In the first of a series on his apartment revamp, we meet Robert Reid, who has decided to completely refurnish his living space with affordable pieces that don't sacrifice style.
An interior design professor makes a project of his Sharjah apartment
Robert Reid is a man who chooses his words carefully. It is an hour and 40 minutes into our interview and we are discussing Dubai's urban development. "I think Dubai needs to be more… introspective," he says. "Actually, I don't know if introspective is the right word. I might have to grab my thesaurus."
In the end, he settles on: "Dubai seems to be a whole lot of exercises in singularity. And they don't seem to relate to context or what's across the street, and that's too bad. You see a lot of missed opportunities."
Reid's meticulous approach to language is mirrored in his approach to design and, one suspects, life. When he talks about design, it is about plans, methodology, strategy, scale and proportion. There is little room for the abstract.
"There's a whole process to designing something," he says. "The point of design isn't just arbitrarily picking stuff. It's having a vision in your head of what you want to achieve."
This precision has shaped Reid's success, first as a professional interior designer and now as an educator. After spending 10 years as a practicing designer in the US, Reid moved to the UAE last September to take on his first full-time teaching role, as an assistant professor at the American University of Sharjah's College of Architecture, Art and Design.
A Canadian national, Reid graduated from New York's illustrious Pratt Institute in 2000 with a master's in interior design. Although he toyed with the idea of teaching as a young graduate, it was a decade before he made the break from professional practice. As it turns out, those 10 years were crucial in shaping his approach as an educator, Reid says.
"When I started graduate school I thought I would move directly into teaching, but professional work opportunities presented themselves and exposed me to many experiences that will only serve to make me a much more effective professor. I realise now how much more I have to offer students after having an extensive professional work portfolio behind me."
Reid is unwavering in his belief that students need to be armed with practical knowledge before they are sent out into the real world. His experience allows him to pass on those vital skills.
"I'm of the belief that we need to expose students to more real-life, real-world experience, so they have a better fundamental knowledge of the expectations that will greet them when they get out of university," Reid says. "I'm approaching this in a similar way that I would approach a professional project because my job with a client is to equip them with an appropriate amount of information to make an informed decision."
With its tree-lined boulevard and grand-looking buildings, the American University of Sharjah campus must initially have felt like a long way from home.
"It was time for a change," Reid says. "I'd never been to the Middle East before and I didn't know anyone here, so it was very foreign. But I think I was more concerned that I couldn't do the job. That, as enthusiastic and excited as I get, I wouldn't be able to impart the knowledge to the students or be a contributor to the programme and to the community."
So far, so good. Students are responding to Reid's methods and he talks about them with a level of enthusiasm that only educators seem to achieve when discussing their jobs. "It's humbling how influential we are," he says. "It's miraculous, watching some students and seeing the light bulb go off over their heads. It's a tough job, with lots of expectation and very long hours, but it is very rewarding."
Having settled into his new job, Reid is now trying to settle into his new home. "I am fortunate that the university provides a small, furnished apartment that allows me to walk to work every day. However, as I am either on campus, in class or at home, I find I am spending a lot of time working in my apartment in the evenings and have not found the furniture and layout particularly conducive to my work needs."
Part of the problem is that the scale of the furniture is wrong for the space. There is also far too much of it, he says. The result is both cluttered and generic, so Reid has decided to completely refurnish the apartment using products that are available locally. Still a work in progress, he will write about the process in a series of articles for this newspaper, starting next month.
"It occurred to me that it might prove helpful to a lot of people if I could document how a professional designer goes through this process in his own home, finds resources and takes on a few do-it-yourself projects to personalise his space, and all within a reasonable budget. I think many people believe it is too costly or difficult and not worth the effort, particularly if they only plan on being here a short while, but it doesn't have to be," he says.
The transience of the UAE often makes people reluctant to personalise their rented properties. But why live in someone else's environment, Reid rightly asks, when you can easily make it your own? It can be as simple as spending Dh200 on a couple of new light fittings, or painting a wall a different colour.
Fear shouldn't prevent people from experimenting, Reid insists. "People shouldn't be afraid to be inspired by something and then make it their own. Take furniture, for example. People are afraid to make a commitment to something because they are afraid that they aren't picking the right item. They are afraid that if they have dark wood in a room then they can't put any light wood in. But that isn't necessarily the case. It just depends how you approach it. People are also afraid of mixing, so they see a set and think that they need to have the entire thing. They don't understand that if they see a chair and they love the chair, they can just get that."
For his apartment, Reid flirted with two very different design styles. The first was "1950s Mad Men", with oversized sectionals and low-slung furniture. The second was a "1930s New York or Paris apartment".
"It's interesting that with the same interior environment, you could have two completely different aesthetics. I wanted something different from anywhere else I've lived. I didn't just want to translate something that I'd use in Canada. I wanted to have something more international because of where we are.
"I wanted a contextual relationship, but not to the extent that I am trying to create an Emirati house. Or I am not going and buying Asian furniture because they happen to sell it here. Because to me, even that is a cop-out. People are buying things because they are locally available and they think that it is regional but it's not."
One thing is for certain. When it comes to his apartment, Reid definitely won't be "arbitrarily picking stuff". There will be a plan, a process and a methodology. That's just his way.
Robert Reid's design tips
Have a vision
Picture what you want to achieve.
Make a plan
You do not want to make arbitrary decisions as you go along.
Look at magazines
Spend a few hundred dirhams on design magazines. Look through them to get a feel for what you like. Mark off pages so you can refer back to them.
Don't be afraid to use it.
Mix and match
Just because something comes in a set, it doesn't mean you need every piece. If you like the chair, just buy the chair.
You don't have to subscribe to the traditional formulae. Not all bedrooms need a king-size bed flanked by two bedside tables with two lamps and a matching cabinet. Use the combination that works for you and that works for the space.