This article is being re-published to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the opening of the Burj, the hotel that raised Dubai to the position of a global competitor destination. It was originally published on HotelDesigns in May 2004
It takes a strange mix of qualities to lead a successful interior design practice. Designers are different to architects. Architects have the political skills and are trained team leaders, designers are the artists. Few architects major on creative flair as the other demands of their profession weigh them down – those few that do become recognised rightly as ‘greats’ in their professions – whilst designers have creativity as their ‘raison d’être’. Thinking laterally is not an attribute that sits well with running a practice. Being an artist is also a more solitary activity whilst driving a business needs the more linear thought patterns of accountancy and banking – even more so in this age of complex regulation. It takes a strong personality to create and lead a design office – tougher still to do this whilst creating interiors that stand as a measure for other similar endeavours.
In creating the interiors of the Burg al Arab, and working as an integral part of the construction team, London based designer Khuan Chew created a benchmark hotel – a luxury tower that proclaims itself as the world’s first six star hotel and challenges others to come near it. The project catapulted her into the international limelight as a design leader.
Leading a team in what she terms her ‘factory’ in London’s Vauxhall district, just behind the hallowed grass of the Oval cricket ground, Khuan Chew chose the photograph here, one she took herself using a self-timer on the camera, showing herself relaxing in her hideaway in the hills of Rajasthan.
Daughter of immigrants into the UK from China, Khuan Chew was sheltered from the hurly burly of life by parents who valued her musical prowess, protecting her hands from damage with a career as a concert violinist in mind. To keep her entertained indoors her father gave her crayons and from this stage she was aware of her affinity for the visual arts.
Graduate of Royal Academy Music Schools, Khuan rebelled against the parental path and elected to train further as a designer. The process for creative people are often paralleled across disciplines, but musicians have their own language and are frequently peculiarly blind to, often contemptuous of, the language of the visual arts. Not in her case, and the first love came through as she pursued the design course at the London College of Furniture. At the time the college was a great centre of musical instrument technology, and whilst Khuan spent a great deal of time with the musical instrument makers. She described her design studies as like finding water in the desert.
After postgraduate training and a stint working for major UK architects Richard Sieferts amongst others, Khuan worked for seven years for well known interior designer Dale Keller. “Dale and Pat – I owe a lot to them for where I am today”. Regarding Dale Keller and David Hicks, for whom she subsequently became Creative Director, as mentors, she is still in contact and regards herself as blessed to have worked with people who have taught her a lot and been behind her, helping her to where she is today.
Starting her practise in 1988 she did well until the early 1990’s,when, as she put it, “the shit hit the fan”. Always cautious she survived. “Designers are very vulnerable” but learned from it, and now invests her money in people, training and equipment. Whilst mourning the increasing speed of the design process, she also defends the value of the designer, believing the profession undervalued by those who do not understand the design process. Proud of her ‘factory’, she is conscious of having had to learn to be a businessperson. Her accountants “drive me nuts”, but necessity drives her to be very tough.
In her work for Hilton (see the Review of Hiltons Budapest and Cardiff in the Review archive) Khuan Chew used colour positively. In the Burj al Arab she had a client who pushed her more along this route, and the results use colour very strongly including working with 11 shades of white. She believes in being true to the longevity of the building designing more for posterity than following fashion – she believes fashion is too ephemeral to feature in the design of hotel interiors. Of course this results in her setting fashions for others with less integrity.
Current workload includes new airport terminals in the Gulf, hotels there too, and hotels for Four Seasons in Hong Kong, amongst others. This artist has grown to lead a major practice, a team leader. “I like to be incognito – I’m told I must do something about it – I think I am taken for someone’s maid”
I don’t think so, Khuan…