Go inside Burj Al Arab’s interior as London-based interior designer Khuan Chew shares her journey of designing one of the most striking designs of the Gulf.

How did you get into the interiors space?

Growing up in a household where art and music were integral to one’s daily life, I was immersed in a culturally rich environment from a young age. Initially pursuing a degree in Music during my formative years in the UK, I later transitioned to Interior Design, stemmed from a love of the Opera, an Artform combining Music, Drama and Theatre set design. This passion for Theatre and Opera has profoundly influenced the dramatic and spectacular elements in my work. Whether creating bold and daring interiors or minimalist and understated spaces, each project reflects my passion for vibrancy and intrigue. I find equal enjoyment in crafting luxurious, layered environments as I do in designing sleek, contemporary scenes or timeless, neo-classical rooms.

Inside Burj Al Arab is known for its iconic photo moments – tell us how the interiors are an ode to this?

No expense was spared by obtaining rare materials. In the Burj Al Arab, every interior space is meticulously composed to evoke a sense of grandeur and spectacle. Each space tells a story. Referring to the geographical position of Dubai, situated in the vicinity of the original Silk Route, it is at the epicenter of the Earth’s map, making it a great hub. Therefore, people from the four corners of the Earth have been coming to Dubai, and especially in the last 25 years due to the Burj Al Arab, which has put Dubai on the map. While it is quintessentially designed as a Modern Arabic Palace, there are decorative elements and purposeful selections of furniture, as well as entire areas inspired by different parts of the world. The intent was to delight guests who may recognise and identify with these items when they visit the Burj Al Arab and experience Inside Burj Al Arab Tours. Likewise, if you were to visit Buckingham Palace or any affluent global tycoon residence of yesteryear, it is not unusual to see similarly eclectic collections of their possessions – displayed from their or their ancestors’ travels through the ages. As I used to say to visitors of Inside Burj Al Arab, there is a room here for each and everyone of you.

What were the challenges you faced during your design journey and how did you overcome this?

You need to know that in August 1997 (the year I was appointed), the world was still reliant on fax machines. There were hardly any computers, and it was pretty much still the pre-digital age. Therefore, I relied “abundantly” on my little black book of secret sources (which I still have today) for the most exclusive materials and products on our planet! To this day, the knowledge I have gathered extends beyond the usual suppliers and agencies to the hotel industry, setting KCA apart from other interior design consultancies, as a considerable proportion of our clientele requires super luxury interiors.Having been appointed rather late in the day on the Burj Al Arab, it was truly a race against time. My team in London worked day and night. Christmas and Eid were cancelled, and we also physically traveled to different parts of the world to choose marble (e.g., Brazil, China, India, Italy, etc.), fine weaves of silk, carpet specialists, and chandelier craftsmen. In total, we had over 50 different countries involved in contributing to the interior fit-out of the Burj Al Arab. The design and construction of the interior of the Burj Al Arab took literally 2 years and 3 months. This is quite an achievement and certainly a fast-track record in my book.

Khuan Chew

“I find equal enjoyment in crafting luxurious, layered environments as I do in designing sleek, contemporary scenes or timeless, neo-classical rooms.”

The hotel also features an abundance of design references from the Arab culture – tell us more.

The four elements of water, fire, earth and air are seen throughout the property. Looking at Dubai today, you wouldn’t think of it as being in the desert. Thirty years ago, Dubai looked very different – you wouldn’t recognise it if you looked at archive photos. For the interiors, I effortlessly based the theme on the four elements of water, fire, earth, and air – they depict raw nature and the essence of life on earth. Emirati culture and life have endured the harshest of climates and environments through their understanding of nature to survive. The four elements were naturally inspirational when we worked through spaces to reflect the perception of, for example, fire – an array of bright and deep reds, oranges, and yellows or water hues of blues and turquoises, earthly greens, and the pale translucent mists of air. The Burj Al Arab is a Modern Arabic Palace. Arab culture is undeniably rich – the magical arab calligraphy and infinite geometric patterns alone are monumental references, and one is spoilt for choice as to what we could include from all over the Middle East. The twin internal swimming pools in the Burj Al Arab are modelled around a Turkish Bath experience. Patterns in carpets throughout the palace are contemporary evolutions of traditional motifs. And just like the Chinese Dining Room in Buckingham Palace, the Royal Suites at Inside Burj Al Arab have antique furniture, cabinetry, and Coromandel Screens from the Chinoiserie period of the 17th and 18th centuries. Inside Burj Al Arab was truly a fine example of an “abundance” of inspiration when we designed it.

What piece of advice would you give to your younger-self?

You can’t please everyone. So, it is important that you please yourself.

This is ‘The Abundance Issue’ – how do you focus on an abundance mindset?

In life there is an abundance of material, thought, influence, art and culture, intelligence (not artificial) to draw from. Debussy once said that you should always try to escape your success, the repeat is the enemy of your art.