Karen Comber is an Interior Design Director at Drees & Sommer in Dubai. She talks to The Industry Leaders about how she moved from the UK to Dubai, why time management and communication is everything, and how cycling helps her switch off after a day at work.
How did you end up sitting where you are today?
After completing a degree in 3D design at Brunel University, my first job was working in a kitchen design studio, hand drawing the designs for clients. AutoCAD wasn't taught at Uni in the early '90s, so shortly after this first job, I returned to college to learn the additional skills needed to get into the hospitality sector. My kitchen design role gave me a greater understanding of the principals of interior construction and manufacturing.
After retraining, I was lucky to secure a position within a small team, drawing the technical detailed design package for a 5-star private members club in London. I then freelanced in London for a few years; developing the design drawing packages for some wonderful projects.
I made the move to Dubai in 2005, working on much larger hotel projects in a Senior Designer capacity, and it took 10 years of supportive design work to step into the front-facing client side. From 2010 to 2016, I ran my own design business, where I learned a lot. Being your own boss teaches you a lot of the skills needed to progress up the ladder to where I am today.
What kind of work does your role involve?
I wear two hats at the moment - my interior design hat and my sensible interior development hat.
Drees and Sommer is predominantly a project management company, so I get involved in reviewing the interior design concepts prepared by other designers. Our role is to ensure the project is built and the client gets their expected financial return. I peer-review the design packages to ensure buildability and cost-efficiency, ensuring that design integrity is maintained, while also being fit for purpose and under budget.
There's a good recent example of our work, where we delivered a mock-up room for 50% of the original costing. The designer initially resisted what we were doing until they saw the end result and they were amazed!
As designers, I firmly believe the skill is not to use the most expensive selections to get an expensive look and feel. It is possible to achieve a 5-star look with innovative use of cost-effective materials for the same desired effect.
What gets you excited about your industry?
You are only as good as your client will allow you to be, so working with clients who trust and believe in you to deliver their vision excites me the most. I also love working collaboratively. Some designers like to be left alone; however, I think the best results are where the communication lines are wide open with the client.
What's the best advice anyone ever gave you?
My tutor at university sat me down one day and taught me about time management and how to be better organised. My head was all over the place, panicking about all design tasks I needed to produce. He taught me to break things down into bite-sized chunks; breaking a project into stages. Each stage is then broken down into smaller pieces, and so the process continues.
My tutor's advice has stuck with me and taught me that, so long as you stick to small deadlines and set time around focused work, collaboration, and general day-to-day admin, it's possible to accomplish anything. This strategy works well when you're managing multiple projects with multiple designers and contributors. When dealing with teams, it's important to set regular targets and check-in times to ensure everything stays on track.
What, or who inspires you?
There are no limits to what inspires me. I like to create a story for each of the projects I work on, and this can be inspired by many things; geography, history, culture, art, architecture - the list is endless! My current project is influenced by the story behind the architecture of the building it resides in. We spoke with the Architect who'd designed the tower to appreciate why it looked the way it did.
My style is very eclectic, and I'm drawn to the interior designer Kelly Wearstler. Her colour combinations are so brave. She produces the most amazing interiors based around strong graphical elements.
How do you keep up to speed with what's happening in the industry?
To be honest, it's impossible to keep up with everything happening in the industry as there is so much going on!
I'm currently working halfway between Dubai and the UK. Dubai has some beautiful designs, and its always good to go and see new projects coming up. The last 10 years have seen a big development and expansion of design styles present in the region.
I am also constantly looking at social media (Instagram and LinkedIn) and reading online publications from various sources. I love what I do so I enjoy surfing the net for knowledge.
What was the most challenging project or assignment you've worked on?
All projects have their day-to-day challenges. However, most challenges can be overcome with good communication and open dialogue. If this breaks-down, that's when the project can derail.
Highly compressed timelines and moving goalposts, along with conflicting visions from multiple stakeholders, will always challenge any project. It's just as important to understand the hierarchy of approvals, so you know who has the final say and sign-off in any project.
You finish work today and step outside the office to find a lottery ticket that ends up winning $10 million. What would you do?
I have a great client at the moment and would complete the project for them. Once this is finished, I would definitely take some time off to recharge and travel with my husband and son.
I've always wanted to do my own property development, so we would buy a lovely place to renovate in the Girona region of Northern Spain. We have lots of cyclist friends so we would probably run cycling holidays from there too.
How do you switch off after a day at work?
When I'm in Dubai away from the family, I go out for a few hours cycling. When I'm home in England, I enjoy putting on some tunes, singing very loudly along to Barbara Streisand and making some great food for my family.
If you had one wish for the future of your industry, what would it be?
The more compressed the deadline, the less opportunity there is to develop a well-rounded narrative. I would love to see more realistic deadlines that allow us to develop the thought process more thoroughly.
Also, the hospitality industry as a whole has been hit really hard during the pandemic. It would good to see travel getting back to normal as soon as possible with new design projects coming back online.
What book or podcast should everyone know about?
I follow two amazing ladies online.
We all need a cheerleader in life, and Mandie Holgate is that person. I have known Mandie for several years, and she is a huge advocate for personal development in life and business. I have read her best selling books and had personal mentoring from her.
I have also followed Ann Wilson, The Wealth Chef, for the last few years. She is all about personal empowerment; taking control of your own finances and teaching us the skills we should all have been taught at school.
How should people connect with you?
LinkedIn is the best place to reach me for design and project-related enquires. I am trying to be more present on Instagram too (@idoliseinteriors); however, this is a work in progress.