on being a good judge of talent, so I have hired great people! I am very proud of the incredibly talented and creative team of architects and designers who have helped grow Wilson Associates to what it is today.

Is there any type of project that you haven't designed yet, but would love to? What is your idea of a dream project?

I would love to design more small, boutique hotels. With small properties there is an opportunity to create a uniquely personal experience for the guest. I would love for guests to come into a bedroom or bath that we have designed and feel that it is their idea of the perfect space.

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