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Director of IMA Interiors, Isabelle Miaja, talks about growing an international business, getting a lucky break in Dubai and designing projects for the Middle East region.

Radisson SAS Hotel, INTERVIEWS, Design

Director of IMA Interiors, Isabelle Miaja, talks about growing an international business, getting a lucky break in Dubai and designing projects for the Middle East region.

She started with an eye on Paris fashion, but soon turned to interior design.

When the opportunity came to do the interior for the Radisson SAS in Dubai Media City, it was too good an opportunity to let go.

Isabelle Miaja tells CID about the trials, tribulations and rewards of becoming an internationally recognised interior designer for the hotel industry.

What is your first memory of being interested in design?

My first interest in design started with my father, who was a jewellery designer. Then, being in Paris, fashion played a big part in my life.

When I first arrived in Los Angeles, I started my studies in fashion design until I met my partner Robert.

He introduced me to the fun of interior design and I discovered that not only could I play with colours and fabric, but a whole world of design was at hand to excite my imagination.

What is your formal training in the interior design field?

My initial training was in fashion, so I diverted to interior design by training with my partner Robert.

I started my first company at 24, being a support office to many of the famous designers in LA.

Working with such a variety of people taught me a flexibility of style, as well as defining my own.

Interior design is about developing your own finesse, and your own uniqueness. Flair and sureness of taste cannot be taught, it is inherent in the individual.

Tell us about your first design job...

Funny you should ask that; I just read an account of my first project I had written at that time, more out of frustration than contentment.

I was contracted to design my father-in-law's Los Angeles office on Wilshire Boulevard.

I started the project quite enthusiastically, choosing carpet, wallpaper, accessories and plants, and all was going well until I took on the task of repainting the desks.

It was the last job that needed to be done and I took to it with gusto on a Saturday morning.

One by one each of the desks was sprayed and I was proud of my effort.

I thought I'd take a break and in doing so, marched directly towards the door, walking on the unprotected carpet surface.

To my horror our shoes carried the black paint to the newly installed carpet.

We ran to the nearest paint store and armed with solvent and cloths we started our stain removal process, only to reach the conclusion that the more we rubbed the stain the deeper and messier it became.

After many attempts the only solution at hand was to strategically place the pots and plants on the most obvious ones and re-space plan the desks to place them over the remaining ones if possible.

All looked as good as it could get, with defects artistically hidden.

As I placed the last artifact the twice-lacquered reception desk got scratched and the original colour peeked from underneath, opening the abyss of the disaster to come.

Moral of the story: whatever you learn at school gets put on trial by the realities of the working world and if you are going to make mistakes as disastrous as this one, make sure you are doing so for your family, they are the only ones who could forgive you and never ever mention it.

Can you give us a brief rundown of your career thus far?

I have always worked for myself.

Robisa Design International was my first company.

Together with my partner Robert, we were a support office to all the best designers in Los Angeles, people we respected and learned from. It was an amazing time.

When I decided to come to Asia, the opportunities in the region were amazing and it felt like opening an office was the right thing to do. Projects abounded and ten years of experience finally paid off.

Isabelle Miaja and Associates opened its doors in 1995 and started working on prestigious residential projects.

Then it moved on to commercial residential projects for major developers in the region and slowly edged towards my dream of designing hotels.

When I first signed the M hotel, IMA Interiors was born.

The company grew to such an extent that with offices in Manila and Dubai (as well as Singapore), together with a great team of dedicated designers to support growth, we now are ready to embrace the new challenges coming to us with a new image and new name.

Miaja Design Group has just been launched and in all three offices and we are geared to design, manage and open successful projects that will put a stamp in the hotel world as well as the design world.

You designed the Radisson SAS in Dubai Media City - how did this commission come about?

It was a fluke. I was on my way back to Singapore after a trip to New York.

With only a few hours in Dubai, I had been given a contact by a friend of mine in the industry.

The contact was involved in project management for hotels.

We met and I presented my portfolio to him. He liked what he saw, and he showed me the plans of a hotel in Media City for which the owner was in the process of selecting an interior designer.

I asked if there was any chance for me to meet with the owner.

He picked up the phone, got me an appointment and I met the client who liked our portfolio and was willing to try a firm from outside the UAE. The rest is history.

What other projects have you got lined up regionally?

I am in the process of finishing a resort called Desert Palm, a boutique hotel and villas in the middle of polo fields; a serviced apartment for an Abu Dhabi client in Media City; a five star hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road and a hotel in Doha.

Hopefully we'll also be signing a fantastic project on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi.

You mentioned that you are thinking of opening up a regional office here in Dubai - why?

We have been working around the region extensively and we now need to be closer to the projects, for quality control reasons. Managing a project from afar runs the risk of the design details not being followed or understood properly.

We were also getting a lot of phone calls after the Raddisson was published and we feel it is time to plant ourselves firmly in the region.

How does Dubai measure up in the design and architecture stakes, alongside countries that have had a long tradition in designing and building commercial spaces?

Boldness is one of the main qualifiers for measuring up. The UAE, together with the surrounding countries, shows such eagerness to catch up with the rest of the world that some of the best designs now are being achieved in this region.

Combined with financial strength, it is designer heaven.

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

The ups of this booming region create their own downs, such as shortage of manpower. Fast-tracking hinders quality and for the sake of time one might forget that the resulting products will show a lack of attention to details.

So dedicated professionals are constantly challenged to avoid pitfalls and stress is high in people's lives.

How would you say your 'style' can be described in a few words?

Sensitive, sensible, unique, rich yet understated.

What are the key trends that are emerging in the commercial interior design industry that you have witnessed?

Return to nature, to the truth of the materials and shapes that bring us back to the beginning of time. When we say organic, it feels like a womb and creates security and comfort.

A design grabs you, envelops and nurtures. That is the experience I wish to create.

What is your favourite project that you have worked on? And the most challenging?

I don't want to sound corny by saying the next one, but I always learn from one and try to apply the new knowledge to the next.

Consistency of quality and how to deliver a superior project is a constant battle against time, something which only better understanding and experience helps solve.

The project that is most challenging for me at the moment is creating architecturally, and interior design-wise, a full concept on an island in the Maldives.

It is a new path for me and as I learn as we go, it is both stressful exhilarating. I think with this one I am living the dream of a designer; I have a free hand.

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

Amazingly what comes to mind as a dream is more architectural than interior.

Sydney's opera house for its airiness, the Burj Al Arab for its majesty, the pyramid of the Louvre for its boldness.

So who knows ... what might be our future venture.

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