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Sat 11 Jul 2009 04:00 AM

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Design first

Karim Rashid's UAE debut bears all of the designer's trademarks - and is a rare example of an entirely design-centric project.

Design first
An undulating fiberglass wall defines the space.
Design first
The restaurant has a capacity of 78.
Design first
An undulating fiberglass wall defines the space.
Design first
Stools were sourced from Casamania.
Design first
The design embraces colour.
Design first
A single banquet seat extends for 22m.
Design first
The design embraces colour.
Design first
Arabic script adorns the ceiling.
Design first
Dining chairs were sourced from Gamma.
Design first
Steel and aluminium are dominant materials.

Karim Rashid's UAE debut bears all of the designer's trademarks - and is a rare example of an entirely design-centric project.

Karim Rashid, one of the most prolific designers of his generation, with over 3,000 designs in production, work in over 35 countries, and over 300 awards under his (no doubt very funky) belt, is no fan of The Dubai Mall.

Rashid recently made his UAE debut in the mall, with a colourful fusion restaurant called Switch - a project that wouldn't have been realised at all if the mall's management had had its way.

"The management of the mall did not like the design and said it did not fit the mall language. I encouraged my client to pursue a fight with them to have it built.

"Just because the mall has bad, banal interiors, it does not mean that the public does not want interesting, inspiring shops and restaurants," Rashid said.

The design is certainly not run-of-the-mill but neither, Rashid quite forcefully maintains, does it promote a futuristic style. "I don't think it's futuristic; Switch is designed in the now. And I don't believe in the word style. Style denotes the past, some movement that already took place that one appropriates.

"I did not appropriate anything. I studied and worked with the space we had, and I tried to create a holistic, inspiring place that could bring some energy and fulfill some sensual dining experiences," he detailed.

Rashid set out to create a powerful, clean space with strong perspectives; a restaurant that would act as "an oasis, free from chaos and clichés".

The overall intention was to build an iconic reference for Dubai, an aim that resonated with Rashid's client, Deem Al Bassam, director of Switch. "We built Switch as an icon for Dubai," she said. "This was Karim's promise, from day one. The design will pull people in; the food and service will bring them back."

A long-standing fan of Rashid's work, Al Bassam specifically selected the designer for her Dubai Mall venture

"Every time I liked a restaurant or a hotel and I researched who had designed it, it turned out to be Karim Rashid. Every time he creates a restaurant, it doesn't look like a typical restaurant; that's what I was looking for," Al Bassam explained.

For Switch, she kept the brief open and unrestrictive. According to Rashid, the only real request was for a space that was very ‘21st century' and would change throughout the day. "I didn't want to restrict him. I didn't want to give him guidelines, as that would just limit him," said Al Bassam. "If you go to a designer, you have to trust them." ‘Technorganic'

Rashid responded with a design that he describes as "technorganic, sensually minimal, global yet Arabic, inspiring and rich, with data-driven fluidity".

In layman's terms, it is dramatic, organic, bold and entirely original. "It certainly has that wow factor. It excites all of your senses; it is stimulating, rather than soothing," explained design manager, Switch, Giane Atallah.

The space is relatively small, with a capacity of 78 seats. It is shaped by two key elements - backlit, back-printed glass walls, floors and ceilings smothered in stylised Arabic script, and an undulating fiberglass wall that curves over a 22m-long banquet seat.

According to Rashid, both of these elements were strongly influenced by the Middle East. "The backlit ceiling consists of stylised, inspirational Arabic phrases; the lit, undulating lines on the floor evoking a digital running river.

"The undulating walls and continuous wave seating are an abstraction of the curvature landscape of a desert, creating an interesting texture for light and shadow. The walls are inspired by Arabic script, which I love so much; it is the most fluidly graphic language in the world," he explained.

On the ceiling, selected words capture Rashid's design philosophy, as well as his perception of pleasure and sensuality, and the evolving nature of design and culture. This is an obvious statement of Rashid's design intent - but one that is hardly necessary. From the colour palette to the curves, the space already has ‘Karim Rashid' written all over it, both literally and figuratively.

Dominant materials include glass, wood, steel, aluminium and leather, as well as fiberglass and terrazzo for the floors. Custom-made banquettes and tables are complemented by dining chairs from Gamma and bar stools from Casamania.

Meanwhile, LED lighting is used on the backlit floors and ceiling, and indirect upright lighting emerges from behind the banquette. Al Aqili Furnishing was called in to create customised lighting solutions.

Cocooning

The end result is other-worldly and all-encompassing; a modern-day, semi-galactic cocoon of sorts. "Switch is an organic space that envelopes visitors. The repeating undulating wall makes the space look infinite. "The wall is inspired by the Arabic letter S turned on its side - ‘Shin', like the Greek Sigma, a play on the word Switch. Shin as a prefix even means ‘which', going along with the name of the restaurant, Switch.

"But switch is also something like a change of direction, or a transformation, and the space transforms and takes one on a journey. It is a unique environment of symmetry and balance that completely envelops the guests," Rashid elaborated.

"Every experience is composed of interesting views; here, the senses create individual backgrounds for a truly unique global dining space."

Sustainability was another key consideration, and something that Rashid takes into account with all of his projects, he explained.

"Almost all the materials are recyclable and biodegradable. Remember, I was a product of the seventies, when Earth Day started, when the notion of cyclic products was being introduced, when efficiency, energy and sustainability were common, inseparable parts of the design process."

But realising the dreams of a designer known for pushing boundaries and thinking outside of the box presented a series of challenges. The design was not the most practical, which became clear in the build process. "We had to produce it as he dreamt it," said Atallah."The complexity of the design demanded that things were done step by step. It couldn't all be done simultaneously. We started with the walls, which was the main feature. We had this back and forth debate about whether they should be done in Italy. Finally we found someone who could do it here, which was the most logical option.

"But, for example, when you are working with glass you have to measure everything very precisely. Any mistakes lead to considerable delays."

"That is the price you pay for being original," Tastil Gonzalez-Moure, F&B and Retail Developer, Switch, pointed out. "Design wise, all the people who have worked on this project agree, if you can do this, you can do anything!"

Design first

Uniquely, in the evolution of the restaurant, design came first - long before the concept or the menu. These things had to be built around the design, making Switch one of the most design-centric restaurants on the market. "We tailor-made everything to the design. Usually, you decide on the food and then the concept and then the outlet," Gonzalez-Moure pointed out.

"The design commanded what we would do with the restaurant," confirmed Thomas Schmid, Switch's executive chef. "Everything flowed outwards from there. The space is trendy, new and iconic, and the food needed to complement this. So we have gone for fusion cuisine, with strong Mediterranean influences infused with African and Asian ingredients."

Signature dishes on the menu include plum tomato and haloumi moussaka with a balsamic pesto dressing, and a skewer of lamb loin in a coriander crust.

The size of the restaurant enables Schmid to focus on what's important, he added. "It gives us the opportunity to concentrate on good service and good food. We are offering a full a-la-carte dining experience in a mall. The size of the restaurant allows us to do that."

Limited storage space also has a knock-on effect on the quality of the cuisine. "There is no storage space so we have to be careful with our ordering. There is enough storage for one day of trading. This is an ideal scenario in terms of freshness and quality. And it means we have to be very disciplined."

Practicality may not lie at the heart of the Switch design; it is instead defined by its sense of fun, playfulness and uniqueness. And, as Schmid pointed out, it's a far cry from your average ‘white-starched tablecloths and elaborate chandelier' type set up.

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