Rebecca Gernon arrived in Dubai 18 years ago, a fresh-faced architecture graduate in a country where opportunity was as abundant as female professionals were rare.
In a story that reads like an architect’s dream, she found herself working on one of the most iconic buildings of all time, the Burj Al Arab. One of her most visible contributions was the hotel’s helipad, a structure that was inspired, quite accidentally, by the Starship Enterprise.
After her stint with Atkins, Gernon joined Italy-headquartered interior design firm Decorpoint, where she was tasked with heading up the company’s Dubai office and developing its commercial interior design portfolio. In this capacity, Gernon worked on a series of high-profile hotels, including The Fairmont Dubai, Grand Hyatt Dubai, Meridien Mina Seyahi and Le Royal Meridien.
In 2001, she launched her own firm, Serendipity by Design, which specialises in master planning, architecture and interior and landscape design. While the Dubai-based company has a satellite office in Manila,
Gernon remains lead designer on all projects. Commercial Interior Design caught up with Gernon to find out more about her very Middle Eastern career, and about transitioning comfortably between interior design and architecture.
Tell us about your career so far. I came to Dubai 18 years ago. Architecture is my background, so I started working for Atkins as an architect on the Burj Al Arab. There was a three-man design team on that project.
Tom Wright was the main architect and there were two other English architects, as well as myself. It was an amazing experience for me – I was straight out of college and working on this amazing, iconic building. This was also my first insight into interior design on an international level, and all of the drama that goes with it.
I worked for Atkins for a year, and my claim to fame is that I designed the helipad at the Burj Al Arab. Tom was my idol at the time. I was 24 and he was designing this incredibly iconic building. He asked me have a crack at designing the helipad and I was terrified because it was such a prominent thing on the building.
I tried lots of designs, but nothing was coming to me. I sat there for three days. I remember the night before I was supposed to present my idea, it was getting later and later, and I had nothing.
Eventually I sketched the Starship Enterprise, out of Star Trek, as a joke. I left it on my desk and went home, wondering whether there was any point going into the office the following day.
When Tom came in the next day, he had to walk pass my desk to get to his office. And he saw this sketch on my desk. When he called the meeting, he brought the sketch with him and said: ‘Look guys, this is the helipad, isn’t it amazing!’
How did you make the move into interior design? I worked at Atkins for a year and then I was approached by Decorpoint, which wanted to open an office here. That was the start of my interior design career.
I studied architecture and master planning but I always had an interest in interiors. I lived in Paris for six months and my flatmate at the time was a stage set designer for the Opera House in Paris.
They were always behind schedule so I used to help him out, painting the sets and so on. So there was always an interest in interiors. And my design style is quite theatrical, which I think comes from there.
I was responsible for the Decorpoint office. They already had clients here but they were mostly residential clients. They wanted me to set up the commercial side of things. At that stage, hotels were just starting to be built here. They were building the Meridien Mina Seyahi and the Meridien at the airport and they were also building lots of shopping centres. So there was a lot of work.
I did all of Decorpoint’s commercial design work, so I was responsible for all of the Meridien hotels that were being built at that stage. I was with Decorpoint for eight or nine years and then I decided to open my own company.
Why did you branch out on your own? I’d been with Decorpoint for a long time. The office grew from two people to 55 people over that period of time. Also, I wanted the company to branch out into architecture and masterplanning but they weren’t interested in that – they wanted to stay with interior design.
So we parted ways. But they were like my family here, so I didn’t want to steal clients from them either. As such, in the beginning I concentrated more on masterplanning and architecture. I got my own clients. And it was the right time for it. Dubai was going into the real estate market and all these developments were starting to come up.
I’ve been doing that since 2001. We’ve been very lucky. We’ve worked on great projects, from masterplanning all the way down to interiors. I think what our office offered, which wasn’t really available then, and still isn’t available now in most firms, is we could take a project from a blank piece of paper, right until someone moving in.
We do everything from masterplanning to landscaping, to architecture and from interiors to fit-out. We do the whole realm. We’ve done that on quite a few projects.
Do you do much commercial work? At the moment, interiors wise, we are mostly doing residential. Architecture-wise, we do resorts and residential resorts. We have one job that was awarded to us in Egypt but we are obviously not sure what’s happening with that now. The project included two shopping centres in Cairo.
How difficult was it setting up a business on your own in Dubai? When I first came here, it was very difficult. There were very few female professionals here. I remember the first project management meeting that I went to for Meridien.
The existing hotel was there and they were building an extension. I went to this site meeting and there were 25 men sitting in this portacabin, all Arabic.
One of them said: ‘Excuse me madam, the hotel is over there’. I explained that actually I was the interior designer and the project manager and they were all stunned. But I found that once you gained their respect, they had the utmost respect for you.
When I first came to Dubai, there was no design style. It was only once the hotels came in that interior designers started coming in. Also, the Internet wasn’t really in existence then, so it was a real challenge finding brands.
To what extent has Serendipity by Design been impacted by the economic slowdown? It is still a challenge getting work. Anyone who tells you that they arebusy is exaggerating. At the moment, it is still about survival. But we were here before the boom, when there was half the population, and there was work then, so I’m hopeful.
Does this region offer greater opportunities to smaller firms than other markets, would you say? The experience encompasses a lot more here. The client trusts you more in this part of the world. I would also say that it is less competitive here.
It is not like Europe where the big firms are the gods and they get all the projects. Here even the smaller companies have a chance.
A lot of the bigger firms here have a very cookie-cutter style. I think that’s because the principal designer is no longer designing, so their style is being replicated by the rest of the employees. With principles that are still designing, their style and work is constantly evolving.
My style has changed dramatically over the last 18 years. With smaller firms you get that variety.
You started out as an architect, then moved into interior design and eventually went back to architecture. How easy is it to switch between these two disciplines? Architects do have a certain snobbishness when it comes to interior design. When I moved into interiors, my peers at college didn’t really understand why.
But moving into interior design has taught me a lot about architecture. It has definitely impacted my approach to architecture. We design from the inside out – and we create much better designs as a result.
Architects don’t always consider how people will use a space. Interior design is the human scale of a building. The human experience of a building is at the interior design level.
People have an emotional response to interiors, and for an interior design to be successful you need to get that emotional response.
People generally try and play it safe with interiors. But I always say that interior design needs to be theatrical – and it has to be right for the space.
It is all about the ambience that you create. People do not have to remember the colour of the floor, but they need to remember how a space made them feel.