Having met at the American University of Sharjah, Emirati citizens Maryam Alsuwaidi and Sulaiman Althehli’s tale of career and companionship is an inspiring story.
Althehli comes from a family heavily involved in business and knew that he always wanted to start his own company. With his entrepreneurial spirit boldly intact, it wouldn’t be long before he knew what that company would be. Alsuwaidi, on the other hand, was quickly filtering through subjects in school before realising her passion laid in design.
“For me, since I was small, I would draw a lot. I used to work a lot during the summers, so once I worked at an interior design department and I learned about [the field]. I didn’t major directly in it, though, I went first to business, and then media, and then I thought, ‘You know what? I want interior design,’ and that’s when I went to the American University of Sharjah,” explains Alsuwaidi.
After they met, the two halves seemed to work out a five year plan that seemed to be not only a result of their relationship, but empowered by it.
After a year or so of meeting, Alsuwaidi and Althehli married and decided to pack their bags and head for the United States, where they would continue their studies at Utah State University.
“We knew that this is what we were going to do,” says Alsuwaidi. “And Sulaiman travels a lot, so he knows a lot about art, which is why he was interested in doing this also…Even when I am doing my work, he always has some input [to offer for] the designs and technicalities. In the business itself, I’m the lead designer so I design the projects [while] he does all the other aspects, such as following up with the work and visiting sites.”
After completing their respective graduate programs at Utah State University, the couple moved back to the UAE and began taking freelance work. Alsuwaidi and Althehli’s portfolio began with small boutiques, especially in Abu Dhabi; however, today their work spans across the UAE and includes other GCC countries.
“When we started work at the beginning, we noticed there were a lot of people asking about the designs, so we saw that the market especially in Abu Dhabi is looking for interior designers,” explains Alsuwaidi. “We have clients from Dubai as well, but I think in Abu Dhabi we lack having those creative studios. So our office is not [traditional]; it’s a very relaxing atmosphere. It’s like going into a home – so it’s more of a creative place. That’s what we don’t have in Abu Dhabi and that’s what we are trying to create.” Alsuwaidi and Althehli attribute the lack of Emirati designers to the educational system.
According to them, interior design is a relatively new study and career path for UAE citizens, as it had only recently been introduced as a study within the university programs.
Althehli explains: “I think because for the universities—especially government universities—interior design was only recently introduced, like to the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), where a lot of people study… They still choose, though, media and graphic design [over interior design].
Alsuwaidi adds: “[Graphic design and media] are more comfortable for them because they’re more known. Many people ask me, ‘Do you just decorate homes?’ and I have to explain that I studied architecture first, so we consider ourselves interior architects because we do everything that has to do with interiors. Many people don’t really know what we do or what designers do, so that’s why they don’t choose it as a career path.”
Alsuwaidi and Althehli launched Design Talk in 2012, a local design firm based in Abu Dhabi that takes on commercial and residential projects. The team consists of a handful of other designers and technicians with various backgrounds. From Iraq to India, the team at Design Talk is international and eclectic.
Althehli says: “It’s good to have a diverse team because you want different cultures and they bring their own ideas and their own designs from their backgrounds.”
According to Althehli, Design Talk’s creativity is what sets it apart from competitors that are currently available in the region.
Alsuwaidi adds: “We’re beginning to be known for modern with a touch of Islamic design. I like to add a touch of Islamic design, but not in all our projects, of course…I think having the background of being a Muslim, and especially with my thesis, which was about shaping Islamic design into the modern century [is why] I got very involved with this.
“I like to use geometric design and calligraphy just to add a touch of uniqueness to modern design. And I think many people are interested in that sort of thing…You see a lot of different styles, but having [an Islamic touch] is special.”
Currently, Design Talk’s wide portfolio includes a number of residential properties, boutiques, cafes, exhibition stands and spas. And Alsuwaidi and Althehli are persistent about having and continuing positive relationships with their clients.
Althehli says: “We like to [continue our relationships with our clients] and they like to do that too, because after we design their shop, they will want the exhibition stand to have some relation to that design, so we can keep to the same brand and they like that they don’t have to think about it—the brand stays consistent.”
Currently, Design Talk is offering summer jobs and internships for those living in the UAE to offer the chance to explore the sector. In doing so, the team is working towards creating a platform for students to experience interior design. Alsuwaidi and Althehli, are in effect, bridging the gap between locals and new forms of craft.
Alsuwaidi concludes: “I went also to the Higher Colleges of Technology to talk about interior design so I could educate the students there about what it is like to have your own business or work as a freelancer. I would like to get locals involved.”