Architecture & design Tourism & hospitality

Jewel in the desert

When it opens on Pearl Jumeirah in 2016, Nikki Beach Hotels & Resorts Dubai claims that it will be the region’s first luxury lifestyle resort. A boutique hotel with a beach club and spa, situated on a 400m private beach, its details are being kept top secret until opening date. Raymond Nawar of Gatserelia Design, the team behind its interiors, explains the firm’s design philosophy and runs through projects past and present.

When Nikki Beach Resort & Spa Dubai opens in 2016, it will be one of a kind. Not only is it the first luxury lifestyle resort in the region, it is also the first major development on the reclaimed island Pearl Jumeirah. With views onto the Arabian Gulf, the location notionally offers the best of both worlds: desert island seclusion just a quick drive from the most upmarket part of town.

Precise details of the resort are tightly guarded for now, and will be kept under wraps until the eleventh hour. However, we do know some of what to expect: 15 beach villas, 61 branded residences, a 117-key boutique hotel, three restaurants, Nikki Spa by ESPA, a fitness centre, a VIP lounge, and the brand’s signature Beach Club, all situated on a 400-metre long private beach.

“We have been waiting for the right time, location and partners to expand our brand in Dubai, and after 10 years of waiting, I am happy to announce that we have finally found the perfect location and the perfect partners – Meraas Holding – to open Nikki Beach in Dubai,” Jack Penrod, founder and owner of Nikki Beach Worldwide, told CNN towards the end of 2014.

Mention Nikki Beach, and a very specific image comes to mind. Since 1998, when Penrod opened his first beach club in Miami, the name has been a byword for jet-setting extravagance and ‘white parties’. Today, there are beach clubs around the world – from Marrakech to Marbella, St Barths to San Tropez – as well as various pop-up locations. The emphasis is on music, art, film and fashion, as much as it is on the celebrities spraying thousand-dollar champagne.

Hotel expansion

More recently, Penrod has expanded his brand into hotels and resorts. Two of these have already opened (in Porto Heli Greece and Koh Samui Thailand), with three more in the pipeline (in Turkey and Croatia as well as Dubai). When Nikki Beach Porto Heli opened in 2014, it was greeted with much fanfare. BA High Life magazine summed it up as ‘sexy, modern luxury for the elite European party crowd’.

Visually speaking, the Porto Heli resort is very clean, with dazzlingly white décor and sleek, uncomplicated lines. Promotional materials suggest Nikki Beach Dubai will be somewhat similar, staying true to the contemporary vision of luxury that defines the brand.

So it may come as a surprise that the design firm behind both, the Lebanon-based Gatserelia Design, also designed the public areas of the Saifi Suites Hotel Beirut. With a chandelier made from cymbals, and lysergic-looking wall cladding, the space was memorably described by Time Out as ‘like a sneak preview into your night’s sleep after consuming the entire cheeseboard’.

Raymond Nawar, owner of the affiliated Gatserelia Nawar and Associates, does not see this as a contradiction.

“To draw a parallel with the art world, Pierre Soulages has painted in black his entire life, meaning every time you see a Soulages you can recognise it’s a Soulages. But if you take Gerard Richter for example, he has been changing style – he has been tentative, adapting to new materials. I think Gatserelia Design is more of a Richter than a Soulages,” he explains.

Nawar has been working with Gatserelia Design for around 15 years. An architect and urban planner by training, he joined forces with Gregory Gatserelia in 2008 to found Gatserelia Nawar and Associates, the company’s architectural wing. Together, they head up an international team of architects, designers, landscape artists and consultants, along with the interiors team at Gatserelia Design.

The parent company was founded in the early 1980s, starting life in Toronto but ultimately moving to Beirut and developing under the management of Gregory Gatserelia. Though Nikki Beach is one of its highest profile commissions, the firm has forged a strong reputation across numerous sectors – offices, retail, bars, restaurants and nightclubs as well as hotels. It has numerous international awards to its credit, including the 2007 Cityscape Architectural Review Award for excellence in architecture and a 2012 RIBA Restaurant & Bar Design Award for the Cocteau Restaurant in Beirut.

Timeless evolution

From a design perspective, Gatserelia’s hallmark is its diversity; Nawar says the team is focused on creating something wholly new each time.

“Over the years we have evolved along with everything that is around us that is evolving,” he says. “If we go back 20 years there were no cellphones or social media, so we can’t see ourselves today designing as we were back then. But within that context, we focus on creating timeless projects that will still be relevant in the years to come.”

Typically speaking, the firm’s hospitality projects are designed around a particular, standout feature, such as an artwork or installation (the previously mentioned chandelier at Saifi Suites being particularly hard to ignore). This enables the design to retain a classic aesthetic while avoiding the trap of repetition.

“We always like to be positively surprised when we go to one of the places we have designed,” Nawar continues. “For any hospitality project to be successful, you have to consider yourself as the visitor – to walk around and see how it makes you feel. And you have to look also from the operational point of view, to consider how everyone from the waiters to the front desk staff is going to be functioning within the space. From there we start focusing on key features to give each project identity.”

Special requirements

Within the Middle East specifically, Nawar says there are a few additional factors to bear in mind. One of these is room size – because Middle Eastern clients tend to travel in large groups, suites generally need to be larger than they would be for a European clientele. There are also additional privacy requirements, such being able to fully section off the bathroom. This is not to mention the heightened importance of interior space in a climate that rewards staying inside.

Despite such constraints, Gatserelia has worked extensively across the region. The firm has designed parts of the International Hotel & Resort Jordan, the Monroe Hotel Lebanon, and the Movenpick Hotel & Resort Beirut. It also designed Nikki Beach Qatar, which was originally slated to open in 2012 and then pushed back to 2014, before being cancelled altogether. This cancellation, while unfortunate, was swiftly followed by the announcement of Nikki Beach Dubai.

Currently, the firm is working on a new project, the Art Hotel Jordan, which is set to open by Q2 2016.

“From the beginning, our approach to the design was to create a very neutral space and to invite many artists, local and regional, up and coming and established, to provide installations for the space,” says Nawar. “We wanted to coordinate these together and create a holistic design.”

Team player

Gatserelia prefers to take on a project in its entirety – architecture and landscape designing through Gatserelia Nawar, as well as interiors through Gatserelia Design – but will always consider working with other firms where appropriate. Nikki Beach Porto Heli, for instance, was created in association with the Athens-based Arch Group, and Nikki Beach Dubai features architecture by DSA Architects International.

“We’re open to collaborating with anyone as long as we feel there is space for us to express ourselves,” says Nawar. “A lot depends on the client – when we’re working with developers it gets a bit more complicated because the developer has a design team. And things get really complicated where you’re working for governmental or semi-governmental organisations, where the requirements are extremely high. But if we’ve been commissioned the whole job, this creates a more holistic expression because the multidisciplinary collaboration is strong from day one.”

Due to the nature of these collaborations, and the associated confidentiality agreements, Nawar can’t say too much about what lies ahead. He will confirm, however, that Gatserelia Design has a number of exciting projects in the pipeline, both in the Middle East and beyond.

When it comes to Nikki Beach Dubai, we only need watch this space. With the buzz continuing to grow, this long-awaited resort may well give Gatserelia its biggest push into the spotlight yet.

This article appears in the 2015 vol 2 edition of Hotel Management Middle East

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