CID Magazine – 2010

28 February 2018

CID finds out how Dubai’s locally based boutique firms are faring in the current economic climate.

Small, large, local, boutique, international or independent, no interior design firm has escaped entirely unscathed from the tumultuous conditions of the past two years. Many larger firms have been able to fall back on the security of a global network and recognized brand – major sources of comfort for prospective clients. Smaller, more local firms have had no such safety net.

There has traditionally been room on the market for firms of all sizes. Smaller, locally-headquartered boutique firms have had their own distinct target audience, as have the larger more international brands. “I still feel that there is work for all sorts of designers, big and small. I don’t believe they actually compete at all. The target audience is completely different and the variables that determine the choice of designer are numerous,” said principal, Studio M, Abboud Malak.

The smaller-scale, more personalized and detail-orientated jobs that boutique firms excel at are often not of great interest to larger firms, suggested Alfred Johnson, principal, Imagination. “The benefits of being a local boutique firm is that we get awarded commissions that require a boutique design approach, which may not appeal to larger international firms.

“Our aesthetic delves deeper into each brief and every aspect of the space, which often results in the most unusual interior language written on the toughest of design canvases. Furthermore, all our clients receive a personalized approach to their space,” Johnson maintained.

But traditional business patterns have been disturbed by unstable market conditions. The large-scale projects that used to sustain the bigger design firms are becoming increasingly scarce – meaning the firms of all sizes are currently competing for the small to medium-sized jobs.

“Limited work and heavy competition are creating a difficult environment and pushing fees down. I think the impact has been the same for both large and small design firms. As a matter of fact, were finding ourselves competing with the larger firms for the small-to medium-sized projects. Creative output now is price driven and not design driven,” said Malak.

This does not necessarily mean the sounding of the death knell for smaller firms, however. Operationally nimble, these firms are more agile and often, as a result, better able to adapt to changing market conditions. Many smaller firms pride themselves on the relationships that they are able to develop with their clients – which in times of trouble translates into loyal to our firm,” confirmed Ellen Søhoel, former Bishop, managing partner, Bishop Design Associates. “I believe that smaller firms have proved that they can weather the storm, probably due to more manageable operational costs. They also have to spend less time strategizing their future plans and then awaiting approvals from the hierarchy of a larger firm before action is taken. We feel that most boutique practices have been successful in taking the correct measures and appropriate actions faster to sustain themselves through the recession,” she said.

Of course, smaller-scale, boutique projects come with their own inherent problems/ “The quality of boutique-sized contracting companies is a real challenge,” noted Zain Mustafa, managing director of Zain Mustafa interiors.

“Their so called skilled labour has no eye for detail, a quality finish or a sense of on-time delivery. This is a continuous battle we have fought over the years, regardless of the ethnic background of the contracting team’s labors.”

On the other hand, locally-headquartered firms have the benefit of market familiarity, particularly when compared to large international companies that are working on projects from thousands of miles away, or even their smaller satellite offices, which need time to adapt to their surroundings.

“I think being present here allows a designer access to the right clients, to select the right contractors, source the correct materials for this climate and environment, and get a better sense of the city and what makes it unique. I think this is the only way to get very site-specific, innovative work.

“Being present in this market will certainly make a design firm more agile and a lot more responsive during the post-contract phase, particularly when it comes to unforeseen site conditions, variations and designer driven changes,” Malak suggested.

Ultimately, some clients will always perceive larger international brands as a safe bet. “To a certain extent these are still clients not aware of the benefits that locally-based boutique practices can offer, and the fact that we can compete on an international level with our designs,” Søhoel admitted.

There will always be misconceptions about what a smaller firm can achieve, Johnson added. “We do get overlooked on projects that we would normally have no issues designing, simply due to the size of our firm, as well the projection that comes with being a boutique design firm. Most clients tend not to take chances with commissioning a boutique firm with a project, due to the perception that we might not be able to handle the details that a large space entails,” he said.

However, as clients become more aware and better educated, this is gradually changing, Mustafa suggested. “Clients are not as naïve as they used to be. Today’s client is more aware, educated and sophisticated in their knowledge of the products and brands available.”

Smaller firms are also increasingly perceived as providing more original, out-of-the-box design solutions, at a much lower cost, Mustafa noted.

“A small firm is by nature more nimble and flexible. Larger groups tend to follow a certain design formula and that tends to get repetitive,” Malak agreed. “I think the best and most creative work comes from the smaller, more focused design companies,”

Furthermore, with smaller companies, key figures play a fundamental role in every stage of the design process, creating a more unified and consistent approach, “I believe a principal has to set a clear visions for his or her firm from a creative point of view. That will eventually become their calling card,” said Malak.

According to Bishop, there have been numerous instances where clients have initially opted to work with larger global firms and then changed their minds midway through a project. “Quite often we are approached by clients previously engaged with larger international companies, as their projects have not been prioritized and they have not been receiving the level of service they were expecting or had been promised.

“also, sometimes clients change to local firms in the middle of a project as a result of frustrations over the travelling required, time differences, the difference in weekends and working days, loss of time and so on,” she noted.

Imagination witnessed a similar scenario when it was approached to submit ideas for Etisalat’s new retail concept. “Clients seem to take chances when they believe in the concept of the designer that is presenting it. In our case, Etisalat, being the billion dollar brand that it is, having taken a chance with an international design firm and failed, put their faith in what we presented, which resulted in them wining not just design accolades but consumer appreciation and loyalty.

“However, we do also get clients that crave the security that the larger firms have to offer, if they have a large project to commission,” Johnson admitted.

Smaller firms have an important role to play in these times of uncertainty, suggested Mustafa – and the big boys have much to lose from underestimating their importance. “In today’s recession-driven economy, clients are looking at boutique-sized companies not only for cost reasons, but also as we provide a less ‘copy-paste’ design solution,” he said.

“Boutique sized companies will give more attention the client’s needs and the project’s overall design experience, and will create more ‘wow’ factors as they have fewer overheads. In return, the client gets a cooler-than-ever design, for a fraction of the price,” he said.

“The bigger companies should have the foresight at this point to buy out or enter joint ventures with the smaller ones, to keep themselves at the top of the market, instead of turning into dinosaurs,” he warned.