Alfred Johnson: Daring to be Different

I first became aware of Alfred Johnson’s work when I was on the judging panel for the Commercial Interior Design (CID) magazine awards in 2009. 

That year Alfred was deservedly presented with the Best Young Interior Designer award. 

His brave biomorphic signature style fascinated me, particularly because at that time we were in the midst of forecasting the influence of Bio Mimicry on architecture, interiors & product design.

Then in 2010 I was fortunate to have opportunity to appreciate a plethora of his projects when once again I sat on the judging panel for the CID awards and once again Alfred was triumphant.  On this occasion I was extremely proud to personally present Alfred with his award for Best Retail Design of the Year (only Alfred would add acrobatic performance as part of his design vision!!!).

Alfred Johnson’s work distinctly stands apart from the myriad interior design projects in Dubai; in style, intent, bravery and experimentation.  But also on a wider global platform his signature housestyle is exciting, challenging and provocative.

Last December, as part of our coverage of the Commercial Interior Design Awards, I promised to bring you an interview with Alfred and finally I’m keeping that promise.  Today Alfred opens up his portfolio to us, discusses his favourite projects and gives us the exclusive preview of his most recent commission:

VR: You have been working in design for more than 9 years now.  What is your creative background and training?

AJ: Having graduated from Excel UK in Interior design, I simultaneously got recruited by London design in Dubai when I was 19. Christian Mintowt-Czyz , my then employer, reckoned I had some sort of talent, :-) obviously he was very wrong .. lol..  whilst with them I was trained by Justin Smith, co-founder of London Design for the next 2 years and went on to head the conceptual design section of their studio at 25. 

Over the 5+ years that I worked with them I developed concepts, designed & planned environments and developed my FFE skills.  

It was the constant banter between Justin and myself that led to some of the most creative spaces for clients such as Nakheel, Thuraya and Emaar being designed.

VR: Can you explain how Imagination Design / Alfred Johnson (the company) was started and what your role as Principal entails?

AJ: After I quit London Design in 2006, I freelanced for a year and then over a cup of tea with my business partner Amir, we decided to start a studio in 2007.  Perhaps my stubborn sense of design language had a little something to do with it :-) but the objective was to found a brand to design environments that would be bold and explore realms of architectural interiors that perhaps were not done before. 

AJ: The objective was to lay the fundamentals for our brand that would dedicate itself to being pure and creative with constant re-invention and interpretation of the clients requirements. 

My role as Principal entails attending client briefings, creation of concepts, detailed concept designing, supervision, approval of all design details, FFE specifications and at times quality assessment once a project is complete.

VR:  From my perspective you have a very strong signature style that is distinctly ‘Alfred Johnson’. 

How would you describe your design style?

AJ: I reckon our brand’s style is driven by my intense affair with biomorphism.  Biomorphic design language is perhaps one of the most critically intense design styles that has a rather simple outcome – good or bad.  There is no grey between the results and it is to achieve that level of design that drives us.

VR: Can you take me through your award winning projects for Etisalat Telecommunications and the Penthouse?

AJ: Etisalat, having had previous success from their prior designs, recognized our biomorphic language and wanted their flagship DubaiMall outlet to echo their brand.  Having been briefed our objective was to create a milestone for their brand that would constantly echo what they stand for.  The primary objective was to elevate their existing retail space towards a new dimension of brand enhancing space.

AJ: Having specified their mandatory requirements within the retail space, we proceeded to craft various elements such as the “quick – E” workstations, the freestanding displays, the branded visual aids and the wall mounted display units from their corporate identity.  The freestanding displays grew from fluid lines at the base of the floor into crystal glass tops that displayed their product.  The wall mounted displays were drawn from biomorphic lines resembling their logo, all the while being complimented by the fusion and LED etched glass walls on either side of the store. The concealed storage space within the site was developed and clad with the 5×5 seamless screen and the handcrafted MDF moulded GRP detail. 

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AJ: The column, an existing structural part of the site that we had to work around, was a challenge that we embraced and developed it into an Alfred Johnson original. Working off the biomorphic aesthetic language that we wrote for the site, we created a visionary element fusing fluid lines, handcrafted GRP and cove LED’s that worked the structural necessity of the column into a brand evolved essential.

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The penthouse, a milestone in our brand’s history that we are very proud of achieving, is an extremely detailed environment that involved an original combination of materials, original design language & overall theme with complimenting sub-themed areas, furniture selection from Tonon, Natuzzi, BO Concept and selective FFE details.

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AJ: The apartment concept was fluid with the feeling of a luxurious modern contemporary home paying homage to the clients fondness of Art and original design language.  The client required us to focus on the living cum dining with the dining space taking centre stage as they entertained often.

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Realizing the dramatic effect of the unobstructed view in the living – dining, we created the space based on elevating that emotion within the space without overwhelming the effect.  Our trademark fluidity began with the cove lit LED real wood zebrano veneered paneling that began at the main entrance and flowed towards the window overlooking the 53rdfloor of the penthouse.  The white neoparies marble floor with circular travertine detail provided the perfect setting for the furniture, the clients selection of Art and the über exclusive Alfred Johnson original dining table – Medusa. 

Bringing the dramatic ambience to a close is the eternity wall with concealed LED’s – the brushed travertine clad wall was designed to allow a gradual flow of light from within, bringing to life a large structural wall. The finishing touch came with design of the “Alfred Johnson” bar feature with an LED illuminated Egyptian alabaster onyx top.

AJ: The bedrooms exuded a warm contemporary ambience with state of the art LED screens and home theatre systems.

AJ: The complimentary solid wood parquet enhanced its luxurious appeal with custom crown cut real wood zebrano veneer wardrobes and AV consoles. The wall’s displayed an array of subtle textured wallpaper from Japanese motifs to distressed leather.

Each individual en-suite bathroom showcased custom marble clad floors & walls with ambient LED cove lighting.

VR: You picked up another award at the 2010 CID magazine awards for your visionary project for Hewlett Packard.  Can you talk me through this project and where the idea for the acrobats came from!?

AJ: HPbriefed us on the project and wanted a retail environment that would revolve around their brand and their paparazzi themed campaign.  We initially do what we do best, listen, intently and then go skydiving with the concept lol.. well not really Victoria but since I do sky dive occasionally, that is perhaps metaphorically what we did.

AJ: Paparazzi would only hound celebrities that were newsworthy, hence our objective was to design an interior that was based on the brand and perhaps be newsworthy. 

AJ: One of the basis of our brand is to create something that I personally would enjoy viewing and that is precisely what we did with HP.  I wanted drama and suspense in an area that was never attempted before.

I wanted to integrate technology with Art and enforce HP’s brand campaign and give their clientele something to photograph and talk about :-) so I crafted the concept, selected the songs that they would perform to and worked on the conceptual movements of the aerial ballerinas and integrated their movements around the laptops.

VR: Your unique design vision results in exciting design solutions for your clients.  What do you believe sets you and your company apart from your competitors design firms in Dubai?

AJ: Perhaps the fore-thought that went into our founding structure of being a boutique design brand that would at some point during my lifetime, be globally renowned as pioneers of biomorphic interior architecture.  That and the fact that I love what I do, hence our approach to any brief that we receive is passionate.  We delve into the environment and dream of a space that would indeed enhance the experience of those that either live or work within it.  We also have a generous apprehension towards all horrible & tasteless designs that clients pay substantial amounts for and believe that clients deserve more.

VR: Beyond the clients brief, what are the main inspirations and intentions behind your design style?

AJ: I’m inspired by director Christopher Nolan, the brothers Wachowski, creators of the Matrix films, the author TolkienMark Zuckerberg and the architect Zaha Hadid.  All 6 have had humble beginnings and apart from being fearless believers in creativity and invention, in my opinion, share a passionate response to all things mundane.  My inspiration stems from a similar belief that it’s not where you come from or how the world perceives you, but what we as creators can do that matters. 

My intention, that is reflected in my design style, is perhaps to tell a story, an architectural story that gives people more, entertains, evokes a response and leaves people with a lingering encounter with perhaps a little bit of wonder at its creation :-)

VR: What are you working on at the moment?

AJ: We’re currently working on 2 residential projects in Dubai and are developing a corporate lobby for a conglomerate in Dubai.  With our new ambassadors in Toronto, Jeddah and recently Kiev, we’re looking to take the Alfred Johnson brand to selected regions and expand gradually.

We have also been commissioned by BRF(Brazil Foods) in Brazil to create a ” floating branded restaurant” they could position temporarily in a mall in Al Ain, Dubai & Sharjah for up to 60 days at a time.

AJ: Their primary products entail frozen chicken that they export to a few continents as well as other frozen products.  We’re currently developing the design for them (exclusively previewed here) which is perhaps the first of its kind as we are having to work around their multiple brands such as Sadia, Perdix and 6 other sub-brands and their products, whilst creating an interior that will enforce the BRF brand and Brazilian hospitality. 

VR: Dubai has been struggling through a difficult period in its development because of the Financial Crisis.  What do you think the future holds for Dubai and what do you enjoy about working and living there?

Dubai Skyline photographed by Kamran Jebreili/AP

AJ: Dubai shall indeed recover in due time and stabilize over the next few years.  As the city advances, the clients are now far more aware and make decisions based on their experience during the former years of our growth leading into the economic storm that we are now in.  Dubai, as a growing city, has opportunity for us as ExPatriates to be part of the fabric that created the city.  That in itself is an exciting opportunity while the vibrant lifestyle and constant buzz is certainly very attractive.

VR: Dubai is often criticised for its ostentatious interior design solutions.  How do you believe Dubai can forge its own distinct design identity in the future?

AJ: I reckon Dubai has done so in many examples such as the Royal Mirage and Bab Al Shams and selected cutting edge and classy public spaces.  The global view of Dubai is often gauged by the likes of the Burj Al Arab, the world islands etc… however, if looked at in depth, one would see a variety of underrated, classy environments that reflects the progress of the design language being developed.

Many thanks to Alfred Johnson for his wonderfully frank interview.  To learn more about his company’s work visit: www.alfredjohnson.com

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