All over the world, interior design, as a standalone industry, has exploded over the past few decades. Not only for aesthetics, but also to make the best use of space and light, interior design is an art from in its own right. Despite this, it is only recently that the sector in Ethiopia has really begun to take hold, in both the corporate and domestic sectors. With young, energetic and ambitious individuals leading the way, the future looks bright, reports TSGAB BIRHANE, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER
Interior design is a concept that many Ethiopians relate to the EBC3 TV programme, Bete Wubet – the first encounter of its worth in the country.
For Fikirete Alamerew, 34 and a mother of two, it was an eye opener on space efficiency in her small two-bedroom condominium apartment.
Though they thought that they could not afford to contract out their home to a professional, the TV show gave them a good deal of idea of how to set up their house.
“We never thought colour and light would make such an amazing difference to spacing,” said Fikerte. “Now we have started to think outside the box, we have avoided having a sofa set in our living room and enjoy the space, important for our kids.”
Fikrete and her husband, a painter, now have bright paintings and thin transparent curtains, which gives a sense of more space than what is actually there.
Interior design, as a standalone scene and profession, evolved in the 20th Century in the United States. Though at first individuals in the general architectural, engineering and decorating roles pushed the Agenda, it truly took ground and became institutionalized when professional associations and foundations, like the Foundation for Interior Design and Educational Research (FIDER) and the National Council for Interior Design Qualifications (NCIDR) started to set standards to the work.
“I sense that a revolution is taking place in the profession in Addis Abeba,” said Halleluya Lule, in his 30’s, who used to work as a researcher at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS). “You can sense public places, cafes and restaurants, and shops too are putting some serious thinking behind their set-ups and customers are commenting the same.”
He sees huge room for improvement, yet is happy with the vibe he has sensed in the sector.
Medhin Decor Plc was established in the 1980’s, with a focus on finishing material supply, event organising and decoration works. Narrated by its General Manager, Addis Dawit , interior designing was previously one major component of the company’s service, but not anymore.
“It was an uphill struggle then, with no demand and inputs to the industry,” said Dawit. “Even when we managed to convince offices to have their workspace designed, finding qualified professionals who seriously consider interior design a worthy engagement was almost impossible.”
The Company dropped the endeavour altogether, focusing instead on wedding and event decorations, which was a mainstream sector and much easier to do.
Things seem to have changed now, with the industry now run by highly motivated and energetic young architects in the driver’s seat.
“I am so happy with the level of motivation young professionals who come to my offices have,” Kumneger Teketel, a managing partner at the Ozzie Business and Hospitality Consulting Group, said.
His company is engaged at all stages of hotel concept development, construction and design, and management consultancies. Currently, it is handling over 25 hotel projects, with more than 15 of these international standard hotels.
“I see a different tide over the past 2-3 years, and it’s a huge milestone to the hospitality sector,” he commented.
Design and presentation for the hospitality sector has a huge role to play in expressing the place for travellers – the core customers in the sector. In countries where interior design has deeper roots, hospitality design is branching out as a standalone field.
“It is an art through which one defines collective identity and defines the society for any visitor or traveller, and the hospitality industry is the ideal corner to do so,” Kumneger argues, suggesting that it adds value and sets off a domino effect in creating a lasting impression.
Selam Tesfaye, who has a first degree in architecture from Addis Abeba University, is among the young battalions determined to make a change in the hospitality industry. Though he only took few courses in interior design, he is determined to draw the line between general architectural works and interior design, and has started with the hotel industry. His first project with his partner, Haftom Asmelash, another architect, was Momona, a four-star hotel, which opened almost two years ago on Bole Road.
Momona, inspired by the resilient, desert-dwelling Momona tree of Tigray, is designed with ecologically friendly principles, its website reads.
It is this principle and ideals that Selam and his partner too used as a theme. This is reflected in the light brownish and green dominated paint colours and the feel of fresh air and light in the lobby.
“The journey and cost to bring this feeling about was not as easy and enjoyable as the final product,” Selam says, recalling the challenges of bringing the ecologically inspired hotel from a building originally designed and constructed for the purpose of a guest house.
Taking his lesson from his grand and very difficult Momona hotel project, he is now involved in the first stages of the construction process, as a consultant and part of the larger design group. The new project he had signed contract for is also a new hotel project, which he knows will be much easier as he is closely following the construction stages.
“This approach saves the owners huge cost and helps designers too,” he advises.
He aspires to specialise in hospitality sector interior designs in the future, as his professional journey so far has directed him towards that.
The two friends’ humble beginnings a few years back, which started with a computer and a desk, and the chance to design and decorate one branch of Tomoca Coffee, has now grown to different four branches, which the two recent ones have particular theme – gallery and industrial theme. Selam was behind the industrial themed branch, a year ago.
Both Selam and the Client Tommoca shy away from mentioning numbers, with Selam prices are ultimate confidential information, yet he confirmed it s growing.
Egla Belachew, who has been in the field for over a decade, managed to open a fully-fledged business, Warka Lab Designs, a year ago.
Right after she finished school, she wanted the freedom to experiment with her ideas – a desire that pushed her out of the company she was employed by in to freelancing. She used her own network to navigate through and managed to put food on the table, but needed more.
She went to the United States to fill the professional gaps she identified through her own projects and moved her carrier one step further. She now has a master’s degree from the Chicago School of Architects in Finance in Interior Architecture, and is feeling more confident to take up larger scale projects.
Now her price quotes range from 60,000-70,000Br for individual homes, and 200,000 to one million birr for corporate and hospitality projects.
“Price quotes by local professionals are way below the standard anywhere else in the world,” said Ozzie’s managing partner. “If the local company asks for 100,000Br, an international firm would ask for 100,000 dollars.”
Ozzie hospitality group have had encounters with both local and international firms, and sees the need for grooming local talent and professionals.
“Yes, it’s about the cost, but it’s also much more than that,” he says, explaining his strong belief that the young workforce must be supported.
The lack of standards in the profession has been a major challenge for Ozzie’s attempts to employ local firms, particularly to the international branded hotels. What they have to rely on when selecting local firms, even for other hotel design works, is general criterions, like previous work, educational background and exposure to the industry globally.
“Design is all about imagination, and for imagination, exposure and networking are crucial,” Kumneger commented. “I strongly urge these new motivated industry players to participate in international construction exhibitions, catch–up with new cost-effective technologies and network in professional associations.”
Despite the lack of standards and wider market competition, the word of mouth, headhunting and recommendations are working out alright, paving the way for a brighter future of quality service and a stronger industry.
Looking at the corporate project that Warka Lab Designs recently completed, and the testimonies given by the Customer Institute of Security Studies, it is clear that a bright future lays ahead for the industry.
The Institute of Security Studies is a regional think-tank, providing independent and authoritative research-based policy advice and capacity building. Addis Abeba is among one of the seats of the chapters.
The office, having slightly reduced its staff numbers, decided to move from a two-floored office to a single floor one. This called for professional input, however, which Warka took on.
“I was amazed by the end result,” Halleluya Lule, a long serving researcher at ISS told Fortune. “Despite the shrunken space, the new design came up with much larger common areas, in turn creating more interaction and sense of togetherness.”
He appreciates the research the team conducted and how they translated this into the design. He said that this experience, and going through the revolution he thinks is taking place in the industry, has deeply convinced him that one has to be systematic and cost-efficient by having an interior designer for his office and home.
“I will save myself so much cost and create a pleasant environment, despite the cost,” he stated.
Henok Teshome, manager of Duka Interior Design for the past four years, sees a huge market opportunity not only at the corporate level, but also in individual homes.
“Interior design is a necessity for middle and low-income households, moreso than it is for upper class society,” he argues. “The small space needs proper management”.
Though Duka’s clients are predominantly corporate, he has a plan to study a different approach specifically for Condominium apartments.
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