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Wed 20 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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A plan for all seasons

At work or at play, design features in every aspect of our lives, but for one man - Khalid Al Shamsi - his passion for beautiful, interesting and unusual design has become the foundation on which he is building his Designer's Hub business. Interview by Philippa Kennedy.

At work or at play, design features in every aspect of our lives, but for one man - Khalid Al Shamsi - his passion for beautiful, interesting and unusual design has become the foundation on which he is building his Designer's Hub business. Interview by Philippa Kennedy.

It's hard for most of us to get excited about office furniture, but luckily for those of us who use it from nine to five or longer every day, one man does. Listening to Khalid Al Shamsi speak about the breathtaking array of styles that are being produced these days, you begin to understand that the only real limits are those of imagination or lack of it.

For me the concept of a design, the designer’s inspiration and the story behind a piece matters the most.

Al Shamsi is managing director of Designer's Hub - a supplier of high end designer office and residential furniture and a division of Al Shamsi Enterprises which was founded by Al Shamsi and his brother chairman Tariq Al Shamsi in 2004.

The company supplies furniture made by only nine manufacturers which which cater to the very high end furniture market.

Judging by Al Shamsi's plans for the creation of a new Designer's Hub building alongside its current showroom in Dubai it is very clear that he intends to be in the business for a very long time.

In fact a glance around his showrooms reveals that many of the pieces he has chosen, both to market and to keep for his expanding private collection will be the iconic designs of the future.

Take the Barcelona chair designed by Ludwif Mies van der Rohe nearly 80 years ago or the dining table and chairs produced by the inimitable Frank Gehry in 1929.

They have both stood the test of time and yet there in the same room are the funky Edra designs, the fabulous Rose velvet chair, the hand stitched Fritz Hansen Egg chair that put Denmark on the furniture map, the Gog chair from the Bentwood collection, a Harry Bertoia masterpiece. The 29-year-old Designer's Hub managing director shows a veteran's maturity of taste in his choices.

"Liking a design depends on individual taste. I personally prefer contemporary, modern and innovative designs. For me the concept of a design, the designer's inspiration and the story behind a piece matters the most.

At times, when you look at the creations it strikes a chord with you and you like it instantaneously. The Barcelona Chair by is one such object. I would rate it as a timeless classic which was designed in the 20's but is still popular. The design was ahead of its time which made it timeless. This classic has inspired numerous variations.

"As a child I loved design whether it was cars or watches. I love to look at pieces like the Boa sofa by Edra, it's not a chair, not a sofa, it's like a snake and is totally different. I have a limited edition of this chair in my private collection made in two colours, silver and burgundy. Another chair by the Brazilian Campana brothers is a work of art.

"I also started collecting limited edition watches when I was 18. Now I have over 100 pieces in my collection. My collection of watches is close to my heart. I also buy cars.

His search for the best in design has taken him all over the world and particularly to Europe. "I have travelled to design exhibitions in Germany and Italy especially. Italians are known for their design and Germans for their quality. Italians have this crazy edge that a lot of people love.

By tradition Khalid Al Shamsi should have followed in his father Mohammad's footsteps into the family business in real estate, finance and banking. He studied business and finance at the Higher College of Technology in Dubai and went on to gain a Master's degree from the American University of Sharjah. "I was groomed to join the family business and started my working life in the government sector but I prefer to be free.

"Designer's Hub was founded out of a passion for design. My brother Tariq Al Shami and I were staying in a very nice residence in Milan, Italy, the Bulgari Boutique Hotel. We were sitting having a cup of coffee and started looking at the designs and talking about them.

"The idea had been doing the rounds between me and my brother for quite some time before we decided to actually go ahead and give it shape. We would often discuss that Dubai needed a place where the best designer furniture brands could meet.
We wanted our company to be a beacon of inspiration that provided the best brands under one roof and also educated people about the concept of design. "We established the company in 2004 and three years down the line I think we have come a long way in creating a brand name and a company which stands apart from the rest.

"We would like to see it acquire an iconic stature in the near future.

What is happening today is that people are mixing and matching styles. put one piece of unusual modern furniture in it and it works.

Al Shamsi attributes his flair for design to the experiences he has assimilated while travelling. "Although I grew up in Dubai, I was fortunate to have been able to travel extensively to Europe. We have a home in Berkeley Square in London and for many years we spent our summers there. I love London and I feel that it is my second home. I travel all over Europe, using London as my base.

"I get my inspiration in looking at design wherever I am travelling. I read a lot and visit manufacturers to keep up with the way furniture design is going.

"Travelling exposes you to a whole new world and I feel my eye for design and my keen interest in the field can be attributed in part to my travelling. I respect and love design and I am fascinated by the journey of an idea that takes root in someone's brain and evolves to take tangible shape for others to view.

"I also love to just go and sit on a beach and think. That is where I get some of my best ideas."

One such idea was to build a centre of excellence where top designers could show off their wares, which is the second showroom that is being constructed at a site next to Lamcy Plaza in Dubai.

"It will be somewhere that people can go and see all the best designs in one place. I hope it will be an icon for the future.

The new building is being constructed by Al Shamsi Enterprises as a real estate project, with Designer's Hub making its new home on the entire ground floor, which will be filled with boutiques and shops for all its brands along with offices for consultancy.

"It will become a showcase for designers. We will provide solutions and support for all the designers and developments related to furniture. We will rent suites of offices to designers and other related companies," says Al Shamsi.

The company's commitment to promoting top designers led it to sponsor the three-day International Design Forum held at Dubai's Madinat Jumeirah last year where more than 500 designers, architects, urban planners and associated business executives from 50 countries converged on the city for the three-day celebration of the best the industry has to offer.

The success of the forum convinced Al Shamsi that today's homeowners and office managers are a more sophisticated breed than their predecessors.

"It was fabulous. Dubai is very cosmopolitan. People are becoming much more interested in design than they used to be. They are coming to the showroom and asking for a specific name. There's more media coverage these days and more interest in general so as a company we have to be ahead of the game.

"What is happening today is that people are mixing and matching styles. They could have a very ornate room but put one piece of unusual modern furniture in it and it works.

Designer's Hub started with just one manufacturer, the American company Knoll, already well-established and keen to get a foothold in the Middle East.
Other brands Designer's Hub has since chosen to represent come from the USA, Germany, Italy and Spain: Fritz Hansen, Cassina, Thonet, Classical, Grupa Permasa, Edra, Hacker Kitchens and Album Lightings. They are all top-end names in the sector.

"We spent months visiting fairs and shopping centres and looking at designers and began to dig out new and interesting brands from exhibitions," says Al Shamsi. "We looked at 35 altogether and started with four.

We have total confidence in the brands we represent and we are not interested in low end products without brand identity.

Knoll was the first. It was a well-established brand and very competitive. They were already in the UAE and we had an instant bond with their team. It was only a small set-up but they wanted it to grow. We were attracted to both their company set-up and their design set-up. You can't have OOur Al Shamsi says the designers his companies work with are now part of the extended Al Shamsi family.

"We have established a bond with them which is such that they are now part of the family business and we support them as much as we can.

Nurturing the core brands he has chosen is a key factor in the success of the company which is why Al Shamsi is content, for the present, to stick with nine of them rather than further expanding its current portfolio of brands.

"I want to see my company as an international brand in the coming years. Even with our designers we have a continuous dialogue and we are in constant touch.

"They visit us and we visit them on a regular basis to maintain continuity in work. We perceive our business ties as extended family ties and personally keep in touch with all the designers. They are often invited to address forums and participate in exhibitions and Designer's Hub too has representation in international exhibitions.

"We started with Knoll office furniture and extended it to tables, sofas and chairs that you might find in an office or at home. Their designs go back 90 years whereas another brand that I love, Edra, is a 20-year old company, very innovative and proactive company. You can blend the two types of design.

Quirky innovation is what appeals to Al Shamsi the most. A Knoll portable workstation sits alongside a traditional beautifully finished wooden Reff workspace equipped with a trendy Fritz Hansen Oxford chair. The upholstery looks like men's suiting fabric and was created especially for the purpose by UK designer Paul Smith.

Pass through the endless variations of office furniture and into the second showroom to see what amounts to a latter day museum of artistic innovation.

Most of the chairs in the showroom have names. ‘Mummy' for instance is made out of ribbons wrapped intricately around a frame like a mummy. There's an Edra rope chair made out of 650 meters of rope, a table that looks like a smashed mirror, designed by the Campana brothers, the Gutsen flower chair, the Anemone chair, another made from plastic tubing.

Away from the exotic, the company is quickly building a reputation for being able to supply quality furniture within the required time frame. Last year it began an impressive roll-out of branches and agents to Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

The company also secured a major contract to furnish the new headquarters of The Emirates Group. The project is due for completion this month.

As part of the project more than 3,000 Knoll workstations were supplied as well as other pieces like Cassina sofas and Fritz Hansen chairs for communal areas, in a tightly run logistical plan that had to be worked around the construction of the building itself.
Designer's Hub general manager Dr Sujeev explains: "They have chosen trendy and functional furniture with identity of design and brand reputation.

"In major projects they will not wait for the last minute for the delivery and installation of the furniture. A lot of coordination and project management is involved in every job.

"There is a clear sequence of events for example, we would not put our furniture before the air conditioning or the carpets.

"Working for a company with clear focus and belief in professional management makes it easier to do my job.

"We know in which direction we are driving and we are confident in the future. For us the next target is to support the people interested in innovation and creative designs.

"We have total confidence in the brands we represent and we are not interested in low end products without brand identity.

"Part of the skill is making offices seem like homes even though that office might be in the middle of an unfinished building.

"That's the key to what you do in this part of the world; otherwise the project would not be completed in time. There is a clear sequence of events, for example I would not put my furniture in if the lighting had not been installed. Air conditioning is the last thing to go in. You need the carpet to be laid also," the general manager added.

For Khalid Al Shamsi the next big goal will be to see the new building opened and become a focus for people interested in innovative and unusual design.

He has total faith in the brands he has chosen and is not interested in the cheaper end of the market, although he is aware of the many companies that copy designs and sell them for much less than the real thing, claiming that his company would never consider such activities.

"We have a lot of competitors and other issues - there are a lot of manufacturers producing fakes for example. Of course their furniture is cheaper but the question is, if you want to drive a Ferrari would you drive it with a Toyota engine in it?"

Al Shamsi says the sky is the limit for the Designer's Hub and that he has plans to further expand the company following the opening of its latest showroom.

"There are no limits to my ambition for the company. It's a never-ending process. As long as I am passionate and know what I am doing I will give it my best. It's useless if you don't believe in it.

"My father always gave us his support and we were brought up to work hard and strive. We had what we needed but you should always stretch yourself to see if you can do it.

"When you achieve something difficult it's worth 10,000 times having all the money in the world.

DESIGNS OF THE TIMES: Al Shamsi’s treasured chairsThese fabulous pieces of furniture do not come cheap. Al Shamsi thinks of them as individual pieces of art. His Boa sofa was made especially for him and is therefore not for sale, but if it was, it would probably cost around US$28,560.

A Favela armchair made from pieces of teak wood costs about US$5,144 while the Campana brothers' leatherwork armchair would set you back US$8,648. The Barcelona chair costs US$8,195 and the Fritz Hansen Egg Chairs made from cowhide, polar bear and zebra skin could cost upwards of US$13,827 if they were for sale.

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