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Wed 20 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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The future of furnishing

With the Middle East's furniture industry booming, Lucy Taylor considers how hotels can keep up with the times without going over the top, and why demanding clients are a bonus.

With the Middle East's furniture industry booming, Lucy Taylor considers how hotels can keep up with the times without going over the top, and why demanding clients are a bonus.

Surprising as it may sound, furniture has an integral role to play in any hotel. It is key in setting the theme of a property and characterising its tone - and this is exactly what helps guests form both first impressions and lasting judgments.

Consequently, it's vital that hotels get their furnishings right. But in the fast-paced Middle East, where a new hotel with a new design concept is opening every week, just how can they keep up with changing styles?

Moving with the times

InterContinental Dubai Festival City's general manager Tom Meyer says that greater competition and higher customer expectation is forcing hotels to take their furniture seriously.

"The unwritten standard in hotels these days seems to be to refurbish furnishings and decor every three years. The amount of competitors opening with grander and more luxurious interiors means customer expectations are a lot higher," Meyer remarks.

"Other InterContinental hotels in the region have been known to refurbish their interiors every three to four years, with a total remodelling every ten years."

"InterContinental Dubai Festival City will most probably follow suit, however it is hard to think that far ahead when we have just opened a hotel with brand new decor and such beautiful furnishings."

However Radisson SAS Dubai Media City's interior designer IMA Interiors director Isabelle Miaja believes that by using classic pieces of furniture as a base, hotels can wait a little longer for a re-fit.

"Most hotel interiors are refurbished every seven to ten years. With the Radisson SAS Dubai, the extent of refurbishing will most likely be due to the normal wear and tear of use, such as fabrics and carpets," she explains.

"For the Radisson, IMA chose a modern international style interior using European designer furniture blended with contemporary."

"The furniture styles used there are not overly trendy - that way they will be able to last well beyond this time frame, athough accessories and decorative lighting may also be considered for change to suit current trends," says Miaja.

Middle Eastern appeal

Australian company Furn-niche International provides furniture packages for residential and hotel complexes.

The company's managing director Liz Healy explains: "We manufacture to the client's design or our own designs, or a combination of both, and we also offer standard packages".

Although the firm's current market is primarily Australia and the Pacific area, this month it will announce details of a UAE base, which it is setting up to service the Middle Eastern market.

Healy says the pull of the Middle East is not only to do with growing business opportunities, but also the phenomenal vitality and impetus of developments in the region.

"The energy over here at the moment is incredible," she says. "It's the developmental centre of the world and very well situated geographically, both for clients and suppliers. It's a unique place."

In that respect, says Healy, it was an easy decision to branch out into the region. And with so many new properties cropping up, there's plenty of interest in her products already.

"We've had excellent interest from all over the region - the UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia to mention a few. There's been a great mixture of clients who've already approached us to discuss projects.

We really want to make the most of the climate here right now, and will be tendering on quite a lot of projects fairly quickly," she says.

Out with the old?

Furn-niche works in conjunction with two other Austalia-based firms on its projects: custom lighting design company Yellow Goat and textile design company Mokum, who will continue to play a significant role in Furn-niche's Middle Eastern projects.
So what kind of products do they anticipate will be popular in this market?

"Most of our products have a contemporary look," explains Healy. "That's not only the furniture, but also the electrical products, soft furnishings, artwork and so on."

"We work with everyone involved in a project - the hotels, the architects, the builders and the designers - to make sure that the end result is perfect."

Although cracking the Middle Eastern market is a big step, Mokum's account manager Gianna Armour is confident that their style will be appreciated in
the region.

"Our designers try to capture the Australian/South Pacific lifestyle, but also get inspiration from all sorts of overseas trends," she explains. "We create a look that's modern but not too formal - sort of contemporary lifestyle textiles.

"For example our new collection is based very much on a Moroccan theme, and as we are used to catering to the typical lifestyle in Australia we design collections which endure outside in the sun, which will work well here."

Yellow Goat's director Sandra Lesko says that in today's industry, the client preference is for furniture designed with the relevant lifestyle in mind.

"I think nowadays people definitely prefer a more modern, lifestyle look to the classical items they used to go for," Lesko says.

"People are moving away from the minimalist or overly-ornate look. They want the decor simple but elegant, with a warmth to it," she explains.

Healy says that this change is occurring across the furniture industry as a whole. "Clients know what they what, and it's more warm-contemporary,' she says.

IMA Interiors' Miaja agrees. "The interiors of hotels are starting to shift from the minimal, modern styles to more decorative yet modern versions."

"There seems to be a new direction with the use of richer colours and patterns in fabrics," she notes.

InterContinental's Meyer also corroborates this change in the market. "The trend in hotels over the past few years is moving towards more modern, contemporary and stylish designs and furnishings."

"Antiques are being phased out for modern effects such as artwork, and furniture has become a lot lighter, rather than large, bulky items which were more eye-catching than comfortable."

"Specific hotel designs are following these trends, and InterContinental Dubai Festival City is no exception. The large lobby with ultra high ceiling is a testament to a modern approach, giving the whole space a contemporary feel," he says.

The golden age

Nevertheless, it seems that there is still space for the more ornate style of fixture.

"The crystal studded lounge chairs [in the InterContinental] bring a modern touch whilst keeping the Arabic theme alive," says Meyer.

Dubai-based furniture company Atelier Louis XIV has had great success with its brand of ornate luxury urniture products.

The company's bronze consoles, mirrors, beds and lamps have proved extremely popular with hotels in the region, particularly for decking out royal suites.

However the firm's regional manager Jesse Dawson says there has been a marked swing in customer demand over the past few years. "We do use a lot of gold in our products, but that's changing," he admits.

"People want different things now. Initially the market in this region liked a lot of gold; up to a couple of years ago that was what people wanted to see. We do a lot of 23-carat gold furniture."
But now people have started moving onto more of a ‘shabby-chic' look: white-wash, polychrome finishes and so on. The finishes are changing and people really don't want to see too much gold now.

"They'd rather have the original antique look. So customers tend not to go for the bright gold option anymore," Dawson says.

But the company duly noted changing market preference, and altered its product range accordingly.

"We customise our furniture," Dawson explains. "We work with the client on creating what they want: the patina, the precise finish, how dark or bright they want the gold."

"We have about 9000 designs and about 320 patinas, so clients can choose, mix colours, work with the company on sketches and different finishes, and then it's all put together for them. So the end result is a unique piece that you can't buy anywhere else."

"And that is exactly what the hotel industry here wants, as well as other clients. They want something they can call their own - no one else has it,' Dawson says.

Clued-up clients

This move into subtler, lifnterior designer being given free-reign: in today's market, clients have a precise idea how they want the end product to look.
estyle design items, away from the extreme-gold or stark-white looks, is not the only change in the industry.

Gone are the days of an in today's market, clients have a precise idea how they want the end product to look.

Yellow Goat's Lesko observes: "They want to make their own impression. They want that result, that project, not to be the same thing that every other place has."

"They want it to be their own and identifiable as such. They want their brand to be reflected in the end product."

Furn-niche's Healy adds: "People around the world are incredibly well educated about the latest trends because of magazines, the internet, television - trends spread. Today people know what they want."

"They want a design-led product, like something they see in a magazine. If a hotel wants a particular image, they'll find a company which can make that become a reality. We have to be open to all sorts of ideas."

But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Now that the client has such a precise idea of what they want, are they in fact making things more difficult for themselves?

The InterContinental's Meyer says that any problems incurred by being specific about furniture design are worth it, if the end result is the desired one.

"We faced a big problem with our bed bases," he says. "We didn't want simply a traditional bed base, and so had one custom-designed that would appear to float in the room and give it a much lighter feel."

"The problem was that because they were custom designed for us, we couldn't find mattresses to match them. Eventually they had to also be custom built to match the bases. But we didn't want to compromise on comfort to achieve beautiful designs."

Another problem arose following the hotels specific requirements regarding the mini-bars.

"These were also designed to look as ‘light' as possible, with long, thin legs. The practical issue with this was that a lot of them suffered during transport, and had to be braced after they were installed."

"There was also a balance issue, between making the legs strong enough to hold the fridges whilst still keeping the legs as thin as the design brief," explains Meyer.

So does this new-found determination for the customer to get exactly the look they want, without compromise, make things more difficult for the designers and manufacturers?
Healy says not. "The fact that customers really know what they want is pretty inspirational. Surprisingly often you'll get people as high up as CEOs who want to be very involved in the design of the pieces, and know what they want right down to the fabric."

"Clients today are very knowledgeable and that makes for a good working relationship, because you end up with a good result - the best result, because it's their vision too. Plus you have a better team relationship with them," she explains.

Atelier Louis XIV's Dawson agrees that clients with a firm idea of what they want are a bonus.

"Often when they come to us directly they already have the drawings, they discuss how they want us to finish it and we make it to their specifications. That way there's no issue with them getting an end product they don't want," he says.

He admits that there are challenges to the customer having their own ambitious ideas, but says even they can become a positive factor.

"Sometimes people come to us with a very demanding brief - but so far nothing we haven't been able to handle. We hold the record right now for having created a marble inlay table of 7m by 2.5m for a customer."

"That was one single slab of marble with inlay work, which has never been done to that scale before," Dawson says.

Competition

Of course the increasing demand for furniture and interior design companies willing to carry out the most extravagant requests has led to massive competition in the industry.

New companies are constantly springing up, or older ones are setting up bases in the Middle East. But Furn-niche's Healy isn't worried.

"I feel there's room for a lot of talented people to come into the market; more competition will encourage and stimulate more ideas," she says.

Atelier Louis XIV's Dawson believes sticking to its manufacturing roots helped give the company an edge over the competition.

"Initially the company only handled manufacturing; we weren't selling commercially, just doing restoration projects, working with museums and so on."

"Then over a period of time we realised that in dealing with designers just as manufacturers, the company was losing out on a big margin, and that there was in fact a massive demand for furniture like this where people and companies would happily just buy directly from us, the manufacturers," he explains.

"So the company decided we would sell directly."

"That way we could offer prices that no one else could match; not like a show room where they have to extend margins. So that is the way we decided to sell commercially. I definitely think it's the way forward," Dawson says.

Fight the fads

Trends are changing fast in furniture therefore it is important for hotels, suppliers and manufacturers to keep up with the market.

However unlike many other industries, keeping up with the trends is not the core issue. Furnishing advice is everywhere, from magazines to television programmes.

The newest, most innovative products are flaunted in front of us all the time.

For manufacturers, designers and suppliers, the challenge is to introduce enough new products to keep the increasingly demanding Middle Eastern clientele interested and satisfied.

The issue for hotels is that to keep refurnishing every time the trends change is not only costly; it destroys the very sense of place and identity that hotel furniture should help create.

The challenge is to choose carefully at the very start: the larger pieces at least should be long-lasting, items from quality manufacturers.

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