The Business Of Design With Swiss Bureau Interior Design

It’s common to find leadership teams in most organizations with common personalities and ideas on execution. But at Swiss Bureau Interior Design (SBID), you’ll see an interesting Yin & Yang scenario manifest itself within the team. Design styles aside, Gemma Archer and Zoe Allen can be found on the opposite ends of the personality spectrum. As design managers, you’d think this would interfere with their work. But from what we hear, Gemma and Zoe embrace it and synergize their strengths to ensure that the highest quality of design comes out of the studio. 

We met both these talented individuals to just see how they do it and how they support each other.  

Gemma and Zoe, you're regarded as opposites in terms of personality and even in how you approach your roles. But let's start at the beginning. Talk us through your journey so far.

Gemma: My parents first granted me the freedom to experiment and redecorate my bedroom at the age of 10. A decision, I think, they probably regretted over the years! I explored paint colours, wallpapers, artwork and accessories – all of a very bad taste, if I may I add! Thankfully, I got better over time and decided to professionally pursue my passion; eventually, gaining a BSc(Hons) in Interior Design from Glasgow University. 

After three years of working for a design Consultancy in the UK, my international career started in 2009 on accepting a role at KPS, Qatar. Five years later, having gained valuable experience within the design and build (D&B) field, I moved to Dubai to work with Perkins + Will. Realising my preference for the fast-paced, high-stress and more rewarding D&B roles, I moved to London to work for Area, after which I joined Swiss Bureau Interior Design a year ago. 

Swiss Bureau Interior Design
The Swiss International Scientific School Of Dubai, Al Jaddaf

Zoe: As a child, I loved drawing perspectives and sectional views of our home. I especially loved redesigning my bedroom (there were lots of love hearts and flowers involved); and spent days building houses out of lego. I first learned of my love for design in my final year of high school. I didn’t really know what a graphics design class involved until I came across a friends project that I fell in love with. I went from suggesting improvements to finishing her project and eventually started doing her homework for her. Since then, I’ve always dreamt of working in a big city and on grand projects. Dubai is just that, and being on the senior management team of a company I love is a dream come true.  

My background? I graduated from the Design and Arts College of New Zealand, starting my professional career in kitchen design. I then quickly moved to a boutique firm that specialized in retail design. I came to Dubai in 2013, determined to do whatever it takes to progress in my career. I was lucky enough to land a role at Bishop Design. My husband’s job meant living in Al Ain, at the time, and I was commuting 3 hours a day on top of often committing to 12-15 hour work days. But I was happy to do this as it meant learning as much as I could to prove myself. It was a hard slog but I quickly climbed the ranks to become a Senior Designer, with the opportunity to work on high-end Residential, Hospitality and Commercial projects. After a small maternity break, I was eager to get back on track. So you can imagine my excitement at the prospect of joining Swiss Bureau Interior Design, nearly 3 years ago.  

What exactly does your role entail?

Gemma: What doesn’t our role entail? We are responsible at every point in our projects, from inception to completion, and we guide the team to produce everything necessary to see amazing projects realized. We lead client pitches and briefings and oversee a 16-strong design team. We ensure highly-creative designs and visuals are produced and the drawing packages are perfectly detailed so that all of the information we pass on to our execution team is enough to implement. We walk clients through every aspect of their design to achieve a perfectly bespoke, tailored space. Then, we work closely with our project managers to ensure everything on-site is executed as per our vision and the client’s expectations. Each project is like a symphony and we are its maestros, we create the piece but need each and every musician to play their part; and together, we can create something beautiful.

Swiss Bureau Interior Design
Gemma Archer

How different are your project management styles?

Gemma: Our differences are not so much in the way we manage our projects but in our personalities, strengths and weaknesses, and therefore, in the way our job role has been divided.

Speaking on behalf of Zoe, she’s definitely more technical-minded and loves to explore the nitty-gritty of details and profiles in the drawing packages… technical catalogues are her bedtime reading! Logistically, Zoe is able to stay on top of multiple complex projects at one time, ensuring all aspects are handled and the execution is seamless. She’s definitely more straightforward and focuses on processes that make work easier, more efficient and accurate.

Zoe: Gemma loves the challenge of problem-solving and I’ve even seen her work on near-impossible space plans! She’s graphically competent at tailoring presentations bespoke to each individual client’s’ personality, brand and language. Being a natural talker, presenting is something Gemma looks forward to and she easily builds rapport with clients. She adapts as required, while always being herself. Gemma loves to connect with people in general and is always trying to create a positive and fun space for us to work in.

Also, Gemma can spell and count 😉

How do you support each other on a day-to-day basis?

Swiss Bureau Interior Design
Zoe Allen

Zoe: The beauty of having two leaders lies in the strong support system we create. We’re able to fill in for each other on those curveball days, which means the team always has the support and leadership when they need it. Having different, yet complementary, strengths allows us to ensure that complete consideration has been given to all the projects and it helps us offer different perspectives. 

Another part of the reason why we work so well together is how we both appreciate and see the need to joke around and lighten up the mood on tough days. Most importantly, we know that we can rely on each other, knowing that we both have the same work ethic and passion for what we do.

In your opinion, how important is it for colleagues to "get along"?

Gemma: Getting along with colleagues is imperative to our daily operation. In the design industry, long hours, tight deadlines and high volumes of pressure is the norm. Not only do you have to trust and rely on colleagues but the amount of time you spend with one another during the course of the work week means it’s important to enjoy each others’ company. This can be a challenge with a team dominated by women.

Do you have any advice for people who find themselves in a difficult, or even hostile, work environment?

Gemma: In an industry where communication and collaboration is key to the creation of great ideas, team relationships are the foundation of a successful and happy job. It’s important to be aware that everyone works differently and therefore it’s vital to respect one another, whilst compromising, educating and nurturing one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Nobody’s perfect. A good leader should recognize a struggling team member and also be approachable so that a team member can address any issues that are going unnoticed. Transparency and communication are key; and, both, Zoe and I try to be leaders whom our colleagues can speak to, rely on and be mentored and empowered by. 

Swiss Bureau Interior Design
Emirates National Investment Office, Dubai

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