Interior designer Kelly Hoppen makes her mark in the UAE

The famed designer talks about her new project in Dubai, disrupting the cruise industry and letting go of ego

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Kelly Hoppen regularly receives messages from children, telling her she is their idol and asking her for advice. On the morning we speak, she has just finished replying to one of these letters, from a young boy who is struggling with his mental health.

“Just believe in yourself”, is her response to him — and one gets the sense that these words have held her in good stead over the course of her own meteoric 43-year career.

She famously started out at the age of 16, designing a kitchen for a family friend.

“It was a disaster,” she says with a laugh. “I wish I still had pictures. But it wasn’t what it looked like, it was the fact I had the tenacity to do it. I was so driven and passionate about starting my own business.”

Since then, she has worked on thousands of projects, including homes, luxury hotels, private jets, super yachts, cruise ships and commercial airlines. She has written nine books, received countless awards, enjoyed enormous success in Asia, created a range of products for the home and featured on numerous television shows. In 2020, she was presented with a CBE for promoting creativity in British business, having received an MBE in 2009.

She thrives on the connection she builds with her clients, particularly when designing their homes.

“If it’s a private home, the relationship you build with someone is very intimate,” says Hoppen, who was born in Cape Town in South Africa, but moved to the UK as a child.

“A dream client is a client who wants you and that you have a relationship with, so you can create something exceptionally personal.”

One of the key lessons she has learnt along the way is to let go of ego. “I think when you’re younger, you have a massive ego. Everyone does. But, you know, the older I’ve got, the wiser I’ve become and I don’t think ego plays a part in a profession where you are helping someone create their home.”

Her experiences designing her own homes over the years have helped cement this point, although she admits to being “the client from hell”. She is currently designing a new house for herself, but refuses to disclose any details.

“I know how difficult I am, because it’s such a vulnerable state you’re in. I think because I have done so many homes for myself, it’s made me a better listener and a better person when creating homes for other people. And also, the older I’ve become, I just think you have to enjoy the process. It doesn’t need to be a fight. There’s enough of that in the world.”

Her experience designing private homes informs her work on larger projects, ensuring they remain intimate, real and “liveable”.

She is currently in Dubai to deliver the keynote address at Downtown Design and unveil her designs for Lanai Island Estates, a new project within Majid Al Futtaim’s Tilal Al Ghaf community. Designed by award-winning South African architecture firm Saota, the homes offer “wishlist” levels of luxury, Hoppen says.

Even when designing on this scale, she starts by envisaging an imaginary client in her head and, in this instance, it was “somebody fabulous, of course. It’s someone who appreciates art, culture, history, the land and the environment."

“The architecture is extraordinary in itself. It’s very much that ‘inside-out’ living, but because of the scale of it, the challenge was to make it warm and inviting and liveable, and that’s something we do well here, because we love the scale but also we love the intimacy. So it was all about the lighting and the levels and creating texture with marble and stone and wood.”

Hoppen has long favoured a signature East-meets-West aesthetic, which combines the order, harmony and balance of eastern design with the more maximalist elements of the West. Unexpected juxtapositions are her forte.

“I like finding balance in everything and so I like the elements of nothing with everything. That’s probably the simplest way to describe it,” she says.

Her definition of luxury, in a design context, is something that is warm, workable, balanced and beautiful. “It’s about having things around you that you like to touch and see and taste. And that’s on a very primal level.”

Her biggest design no-no is chintz. “I don’t like rooms that are so full you can’t breathe. That’s just not my design. I admire what people do in that format, it’s just not who I am and I will never be that.”

One of the few things left for her to design is a train, she says, and she would also like to do another city hotel, as most of her hospitality projects have been on the beach, including the new Lux Grand Baie Resort and Residences in Mauritius. Hoppen thinks there is much that could be done in the hospitality sphere to eradicate “the sameness” that has crept into a lot of hotel design.

“I think hotels have to give more than they potentially have in the past. I think people want to be in environments that are a home away from home, but give them a taste of something else. Everything has become too the same. I think we need to go back to discovering new things in new places, and that needs to be taken into account in hotel design, rather than sticking with a formula.”

She has already redefined the cruising industry through her collaboration with the Miami-headquartered Celebrity Cruises, which resulted in her designing the 1,500 suites aboard the Celebrity Edge and, more recently, the Celebrity Beyond, which set sail this summer.

“When we launched Edge, it changed the face of the industry. That was my intent. I said I wouldn’t take the project on unless I could do that, and I was very fortunate that at Celebrity, all the people involved at the top level gave me such a long rope to be able to really push the boundaries. It was a real moment in my career because it was such a big thing, at such a different level to what we do. But I loved it and my team loved it.”

More than four decades on, Hoppen still gets excited about design. “Yesterday, somebody came and showed me a new technique on marble, and that excited me. Looking at the sustainability of build and design is something I’m learning more about and that’s exciting. I have such an amazing team of young people and they are really enlightening. It’s amazing to mentor them and build a business around them.”

Although she does say she hates being the boss “because you don’t see yourself as that, but you are”.

Updated: November 18, 2022, 9:27 AM