Please could you begin by telling us a little bit about yourself?

I am a designer based in Dubai. I’m Indian but I’ve never lived in India – the UAE is home but I’m not Emirati, and my husband and kids are British. My multicultural background has had a strong influence on both my identity and my work. This has taught me that life is richer and more vibrant when cultures collide. It’s cultural tension. Three cultures have collided to shape me as a designer and a person – Indian, Emirati and British. They’ve often pushed and pulled me in conflicting directions, creating what are sometimes pretty raw emotional tensions. Thankfully, as I get older, I’m coming to terms with this. I feel so fortunate to have such a diverse background. Cultural tension is giving way to cultural balance.

What three words would you use to describe Roar?

Fierce, research-based and empathy-led. 

Describe your style …

At Roar, we don’t have a design style, but we do have a design philosophy – 50% wild, 50% tame. The tame element is characterised by our scientific, evidence-based approach, while the wild component lies in the artistic flair we bring to every project.

The biggest driver for us is understanding the user’s needs. We aim to create unforgettable experiences, and we believe this can only be done through in-depth – almost science-led – research. Studying the local context, the brief, the client’s expectations – all these aspects combined are always a good starting point. We never have a predetermined idea of what the project should look like. This is part of the reason our studio doesn’t have a signature style!

“At Roar, we don’t have a design style, but we do have a design philosophy”

With so many hospitality designers in the industry, how does Roar stand out?

There are a few things that make Roar stand out. We place a large emphasis on wellbeing, and we approach each design from a place of empathy. Placing the user at the centre of our designs is particularly important when it comes to creating spaces for the hospitality industry where experience is paramount to the brief. 

It’s a difficult time for the hospitality industry. What do you think will be the sector’s biggest challenge, post-Covid?

At the end of last year, we produced a report on the future of hospitality design (with a focus on restaurant design), which sought to identify the challenges caused by the pandemic and differentiate the short-term from the long-term ones. Based on our research and discussion with nine industry experts, three key game-changing trends were highlighted: revised layout and spacing, which was the industry’s most immediate response and also the most severe one, will only be short-lived; ‘contact-light’ interaction is more likely than fully contactless; and lastly, the buffet and sharing concepts may not survive in their present forms.

Operators and owners are going to struggle with reviving the business travel/MICE market, which accounts for about 22% of global tourism. Leisure tourism will bounce back quickly, as will ‘friends and family’ tourism. But getting business travellers back into planes, exhibition halls and four-star hotels will be a real challenge.

I think the main challenge for designers is going to be creating confidence for the owners to invest in their interiors. How do we do that? By giving them real impact within these constraints. At Roar we have already started capitalising on trends like ‘work from hotel’ – watch this space!

How can design be used to manage the guest’s expectations of the hotel experience?

Now, more than ever, it is essential to call for ‘escapism’ in hospitality design. Creating worlds that have a slightly ethereal, out-of-the-ordinary edge will make the hotel experience even more special – certainly a must for the hospitality sector in these uncertain times when fewer people are travelling. Original, immersive, escapist design – in other words, differentiation through design – could be the lasting design legacy of the pandemic. 

Turning to the topic of authenticity of experience, how do you approach each project?

Context is everything – we strive to create coherent spaces that respond to their surroundings. 

All of our interior designs are built around a strong narrative. The overhaul of Mezza House, completed last year, is an apt example. The inspiration was the Yarmouk River Valley and its magically diverse ecosystem as a way to echo the restaurant’s cuisine, which fuses many different Levantine cultures. This concept guided us in all our decisions, from the colour palette to the choice of materials and textures. At their best, stories are more than just marketing fluff – they are at the core of the entire design and construction process, making the finished product cohesive. 

How important are public spaces in hotels? Are there ways in which you’ve used innovative design in these areas to facilitate innovative usage?

They are at the heart of any hospitality space. When we were working on Yotel in the UAE, I loved the research we did on robotics to automate the luggage service and the F&B offering. I think we will see a lot more ‘real’ integration of AI and technology in design – not just the gimmicky robot that greets you when you check in!

“Design is the canvas where human interactions take place, memories are formed and experiences are created”

How high on the list is revenue creation for designers?

Interior designers have always had to work within a specific budget and take into account the economic restraints and business objectives of a project, and that pressure will be ramped up post-pandemic. As well as being asked “what kind of flooring should we specify?” we are now being asked “how much revenue per ft2 can we generate with different floor layouts?”. 

With any type of building, the person writing the cheque is looking for a return on their investment – we as designers have to factor that into the decisions we make about layout and materials. Maybe we should all do an MBA to accompany our design degrees!

With social media – especially Instagram – becoming an increasingly important marketing tool for hotels, do you take it into account when designing spaces?

Yes and no. No, because when you design a building, its life is measured in decades – a social media-friendly gimmick will be popular for a few months then lose its appeal. So the balance is very much in favour of enduring, timeless design rather than short-term Insta likes. Yes, because creating a ‘buzz’ is part of our job – particularly for hospitality design, but for workplaces too, which are increasingly seen as ‘social’ spaces. 

If a client is going to the expense of hiring an interior design firm for a hospitality space, they demand those extra layers – storytelling, Instagrammable moments, theatrical cooking, immersive experiences and so on. Now there’s certainly more pressure on the owners to make their spaces stand out, and that’s where designers can help. Bringing creativity to restaurant design is something we very much enjoy at Roar. But we also have to be wary of designing too many gimmicks – timeless elegance and simplicity will always have a place.

I also think Instagrammable moments are being replaced with amplified ‘experiences’ – memories that stay with you long after the trip!

How do you think the influence of new technology affects the luxury traveller now, and will do in the future?

Luxury travel is a different beast – Covid has certainly proved that. The impact on this end of the spectrum has been  neglible. Luxury travel is about 15% of global travel industry  (around $800b out of $6t pre-Covid, according to the UN World Tourism Association.)  Luxury hotels and business-class cabins are, by definition, lower density per ft2. Social distancing is easier (witness the recovery of the Maldives and Dubai in late 2020/early 2021). 

Luxury travel in 2023 will look very much like luxury travel in 2019. The real changes will be in mass-market tourism, and large events – whether that’s the Gitex trade show in Dubai or Haj in Saudi Arabia.

So, whatever tech trends we are seeing in the other genres of the hospitality space– I don’t think they will translate well here – this segment will always be about the personal touch and tailored services.

Do you believe simple design has become luxurious?

If by ‘simple design’ you mean a more balanced environment, then absolutely, yes. Now more than ever, brands need to think carefully about what they want their spaces to do and say about them.

What particular trends have you noticed in hotel interior design?

A major trend that has been enhanced by the pandemic is biophilia. The idea of bringing the outdoors inside, in recognition of our inherent need as humans to be in contact with nature, has always been at the forefront of Roar’s practice. The past year has reminded us of our far-too-distant relationship with nature – I believe biophilic design will become a must in most interior design projects going forward.

To expand on the notion of escapism that I touched on earlier, another trend I spotted in hotel design is the creation of calm sanctuaries that are designed to soothe our minds and bodies, away from the bustle of our daily lives. This can also be combined with another trend which I like to call the ‘multisensory palette’. The recent pandemic has deprived us of one of our most important senses – touch. In response to that, I feel it will become increasingly important to make use of materials that bring tactility to the interior scheme and devise a space that provokes an emotion in its users. 

“Context is everything – we strive to create coherent spaces that respond to their surroundings”

What does design mean to you?

Design is the canvas where human interactions take place, memories are formed and experiences are created. It is also a powerful tool that influences everyday life – on a more selfish level it’s also the best form of self-expression!

Where do you see hotel design going in the future?

Multifunctionality will be key for the hotel of the future. Hotels can no longer rely solely on tourism and business travel to generate revenue. They have to think more locally and diversify their offering to become workspaces, delis, coffee shops and even nurseries, if they want to stay relevant in a post-pandemic world.

Do you have any architects or designers you admire?

Thomas Heatherwick. Closer to home, Sumaya Dabbagh, Omar Ghafour, Shaun Killa and Islam Mashtooly.

Is there anything exciting you’re working on that you can tell us about?

We are currently working on multiple restaurants for Expo 2020 Dubai opening later this year, taking Dubai’s old street food brands and giving them a modern twist!

We are also working on a couple of hotels in Abu Dhabi, a business hotel in Morocco and a community hub at ICD Brookfield Place, as well as a mosque in Dubai … so, lots happening!

What’s next for you and Roar? 

It’s human nature to look ahead, but sometimes it’s good to be appreciative of the here and now and focus on the present moment. Something exciting on the cards is the move to our new office space – we’ve grown from seven to 17, and are looking to convert a warehouse into our new studio!

What would be your dream hotel project?

The one where the hotel operator/owner and designer all play nicely and live happily ever after …

How easy is it to be truly innovative in luxury hotel design?

It’s very, very hard! We all strive to be Cesar Ritz, who basically invented the modern luxury hotel concept with his Paris and London hotels in the early 20th century – but in reality, we are looking at incremental improvements. 

For example, look at the homegrown hotel companies in the Middle East. Jumeirah has the slogan ‘Stay Different’. But is there really anything different about a Jumeirah hotel? No. That’s not a criticism – they are very good! But not really different. That’s just a reflection of the challenge. Ditto Address, Rotana, etc.

One approach is the TAPAS model that tech firms use. TAPAS stands for ‘take a proven model and add something’. So, if you’re designing a resort, look at the best resorts, and add a twist – a new experience, stronger storytelling, a ‘wow’ design moment, cutting-edge technology. Take the Finolhu ‘rockstar’ villa, complete with glitter ball and private gold buggy – small things, but they really enhanced our immersive experience.