Business of Design

The Business of Design: Lessons Learnt from Perkins+Will


19 Dec , 2017  

At the heart of any successful partnership company lies a synergy between a dreamer and a realist. That rare common ground is where the best companies, products and people arise from, and is usually the origin of something great. Steven Charlton, outgoing Managing Director, and Design Principal Diane Thorsen – each of them a formidable talent in their own right – found that common ground. Together in 2010, they founded the Dubai Studio of Perkins+Will, world renowned global architecture and design firm. They’ve been on an upward trajectory to success ever since.

When we heard of Steven’s imminent departure for new pastures in the UK, we quickly reached out to the dynamic duo to get their thoughts on their journey so far, and what they believe makes their partnership so productively successful. “It’s simple really,” says Steven, “or at least it felt that way at the time. We have always, from the very first day, focused on the ‘bigger picture’. By that I mean delivering the best design possible even when there were distractions. This was on many occasions to the detriment of profit but when building for the long term it is of the utmost importance and requires a lot of clarity. And of course, it was never just me and Di – lest we forget the marvellous team we have built over the years. We have always valued and respected them as individuals and really got to know them and we knew they would always try and do their best knowing Di and I would always have their backs.”

Whilst the move of a key figure such as Steven is bound to have some effect, the team are confident any change will be positive. Diane commented that, “Any change that is slightly uncomfortable is a positive one as it gives relevance and respect for what we have built together. I’m not concerned as I have total trust in myself and our team, but I will of course miss the interaction as we’ve enjoyed a uniquely positive business relationship. As a team, we are the sum of parts and are therefore able to weather any shifts. The move is positive for Steven and we look forward to getting to know our new MD.”

Steven Charlton and Diane Thorsen

Diane’s comments were echoed by Neil Herron, the Director for Hospitality Interiors. He pointed out that Steven is a part of the DNA of the office.  “He has influenced all of us here in some way so while the team is still here so will he be.  Things will change for us internally – losing a character like Steven will inevitably leave a hole.” He went on to say that “From a project’s point of view, things will remain as they are. As Perkins+Will have grown so has the leadership team. Each department has a management structure that focuses on delivering the projects to the highest quality possible.  This structure is still in place, so clients won’t be affected.”

Steven himself is confident that his move to Perkins+Will’s London studio as Managing Director will result in a positive change for the team. “[Diane and I] both knew my goal was to move on to a new and larger market so the last few years have been about building solid foundations and bringing in the best talent from top to bottom for my successor; if anything, Perkins+Will will become even stronger in the region as the seeds of this come to fruition.”

Neil Herron and Julijana Mitic

The team credit their passion for their work, a unique way of thinking and having fun with their clients for their success. Diane Thorsen commented as follows: “Our success is driven not only by design skills but by our deliberate intentions and a way of thinking and responding to a brief. What guides us is to work with integrity in the best interest of the client, a genuine love of design and honest persuasiveness. We believe in what we design, and people buy from people they like and trust. This equates to success and pure joy in designing.” Matthew Sexton added that, “There isn’t a singular trait that sets the team apart; aside from being extremely talented, passionate and committed, they genuinely care for one another and work that they do. I would like to think that we also have fun in doing what we do, which enable our clients to really engage and enjoy the process.” Julijana Mitic, Project Director, contends that design success is down to having an “open heart and mind, wonderful attitude and taste.” She goes on to say that, “I think all designers are great, it is about right tuning, inspiration and being open to deliver great design from the beginning to the end. Staying in that mode is not easy always, but this is essential for the design quality and project success.”

Turning attention to their favourite projects so far, the team has some interesting choices. Matthew says, “We have a lot of great projects but the one that still stands out is Legatum. The reason for this is not only the quality of the design and the attention to detail, but the execution of the project was also outstanding. Five years on and the office still looks exceptional.” Juli’s favourites are the Marriott Diplomatic Quarter in Riyadh and MovenPick RAK. According to her, the “The circumstances around this project [Marriott Diplomatic Quarter] were unbelievable and not easy, but we managed to complete the project satisfied and happy with the design and product overall. The drawings are so beautiful, they could be art on the wall’ ‘at the very beginning of the project [Movenpick RAK] ID created ambiances we would like to have, architects and landscape supported these in their own unique way, wonderful experiences are created all together.”

Whilst competitors may believe that the dynamic duo will be no more, Steven is confident that this is just the start of a new chapter. “If we really were at the top, I might share those concerns but in reality we are only just getting started. There is so much ambition for what we can achieve in the ME and now EMEA I only see us going from strength to strength and this will become clear in the weeks and months to follow with the updates that I will continue to share on my LinkedIn page! Onwards and upwards.”

Matthew Sexton


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