Outsized interiors go small

The Life: Interior design firms in the Emirates describe how their business models have adapted amid changing customer tastes.
Zameer Abdul Wahab, left, Rakesh Pillai, centre, and Sonal Jakkal of Green Curve Interiors discuss site plans for a client. Sarah Dea / The National
Zameer Abdul Wahab, left, Rakesh Pillai, centre, and Sonal Jakkal of Green Curve Interiors discuss site plans for a client. Sarah Dea / The National

When Green Curve Interiors was launched six years ago in Dubai, the company's sales steadily climbed as numerous clients requested elaborate corporate fit-outs and fancy office designs.

Then the global economy took a hit from which it has not yet fully recovered.

Customer tastes have shifted considerably since the good old days in the UAE's interior-design market.

"Before, they were going by the whims and fancies by any fit-out companies," says Zameer Abdul Wahab, the managing director of Green Curve Interiors.

"The clients are becoming more knowledgeable, which is good," says Mr Abdul Wahab. "They're very choosey in what they want."

Local firms that specialise in designing and decorating corporate offices say the market has become increasingly competitive, and projects are less profitable. Part of the reason is that many businesses in the Emirates are refurbishing existing offices instead of moving to new buildings, or are finding smaller workspaces to renovate, which means design and fit-out companies are putting out more resources but making less profit.

"We need to put more people working on more small projects," Mr Abdul Wahab says. "We are meeting the revenue [target], but the impact is on the margin."

Not every corner of this business has become less profitable, however. There are still "tremendous" growth opportunities for firms working in the hospitality sector, as well as great potential among auditoriums and sports facilities, says Cheryl Durst, the executive vice president and chief executive of the International Interior Design Association.

Ms Durst was in Dubai last month to speak about the state of the industry and preview The Office Exhibition, a trade show for office fit-out and design firms taking place May 15-17 at the Dubai World Trade Centre. After speaking with representatives of local companies, Ms Durst says "there does seem to be a glut of office space [in the UAE]. There are some empty spaces where I think people thought there would be fit-outs - and it's just office space kind of siting there."

Yet, Ms Durst says, some fit-out firms have noted an increase in work from businesses that have relocated to the Emirates from nearby countries that experienced political unrest last year. "That is causing some growth and expansion in Dubai," Ms Durst says.

Luxe Interior, a business that expanded to Dubai in 2007 after already being established in London, found it had to evolve quickly in a rapidly changing market.

"There was a lot of business before, and then suddenly it started to turn," says Sarah-Jane Grant, Luxe Interior's business development manager.

When the firm came to the Emirates, it started by focusing on creating what are known as branded interiors: customers could select different products with variations on design and colour but under a single brand name.

"We very quickly changed the business plan," says Ms Grant, adding that the company "changed their business model to reflect a more bespoke service, rather than off-the-shelf service."

Today, Luxe Interior's about 20 employees focus greatly on the growing food and beverage sector, where they design floor plans and work on lighting, plumbing and furniture design.

Residential work has also climbed over the past eight or nine months, and some of the "interest" that potential clients had shown last year has advanced to contract signings this quarter as businesses have approved budgets and released fresh cash.

"All of a sudden there seems to be a real change in mood for 2012," says Ms Grant.

nparmar@thenational.ae

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Published: February 29, 2012 04:00 AM

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