Designing for Dubai sensibilities

Designing for Dubai sensibilities
Creating lingerie stores in the conservative Middle East market was quite an undertaking for Space Studio.

From a business that started with just minimal staff back in 2000, Space Studio has gone from strength to strength, “moving out of its sweatshop premises” into a bright space in Parnell, where it’s been unleashing its spatial design prowess onto hospitality, commercial and retail sectors. And with about 80 percent of its clients based internationally, these days it’s a pretty remarkable feat to catch up with globe- trotting owner Vee Smit. We chat with her about the New Zealand design scene and the challenges of creating lingerie stores in the conservative Middle East market.

You’re a Kiwi now but you were originally born in South Africa. Why the move to New Zealand?

I was in LA working in retail design. I met a Kiwi and came to New Zealand in the late 80s at a time when interior design in New Zealand was pretty dismal.

How has it changed?

Design is now valued. There’s recognition that it’s not just a question of picking paint colours, there’s actually science and knowledge behind it—be it in retail when you’re trying to increase your sales, or commercial design when you’re trying to improve productivity.

Before you got into design, you studied business and science.

My mother insisted I do a commercial degree, which I did. The minute I did that I went to do a design diploma. But actually, it’s been a really good combination because when you work with clients you need to understand their commercial drivers. While you bring a design element to it, it still needs a functionality and it needs to be operationally efficient and meet their brand development.

Bendon has been a big client for some time. How did you approach the brief to design stores in the Middle East?   

The thing with retail design is it’s pretty instant. From woah to go it’s about three months, so we had to think fast. In terms of understanding the culture we had to develop a very quick briefing system, almost like a checklist of what we could and couldn’t do, while keeping the brand true.

And what’s on that list of dos and don’ts?

One of the first stores went into Dubai, which is a fairly sophisticated market. So it was easy to translate the brand across there.

As far as the actual design aesthetic, that was an easy translation. Where it started to get complex was when we went to places like Saudi Arabia where the rules are different. For example, in Saudi Arabia there are no fitting rooms because women aren’t allowed to remove their clothes once they leave home. We basically had to change the designs to accommodate the change in rules.

Across all the stores the isle widths had to increase because burkas were sweeping products off the racks. On some days the mutawa [religious police] would want the stores visible. On other days they wouldn’t want people to see in. So we devised a system where we didn’t have to rip down walls every second day.

The use of graphics and mannequins also varied. In Dubai you could have an image of a women with lingerie on so long as you didn’t show her face. In some of the states you could have mannequins but only in sleepwear. In Saudi Arabia, no bare bodies or mannequins were allowed at all.

How then did you convey the brand minus the common visual cues like mannequins?

We maintained the richness of the design largely through a decorative element. To get that decorative element across we used beautiful sumptuous fabrics and furniture pieces within the store. We also ended up having beautiful photos of lingerie but not on a body. All of this helped give the ambience of being in a luxurious space.

What about your work for international hotels, do you apply a different design ethos than for retail?

It’s interesting because with retail you’re trying to keep that brand consistent on an international stage while dealing with cultural differences, as opposed to designing a hotel in Samoa or Papua New Guinea where the experience is to engage. Each place you design should be different and the real cultural emphasis shifts quite a lot.

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