Aidah Dheban on the shifting design trends in the Middle East

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Contact Aidah Dheban, Interior Design Associate Director

Associate Director at Benoy Interiors, Aidah Dheban, grew up in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Here, she discusses the KSA’s cultural and aesthetic influences on her work and shifting design trends in the Middle East.

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Tell us a bit about your role and working at Benoy?

My role as Associate Director at Benoy is to lead interior design projects from concept to completion, working closely with prestigious clients, specialist consultants and creative designers to deliver unique stories and experiences through authentic designs solutions. I’ve been at Benoy for over six years now, working across multiple sectors – from aviation and retail to hospitality, residential and workplace. The projects I’m involved in are global, but often with a focus on KSA and the Middle East. 

I love being part of the Benoy design and leadership team in London; it’s a great place to work and grow professionally. I particularly like the diversity of people and complexity of projects we’re exposed to. One day we’ll be working on a plug and play’ concept for an office fitout in Canary Wharf, and the next we’ll be designing hospitality lounges for an airport in the desert. I also like the fact that we get to collaborate with talented people from different disciplines across the Handley House Group, such as landscape design, placemaking, wayfinding, tech and data, as well as architecture. 

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Can you describe your career journey to date?

I grew up in Jeddah and went to school and university there. After training as an interior designer at Dar Al Hekma University, I started working for the global architecture firm Aedas in Dubai, where I was privileged to work with high-profile clients such as Emaar Properties and Langham Hotel. After five years I relocated to London, still with Aedas, before going on to work for HOK, Virgin Atlantic Airways, and then Benoy. 

At this time, I became interested in human behaviour and interaction with physical space, and wanted to explore how people’s identity and culture influence design. So, during my early years at Benoy, I enrolled on an MA in Design Management and Cultures at the University of Arts London. The course focused on the relationship between culture, identity and design; it also encouraged a human-centric approach to interior design, which resonates closely with the philosophy at Benoy. 

How has your background influenced and inspired you as a designer?

Living in different countries and working on projects worldwide has really shaped my design outlook. For me, having cultural identity and lifestyle values reflected in people’s functional and aesthetic surroundings is key to authentic and sustainable design. For example, when I’m working on design schemes for projects in Saudi Arabia, I’m aware how important it is to have a real understanding of the local context. This kind of knowledge and insight means we can be storytellers through design.

In my stories, I take inspiration from the historic architectural forms, patterns and textures of KSA. The desert colours and harsh landscapes, the sand and the sea, have an enduring influence on my work today. I used to live not far from old Jeddah, Al-Balad’. I have fond memories of the local architecture and neighbourhoods; I recall tales from my childhood during the month of Ramadan, when we would go shopping for Eid. The area is now part of UNESCO, which underlines the importance of preserving history through architecture and interiors. It also reminds me how design must respond to people’s needs. It’s really all about people, place and purpose, and how we bring these elements together. 

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Saudi Vision 2030 has driven major changes in recent years. How has this impacted design in KSA?

Vision 2030 is an ambitious vision for an ambitious nation, based on a thriving economy and the empowering of Saudi youth. It has created opportunities for the world to be part of that evolution. For us as interior designers, it means we’re being urged to explore different design applications and styles. It has encouraged innovative approaches to, say, technology and materiality, while celebrating Saudi culture and history. 

In particular, there’s an emphasis on inclusivity within Vision 2030, and within Saudi society more generally. In design terms, this means promoting a sense of local community through the creation of social spaces and environments. We’re seeing a proliferation of projects that aim to bring people together, embracing social integration across generations and welcoming people from all regions and backgrounds. As part of this shift, outdoor spaces are becoming increasingly important. Vision 2030 calls for a renewed focus on wellness, health and sustainability across it’s developments – from hospitality to retail to entertainment. So we’re focusing on greenspace creation and landscaping, getting people out in nature, while also targeting green accreditation such as LEED, BREAM and WELL in our building designs. 

What are the other key design trends in KSA and the Middle East?

Designing for climate is key. In these very hot parts of the world, designers need to focus on making buildings and public spaces comfortable and amenable. Shaded outdoor space is essential, while natural ventilation is important in the shift away from heavily airconditioned interiors. 

As mentioned, Saudi Arabia has a rich heritage; telling the world, through architecture and art, who we are’ culturally is a key driver for design. For example, through new building regulations the authorities are reviving Salmani architecture as part of a new vision for Saudi urbanism. The King Salman Charter for Architecture sets out a design methodology that highlights Saudi Arabia’s history and culture…while also serving as a guide for decision-makers, specialists and those interested in architecture and urbanism”. 

For young Saudis in particular (it’s estimated that 70% of the population is under 30), this movement has captured the imagination. There’s a generation of young ambitious people coming through who want to change and promote their country. Efforts to support local design, art, tourism, leisure and retail, and to assert Saudi identity through these elements, are really gaining momentum. And even though I don’t live in Saudi anymore, I feel part of me is still there while working on these projects. I’m proud to take part in shaping Saudi’s future. 

At Benoy, we’re currently mentoring young Saudi design students from King Abul Aziz University in Jeddah, helping with their dissertations and projects. These students will be KSA’s future designers and architects, our future collaborators. It’s been really enjoyable, and we’ve learnt a lot from them as well. 

How does your knowledge of KSA inform your response to client briefs and projects?

My background provides a level of insight – culturally, commercially, aesthetically – that clients from Saudi and the wider Middle East region seem to value. Certain client requirements remain unspoken, and it’s important we convey that we get it’; and that we show respect and understanding through our design. 

My university thesis was titled Lost in Translation, Found in Collaboration, which in many ways defines our response to client briefs. The brief is the point at which we achieve full understanding; we ask questions, analyse, challenge and interrogate, then work with the client to make sure the brief truly reflects their ambitions and vision. Collaboration is critical. The briefing process should be a dialogue, not a monologue; and this is where we begin. 

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Hospitality KSA Confidential
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