Khuan Chew’s name is synonymous with the interior design of iconic buildings like the Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Madinat Jumeirah – projects which she fondly refers to as the “golden triangle”. However, Chew’s parallel passion for music almost set her on a different creative path entirely.
“Music was my first love and first career,” the diminutive designer tells me over dinner in Dubai. “I’d like to think I’m the Wagner of interior design!”
Chew and her two sisters were raised in a traditional Chinese family with an accomplished pianist for a mother and an art-loving accountant for a father. She learned to play the piano aged four and the violin aged eight.
“My mother started monitoring my progress and the next thing I knew I wasn’t allowed to go out and play with the other kids because I might hurt my fingers,” she says.
To keep her occupied indoors, Chew was given endless supplies of watercolours, crayons and charcoals, which ignited her passion for sketching and design.
Feeling under “immense family pressure” to realise her musical potential, she graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London. Yet come the age of 20, she could no longer deny her true calling and enrolled at the London College of Furniture before studying at the Architectural Association. She then started working for the man she calls the “doyenne of design” Dale Keller, and it was during those three-and-a-half years that Chew was given her first high-profile client.
“I worked on the Istana Nurul Iman, the Sultan of Brunei’s palace [built after the country’s] independence from Britain in 1984. The project had 1,748 rooms and I was on-site for about 14 months,” she recalls.
“After stints in New York, Sri Lanka and Kuwait, I was nabbed by the famous interior designer and cousin to the Queen, David Hicks,” she smiles. “I did royal commissions like Highgrove and Sandringham.”
In 1988 she went solo, establishing Khuan Chew Associates (KCA) and four years later the “famous call came”.
“[Architects] Aitkins invited me to pitch for the interior design of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel and the Burj Al Arab – or just one, or just an area. I went for both!”
The deadline was tight with Chew given just four weeks to prepare a detailed presentation for the client in Dubai.
“I read as much as I could, buying books [about the country] and visited the Aga Khan Islamic centre. Then I had just two weeks left to come up with a scheme and I was panicking.
“But in the end I did layouts for the Burj Al Arab and had a nice scheme going for a one-bed suite. With Jumeirah Beach Hotel I was really drawn by the shape which I thought was very organic. My scheme and focus for the competition was the four elements (air, fire, earth, water).”
On the day the eight shortlisted candidates arrived in Dubai, Chew recalls the strict protocol briefing they were given about keeping to five minutes their presentations for His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
However, once inside the room, the designer’s conversations with the Ruler of Dubai about the modern Arabic hotel themes ran to almost 30 minutes and she was given the commission for the Jumeirah Beach Hotel.
While working on the project, which was completed in 1997, Chew earned herself the nickname of “the listening designer” from Gerald Lawless, Executive Chairman of Jumeirah.
“I thought that was nice,” she says, “because I believe I’m the client’s eyes, ears and hands. Tell me what you want and I’ll put it in 3D for you.”
News of the Burj Al Arab commission came on August 31, 1997 – a date Chew will never forget for two reasons.
“I was on tenterhooks, waiting by the phone and watching TV when I started to see the story of Princess Diana’s accident on CNN. When the phone finally rang about 3am to tell me I’d got the job, I couldn’t celebrate. Naturally I felt sad having met the Princess through my work in England.”
As for the luxury tower itself, Chew was completely inspired by blueprints brought to life by Atkins’ architect Tom Wright.
“The whole thing about the Burj was to put Dubai on the map” she says. “It’s incredible to think that when I first came to Dubai, people said ‘where?’ and one day things changed and people said ‘wow, Dubai!’ Then I realised Sheikh Mohammed’s dream had come true. My team and I always feel that the brief was a ‘very modern Arabic palace’ and the experience was awesome!”
As for what’s next for the listening designer? Well, having long harboured a desire to let her own minimalist ‘house-style’ come out she’s designing a range of furniture with a soon-to-be-revealed major global manufacturer.
The contract range, for commercial use, will be ready in time for the Milan Furniture Fair next April and if successful, could lead to a retail home range.
“It will be recognisable so people will say – ooh that’s a Khuan Chew,” she grins.
“And I want my furniture made in Italy as I’m completely in love with the quality and expertise of the Italians, with their centuries of knowledge and experience.”
Yet it’s not just the artisans of Italy that have Chew’s affection, she’s also an ardent admirer of the country’s rich creative arts scene and musical heritage: “I’ve always been in love with Italy and I love Puccini and Verdi,” she says.
Indeed, proving that music is never far from her mind, Chew reveals that her dream commission would be to design the stage sets for an opera, although she struggles to pick which one from her long list of favourites.
And its music once again which comes centre stage when we discuss what piece of furniture, objet d’art or personal treasure she would rescue from her house if it were on fire. Her answer is swift and sentimental.
“I would take my violin,” she says “It’s an original Sebastian Klotz made in 1749 by the same maker as Mozart’s violin, and I’ve had it since I was a child.”