Inside The Mind Of Firas Alsahin

Co-founder of design firm, 4Space Design, Firas Alsahin is an insanely talented individual who loves his interiors to be as zany as his sci-fi fantasies. This Star Wars loving designer tells us of his story from Damascus to Dubai as a start-up to a thriving, award-winning, design practice.

Firas Alsahin founded 4Space Design in Dubai in 2011 with business partner, Amjad Hourieh. Moving to Dubai at a time when the emirate’s growth in the commercial sector was booming offered great opportunity for their firm. Dubai was at the center of a burgeoning and vibrant market, and that served as an impetus for 4Space to explore all fields within the design industry, resulting in quite a name as designers of dramatic, dynamic and experiential spaces, particularly in the F&B and hospitality sectors. Now well known for noteworthy projects in the UAE, and having collected a number of awards, 4Space Design is a firm that eschews quantity for quality, maintaining a hands-on approach that allows them to meticulously manage every phase of the design process with their clients.

Firas tells us about his story…

How did your design career blossom?

From a young age, I’ve had a passion for sci-fi, building blocks, Lego, etc. So, if I liked a particular movie or comic character, I would build the ships and the characters. I remember the first time I saw Transformers, I went to my Lego set and started building the characters. I used to get a lot of compliments about my drawing, and sketching was my escape, my go-to every time I wanted to unwind.

My parents’ plan for me was to be a surgeon (my dad is a surgeon), but I was a rebel and I joined the fine arts faculty instead. To enter the faculty, you had to participate in a drawing competition. I entered just three days before and so hadn’t had any time to practice, but I still passed with a very high grade, and that was a watershed moment. I was accepted into the fine arts faculty and that was when I told my parents that this was my passion.

In college, my grades would be at the top in my class, and this gave me a lot of confidence. I started working in a design studio early on, so I was working and studying at the same time. And in my third year at college, I got my first job. There was a small boutique project, which my boss at the time didn’t take on, and he asked me if I wanted to do it. It was a very creative project, and the result was so good, my friends, my parents, and my boss were all proud. As soon as I graduated, I started my own studio in Damascus with my partner Amjad Hourieh, and my career escalated from there.

We had some good relationships in Dubai and were doing some designs for clients there, so it was an easy decision to move to Dubai. The difficult part was the shift from a company of around 25 people and a very nice office in Damascus, to start from scratch in an empty office in JLT with two computers, a printer and four chairs – and just me and my partner. It was a totally different business model, so we had to learn a lot.

PAPA restaurant by 4Space Design

So what do you specialise in now?

We are good at everything really, and have all sorts of projects in our portfolio, but the majority are in hospitality and F&B.

 

What has been the most challenging and exciting project – one that has really stayed with you?

I think it was the first restaurant that I completed in the Downtown area. It was our first project so it’s very dear to me. We submitted it for the Restaurant and Bar awards, which is based in London. These awards are very competitive, and our restaurant was shortlisted, which was a big surprise because! We didn’t win, but it was still a big deal for us just to go to the ceremony in London and celebrate with all these amazing designers from all over the world. It felt like a win to us and gave us a big boost.

The biggest challenge, in terms of the timeline and the brief, was a 5,000-square-metre project called VR Park. This was the biggest we had ever worked on at the time, and it was also very creative. The brief was to create a VR experience theme park, and so we reimagined the whole of the downtown area upside down. We designed a facade where all of Downtown was on a big LCD screen, and everything was moving and alive – planes passing and cars moving, and the two entrances looked like a portal, so once you enter you feel like you’re moving into a different dimension. This project won the overall winner for the SBID Design Awards in 2018. They had to announce it twice because we were so stunned, we really hadn’t expected it! It was a crazy moment.

Projects by 4Space Design: PAPA restaurant, Kava & Chai, Coffee Tea cafe, and Tutu’s retail store

How would you describe your design style?

 

I can best describe it as architectural. If you look at our designs, you don’t experience the space as just a ceiling and a floor. Usually the structure merges the spaces into one whole. I’m crazy about ceilings, and we are famous for our elaborate ceiling work – we like people to have their heads up all the time! We also include complex architectural objects into our design, which the whole space is wrapped around. I’m good with 3D modelling and this has allowed me to experiment with different things. In most of our projects, we try to challenge gravity. I don’t like clean, boring surfaces… I like design to be dynamic and interesting.

 

What is your favorite design sector?

F&B – I definitely enjoy it the most.

 

Where do you see the design industry heading, say five years from now?

I believe that with the technology that we’re going to have in the future, and using it to our advantage, we’ll be able to do more adventurous things, more tech-driven design. But as a mindset, we need to be adaptive. We design for people, and people keep changing. Sometimes when I do something which is very youth oriented, I ask my 16-year-old son, “How do you feel about this?” The last thing that you need as a designer is to be stuck in the past. You have to have an open mind to change.

Projects by 4Space Design: Space Cup Lounge, VR Park at Dubai Mall, Kactus Restaurant

What are you working on at present?

We are designing a 2,000-square-metre bar called Papa. It’s going to have over 200 chairs, 100 of these are bar stools, and around eight different concepts. I’m very excited, as we’re designing it for people to just simply socialise. It’s going to be in the V Hotel. We also have plenty of other F&B projects in the pipeline in Dubai as well as in Saudi Arabia.

 

In terms of sustainability, what initiatives is your company driving?

Sustainability is important to us and we make sure to work with a lot of sustainable materials. But beyond that, there is a very important aspect of sustainability, which is that when you design something, it should have longevity – that’s a truly sustainable approach. Design that doesn’t fade out, that still looks good over the years, is durable and reduces waste. Timelessness is a big deal in terms of sustainability.

 

If you were not a designer what would you be?

A comic artist.

If you were able to design anything without constraints?

Something futuristic. I would like to design a movie set. I would like to be approached by a movie maker, someone like Spielberg. I’m working on something similar, by the way – an immersive, experience park.

 

What is the best advice that you have received, and consequently what advice would you give upcoming designers entering this field?

One of my college professors pushed me to always challenge my creativity. His words to me were, “Don’t do anything typical. Always be unique in your approach.” This really drives me to think differently and I would suggest the same approach to upcoming designers. I also meet amazing new talent who say, “I’m not tech driven” or “I’m not into technology or 3D modelling and 3D software”, and to them I say, “If you limit yourself in that way, you’re limiting yourself to a box, which is a ceiling, walls, a floor, and a bunch of furniture. Look at Zaha Hadid’s work – it could never have happened without the software and the technology. You don’t have to be able to generate photorealistic renderings, but at least try the basics.”

 

Lastly, who is Firas, the person behind the designer?

I would like to think of myself as a loving husband and father. I have two amazing kids, a son and a daughter. My wife used to say that I’m a ‘Gemini who’s not a Gemini’. A Gemini usually has two faces, which I don’t have but I have other Gemini qualities – I’m a social person, she says, and smart and creative.

Firas Al Sahin with family, business partners and colleagues at their offices in JLT, Dubai

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