designMENA interviews Perkins+Will’s design team in Dubai

designMENA visits the Dubai office of Perkins + Will, which recently won CID’S 2016 Interior Design Firm of the Year Award.

Established in 2010 by just three people, the Perkins+Will office in Dubai has grown in just six years and today employs a team of 100 people. The rapid growth has brought many positive changes, such as attracting talented designers and architects, delivering bigger and more exciting projects and working with high-profile clients. Now the main challenge is to maintain the company’s essential family-like atmosphere.

From the founding members to young designers, Commercial Interior Design talks to them about mentorships and career development, what has caused the firm to grow so fast, about balancing the roles of managing and designing, pitching for new projects and dealing with clients’ expectations, as well as what keeps them all motivated.

Diane Thorson, Design Principle

Diane Thorsen joined Perkins+Will as design principal in 2010, building its regional team together with managing director Steven Charlton. Her experience encompasses a diverse range including international projects for large blue-chip corporate clients, large governmental buildings as well as boutique hotels, residential and retail projects across Europe, Africa and the MENA region.

Leading the creative design direction and managing the design process at Perkins +Will, Thorsen says that the company’s growth is, in fact, the result of having and retaining the right people and focusing on design quality.

“The fact that we have people from so many different nationalities is a huge benefit,” says Thorsen. “They have different exposures to design languages and our studio acts like a melting pot of fabulous ideas. When you have a group of creative people doing creative things, you attract the best talent, and that’s the result of our growth.


“We’ve made such an emotional connection with people in the studio. They could move for more money, they could move for more opportunities, but they choose to stay because of the people and that’s what makes this group so incredible.”

Commenting on the challenges of managing such a diverse team, Thorsen says they are not seen as a group that focuses on a product of a single mind.

“While I am design director, I actually embrace everyone’s ideas and look to bring out the best idea,” she says. “Design is my passion, and I love to be involved with every project. I cannot be involved hands-on, but with my experience, I have a different eye and know what is going to work in this region specifically.”

Despite its rapid growth, Thorsen says that the company’s ethos hasn’t changed, especially when it comes to supporting young designers and their careers.

“It is not just paying the lip service to that; it is understanding individuals’ career growth and where they like to go, where they see themselves in years to come and how can we be part of that growth. Because that’s essentially our legacy – growing individuals to become the best they can be. And that’s what Perkins+Will is all about. When people come here we really get to know them as individuals, we understand their families; we know how many children they have and we understand where they come from. At the end of the day, people do business with people. They don’t do it with a company.”

She says that, particularly in this region, there is an expectation that because of the speed of project delivery, young designers will “leapfrog over the traditional career path”.

“But, this is an industry where there is a lot of liability and responsibility in how we design,” she says. “So, typically we will assign a mentor to work with someone, so they won’t be just thrown in the deep end and expected to swim. But, there is this expectation that their careers are going to be on a very, very steep growth curve and they are. They are extraordinary people who just swim. They really are.”

Focussing on designs that will stand a test of time, Thorsen says that design in the Middle East is often about decoration rather than design quality.

She continues: “On the other hand, there is an extraordinary vernacular architecture from this region and that’s what we have been focusing on. Historically, there is a clever and quality design from the region, using natural shading or the oasis concept of greening spaces and there are lots of things that we can draw from the history. It is almost looking back to look forward.”

Thorsen was designing hotels and high-end residences before joining Perkins+Will, whose primary focus has been on corporate interiors.

“There is such a crossover of design now, from corporate into hospitality into residential and into food and beverage. They have all started to merge, and I feel it is almost like a mixed design language. Residential towers have F&B venues on the ground floors while corporate interiors now have a hospitality feel and often include coffee spaces. In the end, design is about creating beautiful and functional spaces that people love to be in.

“However, we want to grow the hospitality division. Healthcare is also crucial to us because we truly want to make a difference in people’s lives. We believe this is what we stand for and that good design can transform people’s lives. It is such a powerful statement, and healthcare can transform someone’s experiences from being stressful to something that is calming.”

Thorsen also says that she wants to integrate all of Perkins + Will’s disciplines, from architecture and landscaping to interior design, into one human experience.

“The landscape becomes part of the fabric of the building, the building connects with the landscape, with the place and the region, so the human experience of buildings becomes just one overall experience,” she says.

For her, design doesn’t feel like work and being surrounded with creative people that are happy to come to the office is what keeps her motivated.

“Getting up every morning and thinking that you are going to come to a group of people who are happy to be here and who are motivated themselves is enough motivation for me. When you do this kind of work, you have to love it. Design surrounds us, and it is part of the fabric of who we are. Every single thing that we touch, someone had thoughts about it, drew, built and made it.”

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