Meet the dynamic women driving today’s interior design industry across the Gulf.
HH Muneera Al Rashed
Founder of Ode Interior design firm, Riyadh
For HH Muneera Al Rashed, there are no limits to the imagination. “From a young age, I always liked to do something that was special or different to make people happy. You know when you’re young and there’s that girl who plans the tea parties? I was that girl,” she laughs. Graduating with a degree in law and interior design, HH Al Rashed set up her practice, Ode, in Riyadh and started designing homes for friends and family, later expanding her portfolio to palaces. When she received the commission to design a restaurant for Riyadh Season, she discovered a niche that married her love for creativity, design, and event planning. With the successful launch of the restaurant AlDara’a, which she designed and managed from concept to completion, she set up a sister company, Meem’s Dawn, that offered event design and management. This followed the creation of another project called Safe Zone – a place for kids to dream among walls of clouds and fountains of chocolate.
“We are lucky because the government is supportive of us, but the goal of the country right now is for private sectors to be able to support their projects single-handedly. They are pushing Saudis and they are pushing the work, but my goal is to host my own event in the next two years, which would be of benefit to the country and to Saudis, to give them something new. Through this, I would like to involve small companies and businesses to support and push the younger generation,” she explains. True to her words, HH Al Rashed employs young Saudis – some still in university – to work at AlDara’a and Safe Zone to gain work experience.“One of my bigger goals is to help the younger generation and give them opportunities because I have been there myself and I wanted someone to believe in me. Thank God I got my chance and I think it is my moral duty to do that for others.”
Founder and creative director of Roar interior design studio, Dubai
It has been two years since Pallavi Dean Interiors (which launched in 2013) rebranded its boutique interior design practice to Roar. The name captures the firm’s newfound energy, personality, and the types of projects it has come to be associated with. “My personality is a perfect blend between fierce and playful,” says Dean, founder and creative director, as well as a product designer and educator. “On the one hand I’m the ultimate high achiever but on the flipside, nothing is more important to me than having a laugh. About seven years ago, I read So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport and it inspired me to start my business. I love that ‘roar’ is both a noun and verb and a Katy Perry song – so here I am, roaring away!”
Hailing from Sharjah, Dean shares that Roar is about creating experiences through design, supporting female talent – the firm has an all-women team – and putting people first. “Our goals as designers have to be about people who use our spaces – the kids in a school or workers in an office. If we start forgetting about them and start focusing on business targets like revenue growth, net margin, and market share, we’re doomed. Creating work through empathy and deep understanding of the context and brief is paramount,” she adds. If there is one thing about Dean that truly stands out, it is her unconventional approach and her wardrobe to match. Whether it is a black-and-white number or a disco- style gold dress, Dean never misses a chance to make an impression. Diversity of projects aside (Roar has completed offices for Edelman and Evoteq inspired by binary code, as well as for Ora Nursery of the Future in Dubai), the boutique company has incorporated sustainable practices into its office environment, as well as psychology and data research for interior designers, all led by Dean’s entrepreneurial direction. “We work across the board, and that’s a conscious decision,” Dean says. “There’s an old school of interior design that says you should specialize. Be a dedicated office designer, or a restaurant designer. And that used to work pretty well. But here’s the thing: today the lines are completely blurred. At Roar, we make a virtue of cross-pollination.”
Founder and creative director of Styled Habitat Interior design studio, Dubai
A quick browse through Styled Habitat’s portfolio of projects and you can immediately sense the careful curation and understated luxury of Rabah Saeid’s guiding hand. The founder and creative director of the Dubai-based boutique interior design firm is a member of the American Society of Interior Designers and Saeid’s string of projects – like the WaterWall Place and Jnan Amar Polo resort – are scattered across Houston, Aspen, Marrakech, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. While mainly working on residential projects in Dubai’s affluent neighborhoods such as Emirates Hills and The Palm, Saeid has also worked across commercial and retail sectors as well as designing concept furniture store ikonhouse in Alserkal Avenue and Jotun’s new regional headquarters in Dubai. Her own style is up to par with the spaces she designs, both of which are rich in texture yet understated and timeless.
“We are rapidly growing and learning to transcend boundaries in Dubai’s diverse and transient community,” Saeid says. “We have learned to embrace difference and I believe this experience has influenced our work and opened up possibilities to expand our design services outside the UAE. We now have our eyes set on designing boutique hotels.” She adds that Styled Habitat has built a reputation “almost exclusively” on word-of-mouth and repeat clients. Besides her interior projects, Saeid is focused on enriching the UAE’s design community through initiatives such as Design for Good, which includes pro-bono work for individuals, community-led organizations, and small business with the aim to create empowering spaces. One such initiative is Design Dinner, a collaboration between Styled Habitat and the CEO of ikonhouse, Dorian Pauwels. “The Design Dinner is an invite-only dining experience gathering the UAE’s design community quarterly for intimate evenings. Its mission is to connect and empower a discerning group of designers, architects, artists, and editors who have an unwavering commitment to originality, quality, and good design. Guests enjoy a private dining experience, build personal relationships, and access superb design and brand ideas in an inspiring social gathering,” Saeid explains. She also sees Styled Habitat as a platform that champions education and learning, offering internships and training opportunities to young designers. When asked what inspires her in design, Saeid’s answer is women. “They are natural at reflecting the understanding of the community’s unconscious bias. We are instinctive risk takers but also pragmatists. Looking at design through these lenses can only yield finding different ways to collaborate and explore fresh ideas in the field.” With numerous initiatives under her belt and even more stars to wish upon, Saeid is on the path to finding balance. “As a designer, I continue to work on the juggling act to allocate time for it all: client meetings, site visits, and designing at the studio, as well as hanging with friends and family, all while leaving time to get inspired.”
Founder and senior designer of RIS group interior design firm, Jeddah
It is safe to call Saudi designer Rawan Alsahsah one of the leading interior designers in the Middle East. Having set up RIS Interiors in 2002, Rawan has completed projects for high-end businesses including Saks Fifth Avenue department store and the Toshiba headquarters in Jeddah, as well as residential projects across the globe – from Saudi and Jordan, to London and Paris.
Rawan graduated from Petra University in 2000 with a BA in interior architecture and moved to Washington DC where she trained as a junior designer. She later expanded her business to include a retail store, RIS Living, which also serves as a showroom for trends and inspiration, largely carrying American brands such as Jonathan Adler, Kelly Wearstler, and Bungalow 5.
Last April, Alsahsah launched her own high-end, made-to-order furniture line in New York City called Rawan Isaac’s, inspired by the bold geometries and refined craftsmanship of the art deco era. Although it is only available in the US, Alsahsah has plans to introduce it to the Middle East later this year. The IIDA Award winner points out that lately, she is more involved in mindful living and is introducing this approach to her interior projects through BioGeometry, which she is currently studying and will soon offer as an additional service at RIS Interiors in order to harmonize and contribute to the well-being of people and the spaces they occupy. Developed by Egyptian architect Dr Ibrahim Karim, BioGeomtery allows for the harmonization of the effects of electromagmetic fields and the Earth’s energy grids using shapes, symbols, and colors. “I travel a lot and have always been interested in ancient civilizations. Shapes and symbols have always been significant to me, without me knowing that it would help me in my work. When I found BioGeometry, it fit perfectly with my interests and with my role as a designer. I felt that through it, I could give people more as a designer,” Alsahsah explains, adding that she is confident that the Middle East will welcome this approach to design. “If someone tells you, ‘I have a cure for stress that is natural, without having to take any medication, would you say yes or no?’ I think everyone wants to destress nowadays. And I think a lot of people are moving towards the concept of mindful and holistic living and it is a big shift, even in this part of the world.