The Eclectic Designer of Dubai

Paul Bishop brings global design to the interiors of the Arabian Gulf.

After earning degrees in interior design and architecture from Kingston University and Manchester Metropolitan University, Paul Bishop moved to Dubai in 1996 to put his training to use. The Briton has spent 10 of the last 11 years in the emirate, and after working for firms such as Atelier 21 and Interiors International, he founded an eponymous interior design firm—Bishop Design Associates—there in 2005.

In a country that has quickly built a reputation for importing Western talent for once-in-a-lifetime projects (the November issue of Metropolis includes stories about architecture and product-design commissions in Dubai), Bishop’s nine-person firm has filled in the spaces between the blockbusters. As the designer of interiors ranging from restaurants at the Fairmont Hotel to the local office of the worldwide ad agency Leo Burnett, Bishop is infusing a greater breadth of Dubai with a global design sensibility, if without the fanfare of the celebrities.


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Dubai is portrayed as a land of design opportunity, where Westerners can exercise total creative freedom. Is that an accurate portrayal?
It’s variable. There is a trend for companies here to go out and source projects on a more international level, but many are being disappointed and looking back to designers who’ve had a longer stay in Dubai.

Similarly, there are a few startup companies who have come from abroad and are actually falling short of their expectations: It takes time to be accepted. People think that the grass is greener over here, but they do get slighted. They can’t just come in and expect to be entertained by the big clients like the Fosters and Hadids.

What is an example of the disappointments you mentioned?
People see Dubai or the whole Middle East as a luxury playground in which clients have unlimited budgets and there are immense opportunities to do work. In some respects that’s false, because you have to earn clients’ trust to undertake those kinds of projects. Also, the way people work here is very fast-track, and you don’t get the pleasure to entertain ideas on a longer time scale. People coming in have to adapt to that. I was very fortunate, I came here after getting a master’s degree: I could adjust easily to the environment, because I wasn’t preconditioned to anything else. We work under immense pressure in Dubai.

How would you say the business landscape has changed in the last decade?
It was minimal in ’96, but then all of a sudden the ball started rolling and the Palm was planned. People then started to invest in Dubai, and it became more open in terms of owning property. Now Dubai is becoming more of a business hub and a gateway between Europe and Asia in the same way Hong Kong was.

Has this repositioning of Dubai as a global city shifted local design attitudes? I have heard from some observers that Dubai interiors are marble and gold, and there’s little move away from the garishness.
That was my preconception of Dubai when I first came here: that it was quite garish. And people do view marble positively, if not for its aesthetic value but for signifying wealth. But attitudes have changed threefold. A younger generation is in a position of influence, they’ve been educated in the U.S. or U.K., and they have a taste and vision.

And what point of view preceded this?
There was a lot of theming when I first came to Dubai, for example. An Italian restaurant couldn’t just be a place that served Italian food, it had to look like a traditional trattoria.

Was there a watershed moment for design in Dubai?
Emirate Towers, designed by Hazel Wong, was definitely a turning point. Dubai moved to more contemporary environments after that. Of course, it’s not like we changed overnight, but with Emirate Towers we did it on a more exposed scale. The project wasn’t just an office or restaurant—it was somewhere that people would come to on an international level.

But change was really driven through media. When I arrived here in ’96, there was only one radio station. Then Channel Four came in, and it was an inspiration. It started playing music that was up to date with the rest of the world, and then another station was established. The voice of the youth became a lot stronger.

Would you say your own work, like the restaurant Chin Chin at the Fairmont Hotel, has had a similar influence?
I think Chin Chin has changed the way people think about space and lighting, and how we can reuse spaces like narrow corridors and transform them into exciting uses. Also with Chin Chin, people commented that it could be anywhere in the world; the aesthetic of that design could be commensurate with any major city. There are a lot of places still synonymous with the city itself.

Have you detected any anxiety about global design trends usurping the local vernacular?
It’s variable. Some clients want contemporary, some want contemporary with Arabic accents, and others want very elaborate. There is no general accepted standard. It all depends on the client and the brief, and it’s up to the designer to purely follow their words or not.

How would you describe the reputation you’ve developed here?
We get approached if someone wants something a bit different, something that is both a design solution and an aesthetic, and we integrate technology into a lot of things. We have been fortunate enough to create hotels with carte blanche; we also have clients who want something very creative, but they’ll be involved in the design process to ensure the result will bring an income. Our clients want to be excited, and to be different.

Would you say you’ve had to adapt your design outlook to this transitional climate?
I’ve been very fortunate to not have a client who didn’t accept modern. But of course you always get asked for design solutions. If a designer is a designer, you have to accept certain things, but you give them your twist. I couldn’t possibly do traditional Arabic, but it would always have a Paul Bishop twist that gives it individuality and a more avant-garde feel.

What are some examples of a twist?
With Franck Muller, we reinvented his branding type. If you looked at the stores in Switzerland and Milan, they’re very classical in their style. We took that ideology and changed the materials, cladding the store with titanium sheeting instead of wood, for example. We created this modern environment still in keeping with the language and narrative of Franck Muller.

Muller is just one example of an international company laying a claim in Dubai. And certainly there are Dubai companies that want to reach out to the rest of the world. Do you think that, as the city booms, your studio will expand its geographic scope, too?
This is obviously my ultimate ambition, to be recognized on an international level. I’ve grown the practice, and gotten high-end international names like the Fairmont and Aston Martin, but it’s only in Dubai. To have that international exposure will require a project done on an international stage.

To get that will be more difficult, because there is so much going on here. But you’re only going to get it through practice: In Dubai reputation is paramount. Once you start to not deliver, people aren’t very forgiving. Their loyalties will change very quickly.

And can you speak to what’s going on in the Gulf region?
Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman are all coming up. I would say Qatar and Oman are a little more sympathetic architecturally to their heritage. In Qatar, facades have to include arches—there are certain rules and regulations where Dubai doesn’t have any.

Do clients talk about their projects in context of how different places are marketing themselves? For example, do you hear, ‘An Abu Dhabi interior has to appear more elegant than a Dubai interior’?
People from Abu Dhabi and people form Dubai are very different. And they obviously want to go a step further than Dubai, having commissioned world-renowned architects for their buildings. These places do want to outdo each other. Bigger, better, grander.

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