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Ziad Fattouh

Issue 52 Dec / Jan 2009/10

In a rare interview with Ziad Fattouh, General Manager and a founding partner of Delta Lighting Solutions, Liz Moody gains a candid insight into the dynamics of a local lighting design practice in the Middle East

Fattouh admits he was evidently drawn to arts from an early age - as a child in Oman his work was published as commercial greeting cards; his passion for drawing and painting continue to this day and give him great personal satisfaction. For it is those crafted skills which have contributed to his desire to express artistic ideas through lighting design.

After attending UK boarding school Fattouh studied civil engineering in Ottawa, followed by a period in the US where he acquired a second degree, this time in Business, at Boston University. He was drawn back to the Middle East, initially for its lifestyle, joining advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi’s Beirut office. By the late ‘90s Fattouh had returned to Oman, with Delta Company Limited; it is there that he channelled his artistic talents into the lighting division and quickly forged a passion for lighting design. This ultimately led to the conception of Dubai lighting practice, Delta Lighting Solutions, in 1999.

The thirty-something, Canadian/Lebanese, family man confesses his core motivation is the ability to express his creative flair with the mix of running a company. “This is the driving force for my aspiration, to create beauty through artistic input, not as an art studio, but as a successful business entity.” He hastens to add that he would never give up one for the other; every Saturday he can be found fine-tuning his technique at local classes or in his studio.

This said, Fattouh is a great believer that it is not just the concept itself, but also how it is presented, and for this he thanks his commercial experience at S&S. “In advertising when you have an idea you must explain it to the client with passion and conviction for them to go for it. If you are weak in your presentation, though it may be a good concept it doesn’t receive the backing. This does not mean to force it on the client, just to stand by your belief in a concept.”

Not one to shy away from a challenge, in addition to the lighting practice Fattouh is currently heading up a wall-finishing company and is in the early stages of establishing a landscape architectural design business. Furthermore, he has been active in defining the Middle East design scene; as one of the initial directors of the Architects Association of the UAE, a member of a local entrepreneur organisation and with a current aim to link designers in the Emirates together, with the focus on learning and the sharing of information, he is a busy man. So how does he fit it all in? “Being involved in associations is very interesting for me; from a learning perspective to bring knowledge and share it across the design community and public arena can only improve standards in the region,” Fattouh confides. “My involvement in other activities has only been made possible due to the strong team we have built-up; last year was a very busy period so I had to make a conscious decision and relinquish direct involvement to concentrate time and energy on the lighting practice.”

This decision is understandable, Delta currently employees fifteen personnel, nine of which are experienced designers from all over the world - US, Germany, Italy, Brazil and Ecuador. Unlike many design businesses who have a head designer to oversee final decisions, Delta has three design teams, each headed by a senior associate. On top of this a ‘creative council’ monitors every stage of a project design. “We do not work with one person making a final decision; we believe this is a diva-ish approach. Instead each design team comes up with their concepts, which are then judged by the other teams and finally the creative council.” This, Fattouh insists, encourages designer flexibility and allows creative room to persevere with imaginative concepts instead of the ‘cut and paste’ syndrome that can often set in at design practices when the work is rolling in.

“For example, we are currently bidding on a major project. For this each team will propose a concept. From this we unite ideas and interesting elements, the team with the most involvement wins the project. We find this approach very motivational, when your peers judge your work they will understand the positives and negatives of your design, often more than the client, this pushes each designer to create something special.”
The creative council (Fattouh and other senior associates) gives final comments prior to release to the client. This procedure occurs at each stage of a project, from concept, schematic to detailed design. “No scheme will leave the building unless it has fulfilled this process.”
The combination of a talented team, work approach and quality control is what Fattouh attributes to the practices’ success. “Distribution of authority will ensure the company is sustainable and lives through a time that will pass one individual. We do not want one head individual to take praise for the work of our designers; instead we actively encourage individuals to be promoted as part of the company, no prima donnas, but to share the limelight of our successes as a team. Many people here have been instrumental in building the company, for example senior associates Rolf Hulsbeck and Birgit Bierbaum, these two people are critical for all our projects and like them there are others.”

The goals for Delta are clear. “In a nutshell... to build a company on an international level that produces extensive cutting-edge design for the world’s top projects.” So where, I ask him, does the practice stand today? “I believe we are achieving that in the Middle East, particularly Beirut, Oman, Qatar and the UAE (which amounts to 70% of the business). We are aiming to change this distribution and further increase business from outside of the UAE. One disadvantage we have here is that if you are in London or New York, say, you can piggyback onto the local architects that are working on international projects; whereas architect firms based in the Middle East tend to work primarily on regional projects. That’s an obstacle for us in making the international jump. Short-term our goal is to fully satisfy our region; countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are to be fully realised before we broach the international markets. Asia, Russia, India and North Africa all hold potential opportunities for us in the future.”
“Prior to the global financial impact on the region, the original plan was to add three design teams (two/three people) per year; since the downturn we have been cautious in ploughing ahead with this figure.”
Unlike some local competitors Delta weathered the storm with no reduction in headcount. Fattouh puts this down to controlled growth in the earlier years of the company. “Our competition shed staff and I received numerous résumés - we continued unscathed due to our careful approach not to pick up too much work that could dilute the quality of our personnel and designs. Ultimately our standpoint is quality not quantity. We have said no to a lot of work and we continue to turn down projects that we believe cannot be properly realised, if the mindset of the client is different to our objectives, or the main focus is not quality.”

Ask him his outlook on lighting design and Fattouh is spirited in his recollection of an instance. “A designer once said to me, ‘Not every project needs to be magic’. I disagree. I think we take on a project where we think we can create at least a little magic; I won’t take on a project where this isn’t the case, otherwise there is no point to our contribution.” He continues, “It is our artistic side that I believe is our biggest input. Yes, design principles are a given but we should create some beauty that is really magical. Of course this does not have to mean light wars or ostentatiously lit buildings.

“We are concentrating our focus on projects that involve custom lighting requirements, façade lighting of an architecturally appealing building, city master plans with gateways, interesting landscapes; thus trying to avoid big, commercial, residential projects.”

With lighting design still a relatively new field, Fattouh lists the biggest business obstacle as a client’s lack of understanding on the importance of a specialist lighting designer and what they bring to the table. “Over the last seven years this is being overcome in the UAE which is more advanced in the knowledge of design than perhaps other regions of the Middle East... and even the world.”

In the past, Fattouh investigated opening an office in Canada. However, he quickly found the majority of architects were utilising lighting suppliers to develop designs, mainly due to budget restrictions and the attempt to save money everywhere possible. “So, in some ways, there are a lot of markets that are not as advanced as they are here in terms of design.”

Fattouh confesses that the exciting aspect of working in the Middle East is the confidence to experiment. “Clients take risks and often have substantial budgets combined with the desire to create iconic projects. Where other markets, such as the US, are more highly regulated and face budget constraints.” Which he fears can kill creatively.

In a region where no regulations currently exist, Fattouh is conscious that guidelines are increasingly required in order for lighting concepts to be thoughtful and not designed to outshine surrounding buildings. Firm, however, he stands in his conviction that any regulations should be responsible and be drawn-up by those that understand the discipline i.e. lighting designers. “The environment and sustainability is close to my heart and we are all accountable, two of our designers are LEED certified with the others soon to follow suit.”

For the head of a growing lighting practice that credits royal palaces on its portfolio, Fattouh has a modest attitude and is quick to attribute any success down to the work of the entire team than blow his own trumpet. Yet, his strong, and driven, attitude is apparent as he speaks animatedly on his passion to excel. “I am never satisfied with good; I don’t want things to be good, I want them to be awesome, excellent. I understand perfection is very hard to achieve and you can’t do that on your own, especially if you want to grow as a business. We had 15/20 projects last year running in parallel, just in the UAE alone, that is only going to increase. I believe one must know their strengths and weaknesses, we have the right team in close proximity to our projects and this is our strength.”

To successfully ensure a lighting design concept is achieved Fattouh is adamant that the designer must be on the ground. “You simply cannot design the lighting and then leave it to the interior designer or architect to co-ordinate and actualise it at site; drawings are interpreted.”
This attitude is demonstrated on their current project, a large resort in Abu Dhabi. “We are onsite three days a week co-ordinating, another international designer is flying in, perhaps every three months, and you can tell the difference. Five years on we will still visit a site if issues arise; we can do that because we are close. I believe in giving that service.”

Fattouh’s parting words encapsulate his ethics. “You have to give a business everything you’ve got and really want to achieve something special.”


Ziad Fattouh Delta Lighting Ziad Fattouh outside Qasr al Sarab, Anantara Desert Resort. “Our goal is to build a company on an international level that produces extensive cutting edge design for the world’s top projects.”
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