At The High End. An Interview with Arabian Business

Abboud Malak of Studio M has designed some of the plushest offices in Dubai. CID finds out more about his work.

Abboud Malak’s interior design career began in the US, in the midst of a frenzied, dot com-driven boom. Fresh from university, Malak set up his own studio in west Hollywood, initially focusing on the residential sector. After a successful six years, he started hearing about an up-and-coming city halfway across the world: Dubai. Being a Canadian citizen of Palestinian origin, and having lived in Qatar as a youth – before moving to Europe and, eventually, the US – Abboud was drawn to the region.

He moved to Dubai to take on the role of in-house designer for the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), and was responsible for the interiors of the iconic Gate building. Once his work with the DIFC was done, Abboud again branched out on his own, setting up Studio M, a design consultancy that has enjoyed particular success in the high-end corporate governmental sector. We caught up with Malak to talk about about the dangers of being pigeon-holed, the importance of promoting local talent and the definition of good design.

 How did you get into design?

I think there was always an interest, ever since I was a little kid. But it became serious after I finished a Fine Arts degree and I realised that I was going to end up being either a painter or a university professor – and that neither was for me.

I studied in Los Angeles. I graduated from Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, with a BA in Fine Arts and then I attended the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, California, and studied Interior Architecture. In the US when you are starting out and you want to open your own studio, you normally start off in the residential sector – unless you go and work for a big firm, which I didn’t want to do.

From the get go, I started off on my own. It was a bit harder, of course, but I think I started off at the right time. It was the late 1990s, so the dot com, ‘boom’ years. I opened my own studio in west Hollywood. I had a partner and we worked there for about six years. We did a lot of great work, mostly residential, but also a lot of retail stores.

 How did you become involved with the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC)? Is this why you moved to Dubai?

 Yes, I came specifically for DIFC. I was hired by them to be their in-house designer and to handle their image. Interestingly enough, when I arrived, DIFC was just about to get started. The Gate building was barely under construction. None of that existed.

I came here when the market was still quite young and even shopping for furniture was difficult. There were a couple of furniture stores and that was it. I have to say it was quite hard sourcing the right materials, finding the right suppliers, and getting the right manufacturers and contractors. It was a huge learning curve for everybody.

The first year was very difficult for me because I had to deal with shifting countries and starting all over, while getting used to a new way of working. For example, I had to shift from the empirical system to the metric system, which is a big deal, even though you don’t even realise it. And on top of all those issues, you had to deal with finding the right people to build things, so it was definitely tough.

I was the lead interior designer for the DIFC Authority at the Gate building. When we completed that project, the international crowd thought that it was the most interesting corporate work to come out of Dubai. And equally, residents of Dubai were amazed by the new style of design and the unique architecture of the Gate. They embraced it, and look where we are today.

 Were there cultural differences to contend with when you first arrived?

Once you understand the reasoning behind it, it becomes just another challenge to embrace. Being of Arab origin and speaking the language helped me a lot in dealing with this environment from a different perspective. I understand the nuances. You pick up things that you might not, otherwise. It’s like when you translate a joke into another language. It loses something. You have to speak the language to get the joke. It’s like that. It helps a lot.

You have to be aware of the cultural differences, even in your choice of colours. Here people prefer their woods to be dark. They don’t like light woods. They don’t like white, so you tend to be a little bit more colourful and more vibrant. Here people prefer polished, mirror finishes. They like marble. In the west, the preference is for finishes to be more honed, muted, matt. You have to be aware of these things.

 Has Dubai managed to create a design language of its own in the time that you’ve been here?

I think it does exist. It’s not necessarily noticeable because there is such a large number of people having their first experiences here in Dubai. I also think a lot of work in Dubai is designed outside Dubai for Dubai, rather than designed in Dubai for Dubai. And that makes a really big difference.

Doing it remotely, you can miss a lot of the details. It’s important to come and live in a space, and get a feel for a city, before you start designing. For me it’s very important. You can give me a floor plan but I have to go and visit the space in the morning, and again at noon, and then in the afternoon. I want to see where the light is, I want to see how it feels, the orientation of it. If you are doing it 12,000 miles away, it may be difficult. You could miss that. You could do a great job, but you could also miss something.

You notice it in Lebanon, where they do have a modern, Middle Eastern aesthetic, or in Turkey where they also have a modern Middle Eastern aesthetic. You can’t mistake it for anything else, it is definitely Middle Eastern. And that’s probably because the majority of designers doing work in Turkey, are Turkish, or in Lebanon, Lebanese.

In Dubai, it’s not an easy thing to do. The carpenters that build the dhows that you see alongside the Creek, for example. We are very far removed from them. I would love to go to one of those dhow builders and find out what kind of wood they use and find out whether we could build furniture out of that.

It would be nice to take those raw materials and do something with them in a completely different context. But I don’t find that that is a particularly accessible thing to do, which is a shame.

Whose responsibility is it to guide the evolution of a local design aesthetic?

I think we all need to make the time, because it is in our interests to build that design culture here.

As the ‘older’ generation of designers here, we need to take the time and push the younger generation through. We need to invest in them. It’s there and it’s still young, but there is definitely talent around. I’ve gone to a few exhibitions at Traffic, and at some of the other galleries in Dubai, and I’ve seen these young Middle Eastern designers and it’s impressive how far they’ve come in just the last few years. It’s quite amazing.

The standard has shot up so dramatically. I think that in a few years time, with the next surge of the economy, these ‘kids’ will have a lot to say. It will be their time to shine.

That’s when you are going to see true, authentic, modern, Middle Eastern work. I’m 100% sure that is going to happen. The trick is to keep those kids here. Not have them feel like there’s no work for them here so they should go abroad. It’s very important that we put that talent to good use because if you don’t use it, it’s just another great opportunity wasted.

What makes a good designer?

It’s about levels of passion for what you do. You have to be very curious. You have to be nosey, you have to want to touch things and not be shy. If I walk into a hotel room, I’ll pretty much tear it apart. I want to know how it is put together. I want to understand it. Having a curious nature helps a lot. You understand how things are built and what materials are used, and how they are connected. All of that helps you in the design process. When I first came to Dubai, I really looked around, and took a lot of pictures – not just of Burj Al Arab. I took pictures of the old stuff, and the little things. That’s what’s interesting.

Tell us about Studio M.

Once I finished work on the DIFC project, the governor of DIFC suggested that I stay in Dubai. DIFC offered to help me get a license and they started feeding me projects. At the time, all of these government entities, such as Dubai Holding, the Executive Council and the Executive Office, were very young and were just starting out.

All of these entities were very new to the landscape, so one project led to another and there was a kind of snowball effect. Because they were all successful, you get that repeat business.

Do you predominantly focus on commercial work?

It’s interesting because I’ve been put into that niche. I would love to do more hospitality work. That really attracts me. I find that a lot of my corporate work, because it is always very high end, ends up leaning towards the hospitality look. That’s why I would love to get into hospitality a bit more. But yes, for now we mainly concentrate on high-end, governmental corporate work.

Are there inherent challenges when you are working with government entities? How modern are they in their approach to design?

I think things are changing. Maybe because I have done work for some of the most important entities in Dubai, and those are the places where most of the big decisions are made. Important people end up visiting those offices and when they see them, they think: “This is interesting, and it’s very different to our office space. Why can’t our office look like that?”

What are you working on now?

I am doing another corporate office. This one is in Emirates Towers and it’s for the ministry of state. Because we are a small firm, we tend to – depending on the market, of course – work on two or maybe three projects at a time. We don’t like to spread ourselves too thinly.

Are attitudes towards office spaces evolving in this market?

I personally believe that there are spaces that, without you knowing it, make you feel good. And I think in a working environment, which is where you are spending the majority of your day and your life, it is really important to focus on that.

It’s like your home. Your home should be an important part of your life and so should your office. It’s funny how you find a lot of people focusing on the things that they spend the least amount of time in, like their cars – but their homes and offices are not necessarily important. That’s ironic. You’ll find somebody willing to spend AED 700,000 on their car but not willing to spend AED 30,000 on a sofa. And I think, wait a second, how many hours a day do you spend in your car, and how many hours do you spent sitting on that sofa?

I think that the most important thing about an office is that it makes you feel comfortable. And how do you make someone feel comfortable? You give them the right chair, you give them the right desk, you make sure that the material of the desk makes sense. Light it well, and use materials that are comfortable and relaxing to the eye. It’s not about shock value or something that looks amazing for five minutes but then gives you a headache.

How do you define good design?

First of all, good design doesn’t need to be expensive design. And bad design is not always cheap. You can spend a lot of money on bad design. And you can spend very little money on great design.

It’s about having the right client who is willing to see the design through and who trusts their designer. That’s very important. You have to have a good client and a good designer. One of the two is not enough.

The interview can be found on Arabian Business.