It would seem that interior designer Khuan Chew has had an uninterrupted string of successful projects, not only in the Middle East, but in other regions as well. And while the path she started on years back may have been a bumpy one, it remained steady in its course as it led her to taking on iconic projects from Dubai’s Burj Al Arab to the Sultan of Brunei’s palace.
Born to a family of artists and musicians, Chew’s education as a child provided a great foundation. She says: “I come from a very unlikely Chinese family, we’re very artistic. My mother was a pianist and my father was a painter. I started life on a very different track. My mother recognised that I had perfect pitch when I was younger, so I was encouraged to play the piano, which I still play today, and then I wanted to learn the violin.”
Born in China, Chew’s family immigrated to England, where she would continue her studies and pursue a musical career.
“I really wanted to do composition, but I ended up doing very academic courses, which was okay. At that time, in the 1970s and 80s, there was not much of an explosion in the music industry, I would probably have ended up playing in an orchestra or being a teacher and I didn’t want to choose either of those options. So I had to decide what other possibilities were available to me and I wanted something that had to do with art,” Chew explains.
According to Chew, her mother often restricted her from playing outside as a young child so as to preserve the good condition of her hands. Her father, however, would bring home all types of material for her to work with from crayons to charcoal. Chew remembers having a strong artistic childhood filled with memories of experimenting with various mediums. As the young Khuan ventured into design, this foundation in artistic creation would come out directing her drawing hand and guiding her visions.
After her studies, Chew continued to absorb information and knowledge through real-life experience. By working with various contemporaries such as Dale and Pat Keller from Dale Keller and Associates as well as David Hicks, Chew was able to not only see the world and work in a number of various countries, but she also gained a solid understanding of design from different approaches.
She explains: “A designer or architect is a product of his or her environment. Education lays down a foundation, but when you start to practice as a designer, you are very influenced by who you work for and what projects you work on. The two key designers that I’ve worked for have moulded me for today, and I am very proud to say that.
“One should be able to design for Marni as well as Gucci, especially when push comes to shove. In my life, I have had to do a lot of work which I was told was for my survival, you can’t just ignore that. The client is paying the money and is sort of dictating, but he has the right to want a particular look and it is your responsibility to give him the best under those circumstances. You can, of course, advise him.”
Chew doesn’t speak of dealing with clients in the way that is often among interior designers. She approaches work with a holistic understanding of the task that lays before her. Such a grounded and well-rounded philosophy certainly boded well for the designer, who has worked with UAE vice president, prime minister and ruler of Dubai His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum on iconic projects such as Jumeirah Beach Hotel, the Madinat Jumeirah and the world-renowned Burj Al Arab.
In the late 1980s, Chew set up KCA International with its headquarters in London, England. However, when a competition for a new hotel in Dubai emerged, Chew submitted a proposal for the design and flew into Dubai.
“Nothing is given to you on a plate,” she says. “His Highness is very, very fair. So the first project I won was the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, and we have a very fond memory of that… And of course, another big competition came from that for the Burj Al Arab, which I had turned down at first.
“I thought he wasn’t going to pick me again, he just gave me the wave, so he’s not going to give me a second one.” But Chew explains she was urged by His Highness’s office to reconsider.
Chew decided to once again submit a proposal and ultimately beat out seven other competitors. “I had never done anything like it before, and I haven’t done anything like it since, but a lot of people think that’s all I do. It’s quite a myth actually, but this was a one-off project from the level of quality, the family of colour and the budget that was put into that project. After that a lot of projects followed suit and upped the quality, spend and adventure… If you look at the interior of the Burj Al Arab, we had worked with very limited sources at the time.”
The Burj Al Arab is certainly one of Chew’s most revered projects. Tourists travel from the ends of earth to experience its opulence, luxury and fantastical interior that transports the viewer to a different world. It not only acts as a landmark for the region, but it stands out on Dubai’s timeline as the point that design and architecture in the Gulf truly took off at the pace that it has.
But KCA International has spread its talent to various types of projects. Its oeuvre spans across continents from London to Hong Kong, and consists of hotel interiors, metro stations, restaurants, exhibition stands and even yachts. Another important element is KCA’s ability to deliver various styles.
Chew notes that in the past few years, she’s developed her own brand. One that is not so much about the style and aesthetic preference, but rather about the timeless quality that lay within the design choices for a single space.
With the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award under her belt, Chew says: “I was tickled when I heard about that, but I thought, ‘I’m not old enough! Hopefully, I’ll get a second one in another 20 years, because my life is not over! But we did have a good laugh about it.”
While Chew herself was not present at the CID Awards 2014, KCA International director, John Carolan said of her: “I think she has just been part of this great thing that’s happened in the Middle East. I think Dubai has been a catalyst, not only for the Middle East but for the world, to show how things can be. And I think Khuan’s foresight and understanding of what Sheikh Mohammad wanted meant that her ability to translate those ideas into his dreams has created this magnificent series of experiences in terms of design.”
Chew has been based in Dubai along with KCA’s headquarters since 2009. Having been a prominent part of Dubai’s first boom, she feels that the second growth spurt will be equally exciting.
Currently, KCA International is working on a number of exciting projects and Chew herself plans to launch a furniture range called the Great Wall Series. Also, the firm is looking forward to its 25 year anniversary, which certainly reflects the firm’s strong drive to continue delivering great work as well as its roots in our region’s exciting past.
This article was originally published in Commercial Interior Design in October 2014. Photo credit: ITP Publishing Group.