Crazy concepts

A love for originality coupled with a drive to conquer new markets, makes Alfred Johnson a formidable prospect.

Founder of Imagination Design, Alfred Johnson.
Founder of Imagination Design, Alfred Johnson.

Raised in India, schooled in London and boasting a Scottish-American heritage, it is not easy to classify Alfred Johnson, and with clients as diverse as Dubai World Central, Nakheel, Loewe and MasterCard that's exactly what he's aiming for. He talks to CID about the challenges of being a young designer in a young market; designing for well-known brands, and his lofty plans for domination of a global design scene.

CID: How did you get into interior design?

After college I did an internship for young designers in India before heading to the UK where I started designing exhibition stands. Then I moved to Dubai to work for London Design, and after getting to the level of creative director at the age of 24 I decided to go it alone and I started the concept design firm Imagination.

CID: And why did you decide to do this in Dubai?

It was a conscious decision to enter a previously unexplored market - to be part of the growing economy and what this country is going to be. We would like to be a firm who will definitely be recognised as being part of Dubai's growth as a city and very few design firms in the world get a chance to do that.

CID: What is Imagination's speciality?

I don't think there is a niche that we can be put into as we work with advertising firms, product designers, architects, structural engineers and exhibition organisers. We have recently pitched for a couple of towers and a boutique hotel, we are just waiting to hear.

CID: Is hospitality the direction you want to be moving in?

We like a challenge and it is definitely a direction we would like to explore. We would like to see what we can do on a global scale rather than stay a regional niche design firm. It is a tougher environment to deal with yet your work of art stays longer.

With an exhibition, you have three to five days to either make an impact or you don't, and that is tricky. With exhibition stands the aim is to enhance a company's global positioning by projecting their image. We are one spoke in the corporate wheel.

CID: Some of your clients are still quite young when compared to their global counterparts, so being involved in moulding a brand's image at such an early stage must be quite exciting?

Absolutely. When we get briefed on it, we are dealing with people from a strong background such as multi billion dollar companies like Nakheel. We start by doing our research, we travel the world, we know what's new. We are finding that things that aren't shocking anymore don't get first preference. Unless you have a unique concept to project to the world you are not considered unusual. You are just one of the run of the mill firms.

CID: Is there a lot of pressure to continually come up with innovative ideas?

When you genuinely love your work and you are passionate about it, it's easy. You get a brief and the clients in general are not expecting what you are going to come back with. We get briefed in Dubai but then think about it being received in London and New York.

We've never really had a challenge that was mentally impossible to achieve. Not yet at least. We would love to be floored with one.

CID: Where do you get your ideas from?

I am a keen skydiver, and that really makes you think about life in a crazy way but I have no particular set influences, you can mix a variable of events such as stone, blonde hair or sky diving and all of a sudden you get a boutique hotel for women. You just never know when inspiration is going to hit, and when it does it's like a shot.

CID: How much of your personal style do you try and retain in your projects?

I am told I do have a personal style, but it varies so much. I have known people to say ‘that has Alfred Johnson in it'. There are certain materials that I enjoy using, one out of every four or five designs I have done has glass on the floor for instance. Underlit, stones or fusion glass.

We could merge crocodile leather between glass and light it and we know that the right people walk in and are instantly impressed. You walk into an average exhibition show and you say ‘that's alright' and you walk past one of ours and go, ‘now that's cool.'

CID: If you visit an exhibition, do you hide and gauge people's reactions?

When you start out, you always want to know what the reception is. I designed a small stand for MasterCard and I was a nobody back then so I watched people walk past and people were like ‘wow'. I am more confident now and I understand that the general public are the biggest critics and if you want to be in the creative business then you have to be open to being criticised.

CID: What do you think would be the biggest criticism of your designs?

The best criticism that we sometimes get is perhaps we should be more conservative and I don't know whether that's a good thing or not. Being more conservative would make our firm just an ordinary everyday thing, just making money. We would rather be recognised as a firm to be dealt with if you want a good solid design. We want to be known for being unafraid.

CID: You're only 26 years old; is your age a hindrance in this market?

I've found that people in London or New York don't really care as they recognise the talent not just the age, but I do find that there are some apprehensions in this part of the world, but then it's up to me to prove them wrong by creating something amazing.

We would like not to be judged by our age, we would like to be judged by what we can creatively produce. It is a challenge though to gain certain commissions because over here it is much more about who you know rather than the quality of your pitch, which is quite frustrating.

CID: What are you working on at the moment?

We are busy with stands for the Arabian Travel Market. We are doing a project right now for Oqyana Real Estate [the subsidiary of Kuwaiti firm Investment Dar] who is selling the Australia Island on the World development.

Most of the companies we work with are aiming to connect with a global market and so our designs have to reflect that and be welcoming to all cultures and nationalities. This is why we focus on clientele expectations as well as the client requirements.

CID: What have you got planned after the ATM?

I love designing crazy concepts, at the moment I'm trying to get funding for a new museum concept that I've come up with.

CID: Where did that particular idea come from?

I was bored on a flight and I started sketching on a flight napkin, I just had a very brief idea and then your mind just takes over and you work it out. One thing led to another and I 3D'd it and it's ready. I've also designed an organic bus station that we're going to try and sell it to the RTA or someone who really wants to take a chance.

CID: What are your plans for the future?

My studio has officially just moved to New York. I will eventually be based in New York and keep coming out to Dubai. The plan is to then set up a branch in London and have the three bases. I would not want to overdo it because when you do, you start to become a process and we definitely don't want it to be doing that.

CID: To go from a young market like Dubai to an established market such as New York is a fairly big leap.

That's what we want to do and as a firm we are young enough to be able to take these risks. If we perceive ourselves as a global firm, now's the time to prove it. Let's fight it out in New York in a big game with the big boys. What's the worst that can happen?

Stability was never something I ever had so I haven't really believed in it, which I think powers me on to try new things.

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