As Kuwait's construction industry is regaining its confidence, its interior design industry is rapidly maturing
The design firm BrainStorm wll is set on transforming Kuwaiti commercial interiors into contemporary timeless spaces.
Managing partner, Waleed Shaalan, talks to CID about his hopes for a backlash against ‘the mass production’ of space and his plans to break into the Dubai market.
CID: Can you please give us a brief history of your company?
We started in 2000, with a sketch pad and a dream.
My passion is in the creative field, and the dream was to establish a design studio that allowed us to bring art, interior design, architecture and graphics together.
I worked in the past with international architecture firms, and I learned a lot but discovered that the corporate environment was not for me.
Seven years later we have a team of 12 designers.
CID: What led you personally down the path of commercial interior design?
My background is in architecture, and interior design is a natural extension of the built environment.
It is where the human comes into physical contact with architecture.
Commercial interiors also have a much faster turnaround and one gets to see more projects being executed.
It has helped me as an architect, because I have become more conscious of the requirements of the end user.
CID: Would you say that your style can be described in a few words?
That is a good question; I tend to shy away from defining ourselves with a “style”.
I try to work like Charlie Parker plays jazz when he said, “learn everything you can about music and when you play forget it all”.
I try to search for timelessness in our work, in a way I am anti-fashion.
I believe that there is something beyond ‘the zeitgeist’ or spirit of the age: a spirit of all ages.
I might never find it or be able to achieve it, but we certainly enjoying looking for it!
CID: How does Kuwait measure up in the design and architecture stakes alongside countries that have had a long tradition in designing and building commercial spaces?
The best thing I like about Kuwait is the fact that it is a young country and does not have the burden of history.
You have the freedom to explore and experiment, and I feel that it is a fertile ground for producing something fresh.
The Kuwaitis are very well travelled and some have very high standards, which is good for us as it keeps us on our toes.
Design is a very young industry in Kuwait, it is growing all the time.
To my face my friends tell me that I am a hero, pioneering design and behind my back they say that I am crazy and totally out of my mind!
CID: How easy is it to get good quality suppliers and raw materials in Kuwait?
The problem in Kuwait is that because the market is small, the suppliers don’t have much in stock, especially in lighting and furniture sectors.
So the waiting times are long, clients are often unprepared to wait and you end up compromising and taking something locally just to be quicker.
This is obviously different in Dubai where you have the demand, and so the suppliers know they have to deliver in the allotted time frame.
CID: Similarly, is there a bank of trusted and talented craftspeople to make the products?
Unfortunately they are not as good as we would like, one of the frustrations of the business is that we don’t have really skilled artisans.
When I lived in the UK you could even find craftspeople who went to specialist carpentry universities, and they know the different woods and grains.
For designers, if you have that kind of workmanship around you, you can go nuts with your creativity and know whatever you design can get made.
But often here, I design something great and then think, ‘they’re not going to know how to do that!’
And so it limits my creativity, which is very frustrating.
CID: Does that happen often?
One time I met with a carpenter who I asked to make me a simple door without the traditional friezes and ornamental acoutrements and he said, “no, you have to put these additions on,” it went back and forth and he refused to make it without the decoration on it – he was afraid the other carpenters would make fun of him that he was no good and couldn’t make the door properly!
Sometimes you can find good people though.
Kuwait has a lot of international residents and they demand a certain level of quality and so there are some contractors who can work to this advanced level of expectation, but because they are so few in number they are always busy.
CID: What other challenges are particular to the Middle East and how are these overcome?
One of the biggest challenges that we face, is that we are selling time, and ideas in a Merchant Culture that historically is used to the exchange of goods and not services.
In the profession of interior design, almost anyone that has moved some furniture around could consider themselves an interior designer.
This makes the profession not as appreciated as it should be.
I think this will change with time, as people begin to experience the difference between good design and no design. We feel it starting to happen in Kuwait already.
CID: Where do you get your inspiration from for each individual project and how do you keep your ideas fresh and innovative?
Each project is a different situation, sometimes I get inspired in my sleep other times while I am painting or swimming.
Sometimes it is a memory, a place I have been, and something someone said.
Inspiration is one of the most difficult things to measure and one of the biggest challenges we have in our profession. How do you forecast inspiration? How do you measure it?
How do you bill for it!
To keep my ideas fresh, I travel and I want to do more abstract art, especially sculpture.
I am trying to set up a studio, a sort of place where I can work without any interruptions, and explore my dreams.
CID: What projects are you working on in Dubai?
We are in the proposal stage for a furniture showroom and factory outlet, we are also working on a new concept in a retail outlet in Festival City.
We would like to work more in Dubai, and be part of this wonderful urban explosion.
CID: Is there a particular style or trend popular in Kuwait at the moment? What are clients asking for now?
I think the most frequent phrase I hear from clients is “I want modern, but warm”.
I am interested in exploring how to do this for interiors, how to inject a local flavour in a modern space.
I am searching for that in design, I am concerned that with the outbreak of franchises in the region we are getting so disoriented and losing the sense of place.
I walk in identical spaces in malls.
I am beginning to lose the excitement of travel and exploring new places because everything is starting to look and feel the same.
CID: What do you predict for the future of commercial interior design? What trends can you foresee emerging in the next ten years?
I predict, or actually hope for a backlash against ‘the mass production’ of space.
I hope to see more variety and individuality in design.
I think that lighting and projection screens will develop and have a major impact on space, I am not a futurologist but I think that there will also be virtual space.
Just like now I can be chatting with several people online, maybe we can all be sharing the same virtual space, fewer malls to build and each can customise their own environment! Who knows what will happen in this brave new world.
CID: What is your favourite project that you have worked on? - And the most challenging?
The most challenging projects are the architectural ones.
One current project, Showbiz is an immense entertainment space spread over 20,000 m². We did the architecture and the majority of the interior design too.
That was a hard but rewarding experience.
My favourite project, however, is one that I haven’t done yet as I am always striving for perfection and I feel like there will one day be a project that I manage to attain the sense that not one thing could have been done differently, and that is what I am aiming for.