A designer in Dubai: ‘One client is building a villa for each of his six children’

An Irish interior architect describes working for eye-wateringly wealthy people who can spend more than €1 million on the furniture for a single room


I started studying interior architecture at Griffith College in 2008, when Ireland was falling into recession. As the final exams approached in 2012 and there was little sign of recovery in the construction sector, I thought about travelling to Australia or New Zealand to work, but changed to Dubai, where the economy is booming.

Dubai is a very inspiring place for design, because of the sky-high budgets. Clients want their buildings and interiors to make a statement and, due to the diverse nationalities and cultures here, there’s a great mix of style influences. It is a fantastic place to work as a young interior architect. There is so much building going on; it would be hard to think of another developed country that requires so many designers, architects and engineers at the moment.

I’ve been living here for almost four years, working with an interior design company. With just three employees, the company is small, but with big-budget projects for high-profile clients. 

It’s an amazing experience because the design, spec and scale of the private homes are like no other in the world. The enormous budgets mean the imagination has no boundaries.

We are currently working on six villas for our client in a neighbouring emirate, who is building one for each of his children. He owns three for his personal use also. He refers to them as villas, but they are basically palaces; each has between 10 and 12 bedrooms and is fully equipped with a spa, hair salon, cinema, gym, indoor and outdoor pool, a maid’s quarters and at least two kitchens, one purely for show.

I’m involved in every aspect of the interior design, from the layout of the villa with the architect before construction begins, right down to choosing the cushions.

Each house has a different theme, from Moroccan, to Arabic, to modern. Everything has to be branded, and he gives specific instructions about only buying Fendi or Armani furniture. He would choose a sofa based on how visible the branding was; if it had a large Fendi logo on the arm, he’d love it. He makes decisions based on the highest price, so he can tell his friends he has the most expensive lamp in the emirate, for example.

Exclusive brands

There are several large designer department stores here in Dubai where we take clients to purchase furniture and fittings. The Aati showroom is one of the most exclusive, with brands such as Fendi Casa, Minotti Home and Ralph Lauren. Other stores specialise in Armani or Bentley. You would never see these ranges in Ireland. Most clients just love the branding.

I brought a client this week to Aati to pick furniture for his majilis, which is like a sittingroom just for men. The perimeter of the room is lined with sofas, so they can sit facing each other. The furniture alone – Fendi seating, tables with LED lighting and huge chandeliers – cost the equivalent of €1.3 million. That didn’t even cover cushions or curtains.

I am often left speechless by how much money people are prepared to pay for a single item. A lot of it wouldn’t be to my taste, but we are directed by what the client wants. Men don’t like to talk about money with women, so we aren’t allowed to discuss the budget. One of our clients has a female personal assistant who signs the cheques and takes note of the quotes.

Our biggest client in Dubai is great to work for. He is in his 20s, and wanted to surprise the woman he was about to marry with a new house. He is not flashy, but he likes good quality. The client loved our contemporary designs, but asked for a few Arabic touches. We introduced some mashrabiya panels, decorative latticework screens with Arabic patterns made from wood or metal, to divide the spaces. Our clients here love the idea of having modern things, but none so far have gone with a completely contemporary, western style.

The tax-free income is fantastic, but the cost of living is extraordinarily high. I live in a tiny one-bed apartment. I always tell visitors not to judge my professional abilities based on my home’s interior, because there’s so little I can do with it. I would love to invest in a few nice pieces of furniture, but I don’t know how long I will be here, so everything I own is from Ikea. It is such a contrast coming home after working on palaces with designer furniture.

If I had the opportunity to work anywhere else in the world, I would definitely choose Tokyo or Singapore. But I think my next move will be back to Ireland. I was home at Christmas and I am more hopeful about my prospects there.

Seven-star striking
The building I love most in Dubai is the Burj Al Arab in Jumeirah, which claims to be the first seven-star hotel in the world. The exterior is very striking, visible from most angles in Dubai. The building is shaped like an Arabian dhow sail and represents a tribute to the nation’s seafearing heritage. The interiors are eclectic and bold, with a lot of marble, glass, and gold leaf embellishment. The carpets were all custom designed, using approximately 20 different colours throughout the building. The designer wanted the colour scheme to be deliberately outrageous, so everyone would remember the Burj Al Arab for its carpets.

In conversation with Ciara Kenny

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