Inside the Mind of… Christian Merieau

As soon as you encounter Christian Merieau, Founding Partner at MMAC Design Associates, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s a wonderful host. He offers great company, stimulating conversation and has an inviting, warm personality – sought after qualities in an individual who’s clearly a people’s person. As a seasoned storyteller and natural leader, he infuses his ability to construct and translate a narrative into his holistic approach to the design process.

If there were two things he knew for sure, it’s that he was bad at school, and good at drawing. While he knew his passion lay in the fields of art and design, his path post-high school has been quite unconventional. He left school at 17 (was kicked out?), bagged a job washing dishes, and then moved on to bar tending. His parents eventually enrolled him in hospitality school hoping he would learn the skills necessary to run their hotel in Dijon, France. After a short stint in the United States, he moved back to Switzerland to join Samuel Creations where he would meet his mentor. And that’s where his career in design began.

Christian Merieau
Bar Muda by MMAC Design Associates

“Instead of fearing the things you cannot control, focus your energy on what you can create and control.” – Christian Merieau, MMAC Associates

When I asked Christian about his first assignment under the guidance of his mentor, the answer was a seemingly unexciting one. “All I did was draw straight lines for hours on end. Sometimes, it felt like days would go by.” The answer is, in fact, an insight into his creative process; his early years were focused on honing an appreciation of and dedication to the art of design. Having worked alongside the artists responsible for restoring châteaux in Versailles or the ones belonging to the Louvre, he’s developed a clear sense of respect and humility for the craft.

Prior to his entry to Dubai in 2005 as the Managing Director of Samuel Creations, Christian managed his own firm in Geneva for four years, designing private homes and office spaces. Notably, he was commissioned to re-think working environments for the International Labor Organization. After nearly 20 years with Samuel Creations, Christian decided to co-found with Anil Mangalat a boutique interior design consultancy in Dubai specialized in luxury hospitality design. And that’s how MMAC Design Associates was born. It was an absolute delight to chat with this spirited soul about life before Dubai, his thoughts on the ever evolving design industry, and what he’s excited about.

What’s your favorite design sector and why?

My favorite design sector is without a doubt hospitality. Primarily, because my parents owned and managed a hotel in Dijon, France, for more than a decade. This hotel served as a canvas for my first designs. Secondly, I believe interior design as a career offers the most creative freedom compared to any other design related careers. I am passionate about creative narration and firmly believe that every hospitality project holds within it a story that needs to be told.

At MMAC Design Associates, we take great pride in our design approach which is to fully understand the needs of our clients and provide adequate design solutions based on our in-depth insights into the industry and comprehension of operational criteria. We design bespoke solutions that incorporate our client’s vision, embodies the local culture, and respects the regional context while fulfilling the hotel’s brand positioning and operational requirements. We try our best to tick all the boxes while keeping true to our personal brand.

What have been your favorite and least favorite designs that you’ve worked on, and why?

I can’t recall ever having to work on a project I didn’t really like. Every project has its challenges but if you embrace them and respectfully engage with all stakeholders, then some form of success is definitely within reach. Interior designers are creative service providers and we’re unique in our own way, but it’s important to be mindful of all parties involved, and more importantly, keep our strong egos under control.

What does your design process entail and where do you find inspiration?

If you understand the brief – and I mean truly understand what the client wants to see in the space – half the work is done. Most of the time, it’s not possible for someone to articulate what they’re looking for, but it’s still our job to listen and empathize. Sometimes, we’ll present a concept the client didn’t realize they wanted, but now need it.

We do a lot of research before even beginning the design phase; for example, in a new project we’re working on, the 4-star Mercure Hotel in Sohar, we’ve found innovative ways to incorporate Omani tribal patterns and ethnic artwork into the hotel interiors. It’s quite something to behold.

Christian Merieau
Bar Muda by MMAC Design Associates

In our research we found that Sohar is credited for being the mythical birthplace of Sinbad the Sailor. We were inspired to use this piece of folklore to infuse the interior with a slightly humorous theme. Working closely with the artist Lama Khatib Daniel, we developed custom wallpapers depicting scenes from Sindbad’s adventures. Be it a whale or a cyclops, the story of Sinbad subtly works its way into the background. It visually unifies the hotel spaces under a central theme. On top of that, we make a deliberate attempt to tone down the clutter and decoration in favor of clean lines and sleek forms so as to leave the emphasis on the theme.

What would be the most important advice you could give new designers?

Listen, listen and . . .  listen some more.

I believe that it’s crucial to understand a client’s vision, the local culture, and the regional context while fulfilling a space’s particular brand positioning and operational requirements at the same time. Once all these elements are incorporated, a designer can let his or her creativity loose and can guarantee a successful design. But none of this can happen without becoming still and listing in the first place.

How do you compare Dubai with anywhere else you’ve worked? What do you feel is the toughest part of being an interior designer in the UAE?

I find working in Dubai exhilarating!

Coming from Europe, I am lucky to have been exposed to centuries of inspirational design and architecture, but I’ve always found that this legacy could sometimes be either overwhelming or burdensome. The UAE does not have this architectural legacy and offers a blank canvas to most designers on which everything and anything can be tried and tested. In Dubai, ethnic and cultural differences are embraced and the varied visions of designers with Asian, Arabic, African and Western backgrounds coalesce into something often brand new.

Christian Merieau
Mercure Sohar by MMAC Design Associates

Where do you see designs in the hospitality industry moving in the next five years?

Hospitality design is undergoing a radical shift. The traveler of today is more informed in his or her search for a unique experience. The emergence of the ‘boutique hotel’ answers that call. In an industry that’s overrun with standardized brands that leave little to the imagination, boutique hotels with their eccentricity and originality are a welcome respite. Initially coined to describe non-conformist hotel properties, today the term ’boutique hotel’ is wide ranging in its meaning. A hotel could be categorized as ’boutique’ based on its distinctive design style, the unique theme under which it operates, its modest room count or even the unusual nature of its owner! We suspect that small scale hotels with their unique offerings will spring up in the coming years to meet the demands of the new-age traveler. These hotels will rely heavily on the creativity of their designers to bring to its guest an authentic and original ‘boutique-like’ experience.

If not interior design, what would you be doing?

I was never any good at school, but I was always good at drawing, and I knew it. A career involving art is always something I knew I’d end up pursuing.

If not interior design, I’d be an artist or at the very least, I’d be involved in the creative field somehow. But looking back, interior design is my calling and I have a hard time imagining doing anything else.

If you could design anything without constraints, what would it be? What are your design dreams and/or goals?

I would absolutely love to design for a greater purpose. I’m a huge fan of The Maggie’s Centre initiative, named after Maggie Keswick who died of cancer. It grew from a singular healthcare housing project to a flourishing network designed by high profile designers such as Richard Rogers, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas. There’s no great architectural secret at work in the design of Maggie’s Centres. They are simply defined by positive qualities: light, space, openness, intimacy, humanity, respect and connectedness to nature, but they all serve a greater purpose.

Christian Merieau
Mercure Sohar by MMAC Design Associates

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

We are working on three Rove Hotels in Dubai together with an amazing team of consultants. These properties are enormously fun to work on. We can tag funny quotes on walls, install giant orange plastic penguins in the lobbies and make trophy wall installations out of used bicycle parts behind the hotel reception. They should all be open within the next two years.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

Instead of fearing the things you cannot control, focus your energy on what you can create and control.

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Date added:

27 February, 2018

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