It’s now a few hours since we were sat with AAID Managing Director and Founder Stuart Allen in the firm’s studio, in the heart of Dubai’s Media City.
Earlier, we were only too happy to get our reddening heads out of the intense heat of the afternoon. This evening we’ve met up with Stuart once again – under very different circumstances.
We’re at the AcouLite 10th birthday party in the amazing Cielo Sky Lounge at the Dubai Creek and Yacht Club (and it is as grand as it sounds). The view across to the financial district is incredible, the temperature is now more than manageable and drinks are flowing. We’re chatting with Stuart about mutual industry friends, which is exactly where we started all those hours ago in the AAID studio…
‘You come highly recommended by a mutual friend,’ Stuart smiles as we take a seat in the blissfully air conditioned studios. ‘So do you,’ comes our reply. Indeed, a number of friends and contacts in Dubai have urged us to go and see Stuart while we’re here in Dubai.
Stuart, we discover, isn’t alien to intense heat, having been raised in Texas. ‘I was born in the UK and left in 1984 to move to Texas. My dad was in the oil business. After I finished high school I decided I was English and needed to move back – so I went to Brighton Polytechnic. This was 1990 – the Zap Club, the start of Britpop and all that. It was a brilliant time.
‘…I’ve got to admit that I did find the culture in this market very different…’
‘I then decided that I had no right being at university at that point in my life – or rather my parents pulled me out of there quite quickly! So I ended up back in Texas and went to university there. From there I went to New York, to Puerto Rico, to San Francisco and on to Dubai.
‘I studied architectural engineering. I always knew I was going to be in architecture and interior design but the engineering side was really fascinating for me – learning why buildings stand up etc. I was intrigued by the mathematics behind it all. It might have been a slightly backwards way to go about things but I think it has given me a great all-round perspective on things.
‘My sisters came to visit me and said ‘Why are you still in Texas?’ One of them was living in New York and persuaded me to go there – so I just packed up and went.
‘I had nothing to do with commercial interiors in New York – it was all high-end domestic and retail. It was quite an experience. I was in New York for 12 years and I still consider it as home.’
Following the crash in 2008, Stuart was presented with an opportunity that was simply too good to ignore. ‘A friend of mine was in the music business – and the music business had crashed as well,’ Stuart continues. ‘He got some investors together from the UK and set about designing a hotel in Puerto Rico. He brought in a renowned architect and asked me to help him out – to co-ordinate with the engineers and architects.
‘I was out there for nine months and then decided to head out to San Francisco and try my luck out there. Again, the market was really slow – which is when the opportunity came to move out to Dubai.
‘My sister was working with the London based practice, Artillery and there was an opportunity to work on a project in Dubai, so I joined the team with a three-month stint in mind, and five years later I’m still here – and now we are looking to take the take the business to the next level.’
When Stuart joined the Dubai office he had to rebuild its structure. ‘It wasn’t easy at that time – but there was enough here to really get going. It was a two-man show at the time – which wasn’t working. I started from scratch with one existing client, and then picked up a couple more clients. One guy became two guys and then three guys – and then it was time to get an office. We just built things up as the work came in. Five years later we’re now 20-strong and I’m really proud to say we’ve got a great reputation.
‘I’ve got to admit that I did find the culture in this market very different – especially having been in New York where post ‘Enron’ there is complete transparency in business. I started meeting suppliers and I told them ‘No incentive needed! If your product’s good, I’ll use your product’. They were receptive to that.
‘I knew absolutely no-one here at the time. I’ve worked in enough places to work out that the process is generally the same – although there is always some kind of nuance that you have to get your head around. Here it is statutory approvals and how the process works. This is a village though – it is a community. Sometimes you don’t want to be involved and you need to keep people at an arm’s length. We’ve built a good reputation by doing just that. We have integrity, we’re bold, we’re bespoke and we never try to be anything we’re not. It was tough to start with – but it’s certainly paid off. We’re now going up against the really big boys. It’s fun. We have really good relationships with them – it makes sense to do so because sometimes they’ll call us up and tell us that they’ve got a job that they can’t do.
‘Now they have got the Expo here in 2020 it has gone insane!’
‘We’re not going to buy work. We’ll happily compete – but we want to win on merit, on design. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. I think that’s a good way to be.’ Stuart tells us that British heritage certainly helps to open doors in the Emirates – particularly with western businesses looking to stake their own claims in the Middle East. ‘Initially I did need the support of the head office in London,’ he admits. ‘I needed to show that I could deliver. I learnt pretty quickly that people aren’t particularly favourable when it comes to using resources from the UK to do a project though. That’s when I started bringing staff in. It was a really big but really good learning curve.’
So has everything settled down over the past 18 months or so? Of course not. ‘It’s been another huge period of transition,’ Stuart smiles. ‘You can’t put all your eggs in one basket – commercial interiors – out here. The market constantly goes up and down. What is stable out here is hospitality and retail and you really need to touch all aspects in order to make good out here.
‘Artillery’s experience isn’t in those areas – but David Back (Artillery MD) gave me carte blanche. David’s a good guy. I have a lot of respect for David and really enjoyed working for him. With David looking to retire, the opportunity then arose for me to take the business over.’
And so AAID was born. Today the firm is some 20-strong, with Stuart recently being joined (out of London) by his sister Deborah in the business. Stuart tells us that, thanks to the constantly buoyant hospitality and retail sectors, business is booming.
‘We’ve never had so many proposals out there,’ he enthuses. ‘Now they have got the Expo here in 2020 it has gone insane! The number of new hotels and refurbishments being planned is mind blowing. Dubai doesn’t have the same dependency on oil as, say, Abu Dhabi – tourism is the thing here.
‘I think this has now really become the gateway to the East. This is now a destination. So much is coming through here – it’s an incredibly exciting place to be right now.’