Style supervisor

Design manager of KEO Interiors, Fergus Duncan, explains how the key to developing a great design team lies in combining skills and cultures and why Dubai is the perfect canvas.

KEO Interiors design manager, Fergus Duncan.
KEO Interiors design manager, Fergus Duncan.

When KEO International Consultants launched in 1964, the emphasis was on creating award-winning architecture with cutting-edge engineering. The client demand for a total design package was a catalyst for the establishment of KEO Interiors to become and mature into the distinct entity it is today. Fergus Duncan tells CID about the challenges and benefits of managing a growing commercial interiors team in Dubai's burgeoning design market.

How did your interest in interior design start?

My interest in interior design came about from combining my enjoyment of art and architecture. I studied art at school specifically line drawing, painting and sculpture but as I come from three generations of architects, interior design seemed the natural thing to do. I entered university in Cape Town and was one of just four students to complete the interior design course.

What happened after university?

In South Africa there was a compulsory national service for two years, so I enlisted with my friends, we had all our hair shaved off, we were given brown uniforms and suddenly we went from students to soldiers. I was lucky though; if you went to the armed services with a tertiary education then they tried to place you in a position that utilises your skills. So I became a photographer and graphic artist in the army.

When did your career as an interior designer start?

My first job was for Eric Hoffman and Associates in Cape Town, designing hotel and casino interiors for Sun International. After this I went to London and worked for EAA International designing European and Middle Eastern hotel interiors. The projects I worked on at EAA were the Hyde Park Intercontinental Hotel and the Royal Beach Hotel in Israel. My experience there gave me a great education in hotel design. After a number of years with EAA, I travelled over Europe and returned to South Africa.

In Cape Town I was invited to join the design team in developing Cape Town's new Convention Centre and the Arabella Sheraton Grand Hotel.

Why did you move to Dubai?

I have always gravitated to where the action is and I grabbed the opportunity to move to Dubai in 2003 and join Design Division as its Studio Manager. Never having been in the Middle East before, everything about Dubai and Design Division came as a new experience so I had two years fast and hard learning, managing 25 design staff, human resources, finance and contracts for Design Division Studio.

And why did you make the move to KEO International Consultants?

With my new-found experiences in design and management I was ready for a fresh challenge and I accepted a position with KEO International as interior design manager. I was tasked with establishing KEO Interiors in its Dubai branch and so over a period of time we recruited staff from oversees and the local market to establish a creative talent pool. We started as a support service to the architecture arm, but we have rapidly developed into a department that delivers complete interior design solutions concentrating mostly on hospitality and residential developments.

How closely do you work with the architects?

Being in the same office as the architects and engineers on a project allows the interior design team to work with and have an influence over the arrangement of the internal space both horizontally and vertically. We are able to plan the user's progress through a building starting from the entry level in a hotel where restaurants and lounges have the best access to views and adjacent facilities. We then also have a say on the size and shape of structural elements which may affect the outcome of other areas, for example the spatial arrangement of a hotel bedroom.

How much designing do you still manage to do yourself?

I realised early on in my design career that my strength lies in establishing the initial design direction and styling. I also enjoy working with the Client and establishing an easy rapport with the Client, which generally helps with the whole design process. When a project has moved beyond the approved concept stage the senior designer and his or her team will continue with the design with my input as things develop. I enjoy space planning, sometimes to the annoyance of others I often climb in and change things!

What projects is the team currently working on?

KEO is involved in an enormous number projects throughout the region and beyond. Locally however, we are working on a number of high-end and high-rise residential buildings at the Jumeirah Lakes Tower development; a rather architecturally striking five star hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road; a new four star beach resort in Ajman and another resort hotel on the picturesque Ras Al Khaimah coast line.

What challenges are there for designers working in the GCC?

From my own experiences, the challenge in Dubai for designers is the rapid pace at which we have to work. With most projects the concept is the fun part and the rest is hard work coupled with the need to work according to the project budget and program and at the same time meet the Client's expectations. The other challenge (which is actually quite nice) is the huge variety of materials available to us. I am sure most professional interior designers would agree that you need to be energetic, pro-active and prepared to work into the night to keep up with what's expected of us.

What do you think is the pressing issue on interior designers now?

Interior designers need to think in terms of sustainability by using materials that can be regenerated naturally and can limit the damage done to the environment. This issue follows on to the subject of being cost efficient and using valuable materials sparingly. This is where designers start to create interiors that are innovated and original. Another challenge for designers is working on projects where the design team is spread across three different continents.

Are there any trends particular to the hospitality design industry?

Hotel rooms are getting smaller, they can now be 25m². It is a real challenge as a designer to fit everything into a room this small. Designs need to be multi-purpose and multi-functional. With the new technology around now it is easier to create a mixed-use design.

Living, working, playing in the same space is a trend we've already witnessed in more mature markets, and this is definitely very big in Dubai. Modern living is open plan living.

Do you have a particular style of your own?

My style is really about the space first and the furniture second. The shape of a space affects the way you feel about being there. Do you want to stay or are you encouraged to move? So I always try and create changes in level, manipulate the heights, work with subtle space dividers, high walls with natural light coming from above or below and creating visual highs and lows with colour and texture.

With furnishings I have always loved a mix of styles - choosing pieces from diverse sources. Mixing antiques with contemporary classics is one of my favourite styles.

What's the secret to creating and maintaining a successful design team?

Like any team you really need to work together mixing different skills and abilities for the best possible outcome.

It is rewarding when talented people are encouraged to try harder and in doing so they discover things about themselves that helps them with their confidence and motivation, which can only result in better designs.

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