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Tue 8 Mar 2011 04:00 PM

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From the inside out

Rebecca Gernon has spent 18 years designing in Dubai. She shares her experiences with CID

From the inside out

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 are busy 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.

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