We noticed you're blocking ads.

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker.

Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us

Font Size

- Aa +

Sun 10 Jan 2010 04:00 AM

Font Size

- Aa +

Looking forward

Leading interior designers talk to CID about the lessons they learned in 2009, and cautiously outline their expectations for the coming year.

Looking forward
Ellen Bishop.
Looking forward
Ben Corrigan.
Looking forward
Chuck Wood.

Leading interior designers talk to CID about the lessons they learned in 2009, and cautiously outline their expectations for the coming year.

Consistency and stability are the two things most businesses need in order to perform effectively - and 2009 was noticeably lacking in both. An inability to differentiate fact from fiction compounded the problem, and made for truly murky market conditions.

"The key challenge was reading the market and sifting genuine facts from speculation," noted Ben Corrigan, managing partner, Bluehaus. "Consistency is key to the success of a business and the turbulence of 2009 made it difficult to make fundamental decisions."

In practical terms, the economic climate translated into a series of everyday difficulties, highlighted Ellen Bishop, owner, Bishop Design Associates. For one, overheads stayed the same while design fees spiralled downwards, resulting in slashed profit margins. Projects were terminated midway through, and clients became skittish about committing and, more crucially, paying.

"Also, clients started going directly to contractors and not appreciating the value of professional design services. Interior design is viewed as a luxury service and people, in general, are looking at cutting costs by going directly to the architects or contractors," Bishop said.

To make matters worse, the summer slowdown was more pronounced than ever. A veritable exodus combined with Ramadan and unstable market conditions to create the ‘perfect storm', rendering the best part of a quarter essentially obsolete. This catastrophic combo was particularly damaging when it came to developing and securing new business, Corrigan noted.

Fortunately, the final quarter of the year brought some respite. A slight pick up injected an inkling of stability back into the market and has left interior design firms marginally more upbeat as they move into the New Year.

"Quarter four was optimistic, and we saw an increase in enquiries and new business. Existing clients were also making decisions that were previously on hold. We anticipate that 2010 will bring much the same as quarter three and four of 2009. The summer months will be down, but the year ahead in general should be much more consistent than 2009," said Corrigan.

"We are more confident, but very cautious at the same time. 2009 was incredibly unpredictable, and we seem to be returning to a (albeit still difficult) more consistent level of business heading into 2010," he projected.

The first half of the year will be crucial, warned John Rabone, managing director, R&R Design. The challenges experienced by design firms will have to work their way through - and out - of the market."Survival will be the word for everyone! I think the first six months will be critical for the industry in Dubai. 2009 has been especially quiet compared to previous years for all design and architecture practices, and this will have a knock on effect for the contractors who follow behind the design companies, so tend to suffer in the second wave.

"It feels much the same as the UK in 1989/90 when the government finally realised there was a recession on and the construction industry ground to a halt overnight. Certainly there will be problems for the contractors and shop-fitters who concentrate on the Dubai market, and you can see this already with rates becoming difficult to predict.

"All this will lead to some companies failing, so it will be survival of the fittest - which Dubai needed to return to some degree of sanity," Rabone detailed.

If there is a silver lining to be found in the struggles of 2009, it is this ‘maturing' of the market. "I see last year as being a good thing for Dubai as the market needed to be shaken and some of the deadwood removed," said Rabone.

This ongoing cleansing process will leave stronger, more competitive firms in good stead, Corrigan agreed. "We believe that this recession will mature the consultancy market, and ultimately improve the quality of organisations in the region," he said.

"The organisations with a genuine, long-term commitment to the region ‘should' survive, and come out stronger and better equipped. The less professional, ‘quick-buck' organisations will be pushed out. Long-term, this will mean that consultancy businesses will need to look inwards at who they are, what their market is and what makes them different or better."

This process of introspection is the key to survival, insisted Chuck Wood, managing director, Rockwell Group Middle East. "I feel that firms need to take a hard look at how they deliver services and at the quality of what they offer, as there is a real need for an overall improvement in both areas.

"Firms that have an ability, and a real interest, in deeply understanding their clients' needs, and that are able to deliver great ideas and design that serves their clients' needs, will succeed. Those that can't, won't," he warned.

Design firms will have to be agile, nimble, willing to adapt and quick to react. Intelligent diversification is the order of the day, and companies that remain committed to uncovering new opportunities will find 2010 far easier to bear than those that are resistant to change.

"During the current climate, diversification has become more of a priority than growth, as we feel this is a much more stable business model and something which excites us," said Corrigan. "We have just completed a joint venture with a reputable residential organisation, as Bluehaus' strength has always been commercial, leisure and retail. We feel that with the right partner, Bluehaus can add genuine value to the residential market. We are also looking at opening further regional offices in unexpected markets."Rockwell Middle East is also broadening its geographical scope, Wood explained. "We are focusing on regional markets that have strong economies and sound development models. We are also looking at ways that we can strategically partner with other design firms where what we do best complements what they do best, and where we can offer clients a more compelling overall solution for their needs.

Finally, we are looking to broaden our reach more deeply into healthcare and transport, where we believe our unique approach can add a lot of value," he revealed.

Bishop Design Associates, meanwhile, will be exploring ways of offering more holistic design solutions. "We will implement a strategy to offer full turnkey solutions," said Bishop, who anticipates that "clients will be more focused on budget and will want full turnkey solutions, so there will definitely be a stronger relationship between interior designers and contractors, as they will start teaming up to offer a ‘one stop shop'."

The consensus? Companies that were able to evolve and adapt to the uncertain, unstable market conditions of 2009 should be cautiously confident coming into the New Year. After a year of questioning their business models, processes and practices, they are stronger than ever - even if their profit margins suggest otherwise.

"I would say that we are more confident coming in to 2010 than we were going into 2009 because we have a better understanding of what is happening with the economy and what we can do to adapt," said Wood.

"We also have a year under our belts of re-evaluating how we work and of making adjustments so that we can deliver projects more efficiently and competitively, while at the same time remaining true to our DNA as a firm. I think that it is important to keep in mind that recessions create opportunities, for both our clients and for us as designers."

The market has changed, probably forever. For many, this is both scary and exciting in equal measure. After all, it is often in times of turmoil that large-scale, lasting change comes about.

"Obviously, clients are less likely to experiment now, but will want longevity of finishes, so this puts a bigger emphasis on being cost effective and using more sustainable products, which really needed to happen," Rabone maintained. "I still think you'll see plenty of gold and marble, as it is a time-consuming exercise to change peoples' tastes, but there's no better taste definer than budget!"

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall

For all the latest construction news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.