Inside The Mind Of… Khuan Chew

Khuan Chew is a name synonymous with the design of the Burj Al Arab. In fact, she was the first architect / designer to garner celeb status within this region, paving the way for many more spectacular additions to the UAE skyline by renowned names in the A&D industry. Her company, KCA International, boasts projects spread across multiple continents.

However, not many know that design was Chew’s second career, and that as a child, she was groomed for a career in music, training as a pianist. We chat with this multi-talented, iconic (yet an incredible introvert), queen of luxury about her life, passions, career and future plans.

Can you tell us about your design journey and how your career blossomed?

It was a given that I would pursue a career as a musician as I was born with ‘perfect pitch’. I started playing the piano when I could walk and the violin around the age of nine… no pressure! My progression to design was a way out from music after graduating with a Bachelor of Music degree from the Royal Holloway College, London University. My mother was a piano teacher and performer. My father was an artist, and I think I also inherited his genes as is clearly evident in my second career. Music has always played an important role in my life and my work. As a student, I spent all my pocket money on theatre, concerts and the opera. Stage sets plus the awe of music and acting to boot – I was in my own world of theatrical wonder, excitement and dreams. I was surrounded by the visual and performing arts from my early teens growing up in England, and this guided me on a particular trajectory.

What led you to practice design in this region?

It wasn’t a conscious decision. I was an outsider participant in a competition (organised by WS Atkins on behalf of the client) for the interior design of the Chicago Beach Development Project in Dubai. The projects in question were the Jumeirah Beach Hotel and the Burj Al Arab. I first won the Jumeirah Beach Hotel in 1993, and at a later competition in 1997, I won the Burj Al Arab project. Work did pile up a bit after that so it was a no-brainer to have a branch office here in Dubai in 2000.

 

What do you feel is most challenging about being an interior designer in this region?

There are countless challenges, but I love a bit of challenge from time to time! I think the most challenging thing for an interior designer here is fighting to get your ideas across. There are too many cooks telling you how to design, or what they saw recently and show it to you on their phone! If you went to a restaurant where you appreciated the skills and creativity of a chef, would you tell him to change his ingredients?

 

Can you tell us about a particularly exciting or challenging project that you worked on, not necessarily in the region but throughout your entire career history?

My most exciting and gratifying projects have been renovating ‘wrecks’, which required me to produce all the designs and drawings, to engage with tradesmen, builders, other professionals, and finally seeing the end product, without any interference from other ‘cooks’, so to speak. However, I hasten to add that I am reputedly my own worst client, for reasons I would rather not divulge here(I might shoot myself in the foot)!

How would you describe your design style, and where do you find your inspiration?

My mentors were Dale and Pat Keller, and David Hicks. Both were icons in their own right but very different in style. Dale and Pat were contemporary designers and well ahead of their time – they taught me everything I know about five star hotel design, as they were the pioneers in this field from the 1960s, They also worked globally, especially in the Far East. Dale in particular was an intellectual (and an accomplished pianist/musician), and was extremely well travelled and well read. I am honoured to have inherited his personal library of books (over 2000!).

David Hicks was a celebrated neoclassical decorator from the 1950s to the 1990s. He was the son-in-law of Lord Mountbatten and therefore connected to the British Royals. I was his Creative Director (David Hicks International) and we produced luxury on another level. This is where I started to collect names and sources for my little black book.

“My mother was a piano teacher and performer. My father was an artist, and I think I also inherited his genes as is clearly evident in my second career. Music has always played an important role in my life and my work.”

– Khuan Chew, Principal Designer, KCA International

This leads me to answer your next question on design style. My own style is very much that of ‘extreme and ultimate in luxury’ (if the budget can help it). The definition of luxury can be quite diverse – luxury can mean volumes of space, luxury in finishes and furnishings is all about exclusiveness, and quality in finishing and installation. And whether or not the requirement is classical or contemporary, luxury is key in what we do.

My inspiration can be anything I see, touch, feel or hear. I am never without my black book (or phone) to jot down a reference photo or a sketch or thought. I also try to attend exhibitions whenever I can. They are a huge source of inspiration and for days after I think about what I had witnessed. The last one (pre pandemic) that I attended was the Hokusai exhibition at the British Exhibition. I still marvel at it till today. There is a Faberge exhibition coming up shortly at the V&A. I will try and fly back for that one but am told that tickets are already sold out!

I strongly believe that the future influences the present just as much as the past.

What is your favorite design sector, and why?

Fashion – they get away with everything!

If not an interior designer, what would you be?

A music composer, undoubtedly.

If you could design anything without constraints?

I would stage an opera – any Verdi, Puccini, Masscagni or Wagner

What are your design dreams?

If only I could find a client who would give me the opportunity to design a hotel ‘carte blanche’ (and, of course, without any ‘cooks’)!

What are you working on at the moment?

We are quite busy at the moment. There is a lot happening in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and in China too. And we have started something in Vietnam. Africa is opening up majestically and there are also some happenings in Dubai. Due to client confidentiality I cannot divulge more than to say… watch this space!

 

What is the best advice you have ever received?

“Nothing is impossible… if you don’t try you wont get.” I was (and am still) quite naïve, but as they say, ignorance is bliss. Concentrate on what you do, don’t worry about what others are going to say or do.

 

And alternatively, what would be the most important advice you would give new and aspiring designers?

The devil is in the detail. Pay attention to the details…

 

Lastly, who is Khuan Chew, the person behind the designer?

I am quite an introvert and a very private person. There are countless things I want to do and still have to do outside design. For myself, that is, and not for success, not for payment or fees or for a client. I need to enrich my life outside design, which can only enhance me when I design.

I would like to relay an interesting story. At a cocktail party soon after the opening of the Burj Al Arab, a close friend and her husband were in attendance, and she witnessed a particular person boasting about ‘Khuan Chew’ – that he had met him, and what an amazingly interesting and talented designer HE was. My friend’s husband had to urgently remove my friend from that group for her own good!


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Date added:

16 November, 2021

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