Inside the Mind Of

Inside the Mind of… Carla Conte

5 Jun , 2018  

The word ‘retail geek’ might not sound very familiar; at least, it did not for us till we met Carla Conte, Creative Director and Co-Founder of Brand Creative. Carla brims over with contagious energy, and she embodies creativity. Like the major brands she’s designed for, she’s a big believer in moves that make a statement.

Backed by solid years of experience gained from working with some of the most sought-after firms in the interior design industry, in February 2011, Carla, along with husband Mohamed El Hijazi, started Brand Creative. And today, it is a multiple award-winning boutique design firm that has established itself as a leading agency for retail designs in the UAE. Even more astonishing was their decision to start a business amidst the financial crisis, a time when most expats would seek stability. But Carla and Mohamed saw an untapped niche market in the retail sector, one populated by entrepreneurs and young brands with frugal budgets, but in dire need of the retail guru’s expertise. And that bet has paid off tremendously. 

Between her husband and son, and her team at Brand Creative, Carla did manage to take time out from her busy schedule to have what we would simply describe as a fun afternoon chat. Here’s a look at her journey and what she’s been up to.

Did you always know that you wanted to be an interior designer?

As unbelievable as this may sound, I had decided on a career in medicine, long before I turned my attention to the design field. I wanted to be a dermatologist and eventually design a line of skincare products.

Growing up, I was never too far from the design field; both my parents are highly creative and entrepreneurs as well.  My mother out-earned my father with her design business within the first year – something he was very proud of.

I started my design career interning for one of Toronto’s top design and branding agencies, Watt International (formerly IDG). I was given this opportunity through a Global Internship programme for high performing students.  Some of my peers were placed with the likes of NASA and Bombardier, so obviously, the calibre of the placements was phenomenal. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely convinced that a design placement was right for me as I had decided on a career in medicine. Something was definitely telling me that wouldn’t have made me happy. Influencing my decision, in the background, was definitely the support of my parents who were creatives themselves. My mother was a fierce female mentor for me. Being Italian immigrants to Canada during a time when people were encouraged to be entrepreneurial, they both were adamant that whichever path I chose, they wanted me to consider opening my own business one day. I couldn’t even imagine it at that time!

Brand Creative Carla Conte
Go Sport, Mall of the Emirates

I ultimately accepted an intern position at the agency and saw first hand how big brands developed sales strategies using design as a tool to convey their message and attract customers. I began to experience the business potential that design offered and decided this was something I was passionate about. I was really lucky to have shadowed my mentor, Ron Harris, Founder of IDG and a retail design guru, who was internationally acclaimed for his work. Four years later, I obtained my design degree from Ryerson University and won the coveted “Designer of the Year” title when I graduated. I took my education very seriously and hoped it would eventually pay off; not necessarily from a financial perspective, but I wanted to be known as a branding expert. I decided early on that I would focus on the retail segment and that has definitely been the right decision for me.

I spent 11 years with Watt International working with Fortune 500 companies in North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia, before being named Head of Design in Dubai, for a boutique London retail design agency in 2009. I had made the move to Dubai in 2006 to work on Dubai Festival City – an experience that opened many doors for me. I was exposed to the design and construction processes in the region and made important industry contacts that I am still linked to, today. I’ve spent nearly 13 years climbing the proverbial “ladder”, learning all I could from my mentors, before deciding that I wanted to start my own agency in February of 2011. We opened our India office in 2014 and our third office in Toronto is, finally, launching this year!

What’s your favorite design sector and why?

Seriously – I’m a retail geek. The science of shopping fascinates me. Even with all the hype about it being a “dying sector”, I will always have a love for retail. Experts say retail is dying, but I disagree. It’s simply changing. In fact, our studio is involved in developing an online experience for retailers so we’re not losing out on that business. This is one of the many reasons I chose to create a multidisciplinary studio with graphic and UX capabilities. What we create online compliments whatever we create in the traditional brick and mortar space (if one exists). Retail spaces no longer have to actually sell a product at a traditional cash point with traditional sales staff. Brands are using their physical spaces to create marketing experiences that complement their offer. Products are on display so that there’s still a place to physically touch and feel items, but most shoppers have entered these spaces having done their homework and their minds made up. A store is now a place for validation and total brand immersion. And that’s what excites me.

How would you describe your design style?

I am a believer in making big moves. I’m always proposing the unexpected regardless of what style, class or period the project belongs to. I’m not a slave to trends, and I will do what I believe makes a spectacular design. Whether that be an unpopular colour choice, or making an unusual form or sculptural piece the center point of a space, I’m all for it. If it makes sense for the brand and brings awareness to its cause, it’s justified in my mind.

Brand Creative Carla Conte
Sisters Beauty Lounge, Dubai Mall

Are there any specific places you’ve found particularly inspirational?

I absolutely love spaces that are informative and centred on the user experience. Growing up, the Ontario Science Center was a space I could have lived in. It’s the combination of technology and infographics infused into immersive 3D vignettes that excites me. It’s everything I want my own designs to aspire to, today.

What's your favorite space at the moment?

Last year we bought and renovated an old villa in Dubai. So I’ve been fortunate enough to design my family’s space, and fuse it with our personality and stories. My son’s nursery is my favourite place. Taking inspiration from his Moroccan and Canadian roots, we designed and hand-painted the walls in a silhouette style tribute to the Atlas mountains in Morocco and the lush forestry in Canada’s Algonquin Park. The room is a neutral colour palette of wispy greys contrasted with a darker carbon grey. Our family in Morocco had a Beni Ourain rug handmade for us in Fez that places beautifully in the room. We also imported handmade blankets, pillows and artwork from a Canadian brand that supports First Nations artists. We installed a white noise machine that could honestly put anyone to sleep when it’s on. It’s a total escape for me.

Brand Creative Carla Conte
Albatar, Abu Dhabi

How do you compare Dubai with anywhere else you’ve worked?

In comparison to North America, timelines are fast-paced (double time), clients’ demands are uniquely ambitious (thinking world-class rather than just being best in the region) and budgets are surprisingly stringent. It’s really a lot to ask, but it’s also the reason why I have so much respect for my peers here. I understand that to actually have a project built that looks how you envisioned it, means that you went to great lengths to achieve it during the design phase and post contract. The design scene here is killing it, to say the least.

What do you feel is the toughest part of being an interior designer, especially within the UAE?

I think that the process of value engineering here can sometimes be demotivating. More so than anywhere else in the world, clients have direct access to materials in the Far East. In this context, it can be problematic, especially if the designer is not kept in the loop on substitutions. To be fair though, I’ve recently had experiences with factories there that are able to customize our requests at unbelievable price points and timelines. I think the key here is that, as long as the designer maintains control over the implementation phase, we can ensure that designs are kept genuine and to an acceptable quality level.

Hamac Carla Conte Brand Creative
Hamac, by Carla Conte

Where do you see the interior design industry moving in the next 5 years?

I think advancements in AR and VR will finally break through as a “must-have” requirement on projects with major developers. On a mass scale, homeowners in North America are already using design apps that layer products into uploaded photos of their spaces. We will no longer depend on clients being able to visualize something before it’s built, they can experience it and tailor it precisely beforehand. That definitely comes with its own set of problems for designers but it’s exciting nonetheless.

Brand Creative Carla Conte
Yeotown Kitchen, London

Can you tell us about a particularly exciting or challenging project you’ve worked on?

In 2015, and 2016, we were approached by the leading German duty-free operator to work on design concepts for Midfield Duty-Free and Muscat Duty-Free. The briefs were the most challenging and refreshing I have ever been part of. We had to re-think the transient retail experience and offer solutions that have never been seen before. We were working with companies that offered technologies that still aren’t launched in the market. It’s absolutely amazing to be part of a team that needs to take the age-old brief of using a country’s landscape to define a branded look for visitors. But we had to truly conceptualize ideas that haven’t been used in any other projects to date. Other major firms that were on our collective submission team were Zaha Hadid Architects and Graff. Understanding their process and ideation approach, in itself, was a humbling and eye-opening experience for us.

What are your design dreams?

If you are really asking me to pick something I could dream about… then I’d say a library. True to my nerd nature, I love books and I love reading. If someone briefed me on the challenge of designing the library, of the future, that still held true to the nostalgia of being in a quiet space surrounded by actual books, I’d be all over it. But the deal has to be no budget!

What are you working on at the moment that you can tell us about?

We’re currently developing the branding and interiors for a café concept that will roll out across KSA. It’s a fresh take on a modern chocolate experience that incorporates dining and retail. We’re also refreshing the brand and interiors for a major UAE-based beauty lounge, as well as their men’s grooming salons. The first locations will be launched in DIFC, this September, with multiple others opening around the UAE and in Canada as well. Beauty and wellness projects seem to be dominating our attention at the moment, which is great because you can incorporate a stylized fashion aesthetic and be super creative, all the while keeping the challenges of function and ergonomics at the forefront. Other exciting projects currently in the studio include a specialist eye centre in Bahrain and interior works on three different shopping centres in Oman.

Brand Creative Carla Conte
Nar, Citywalk

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? And on the other hand, what would be the most important advice you could give new designers?

The best advice I’ve received? Hmmm… it’s more “life” related than “design” related, but it’s something I always keep in mind. “What other people think of you is none of your business.” I honestly still have to remind myself of that from time to time. It’s so easy in this industry to become consumed in who’s doing what and how your work compares. It’s the nature of the beast.

But I would encourage young designers to always listen first and foremost to what your client or brand is asking of you and focus on creating a journey for the end-user. Nevermind the trends. If your design solutions come from a place of authenticity and you’re considering elements involving colour psychology, technology and being thoughtful and strategic about your space planning, everything else will fall into place.

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