Q and A with Carla Conte

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Carla Conte is a Toronto designer who began her career at Watt International, focused on retail design projects. Her work with Watt took her to Dubai, where she eventually started her own firm, Brand Creative LLC. Her talent has led the company to become a powerhouse of interior design in the Middle East. I recently had the pleasure of seeing her when she was visiting Toronto.

You have been recognized as one of the Top 40 Under 40 Retail Designers worldwide. What qualities make a great designer?

A great designer is a genuine listener and a keen observer of life. They have the ability to process this information into experiences that elicit true emotion in different types of people depending on the project and brief. Being inspired by abstract references that tie into an overall compelling story is also the only way to be truly innovative. I love pulling very personal pieces of information from a client or from understanding their audience in a very emotional way to make a space or experience unique. Being overly trendy and recycling ideas seen on Pinterest are the silent killers of our craft.

Commercial Interior Design Magazine named you as one of the outstanding women in the Middle East design industry. Can you tell us more about this experience?

It's always such an honour to be recognized as a powerful female in your field because I suspect that most of us don't even think we're doing anything exceptional until someone stops you in the middle of your hard work to praise you. If I'm being honest, my experience as a business owner in the Middle East design industry has been nothing but supportive from both my business set-up to my clients.

I think people assume that the region would be dominated by a strong patriarchal treatment of women but my ideas have always been celebrated. I guess if a male client has chosen to work with me in the first place, he is saying, "I respect you and I value your ideas," and that's all I choose to see and hear. If I focus on the one or two experiences where I felt my gender held me back, I don't think I would have progressed the way I have.

How have you seen design change during the last decade?

The last 10 years has seen designers become more conscious, consumers become more engaged, and overall aesthetic choices that celebrate individualism. With the rise of design apps such as Pinterest, the general population's awareness and respect of design has risen. Along with that, of course, comes its own set of challenges for designers and a necessary education for clients around crafting a unique story for each project as opposed to promoting the "copy-cat" syndrome. Overall, this newly elevated appreciation of the industry means that client design briefs and the demand for innovation is quite refreshing. With the hyper coverage in the press around climate change, ensuring that sustainable practices and materials are infused into projects from the beginning is much easier to sell to clients today than it was two decades ago when the conversation was nearly non-existent. Aesthetically, the decade has seen spaces journey through the extreme ends of the style gamut; from the pared back minimalism of Hygge to a dominant mid-century modernism and finally a type of eclecticism that celebrates the layering and expressive style of maximalism.

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Carla Conte
Carla Conte

What project are you most proud of?

In 2019, we worked on the identity and interiors of a new organic and natural beauty brand called Ixora. With the client being a pharmacist himself and having dedicated his life to the creation of the product formulas, he was met with our equal passion in wanting to deliver a project that was both authentic in its narrative and immersive in the space's experience. Ixora is a modern exploration of ancient civilizations through the eyes of nature and science. The design is inspired by the juxtaposition of natural materials, deconstructed architectural forms and agricultural methods from three historical periods – Mesopotamian, Roman and Egyptian. We wanted to erase the notion that "organic and natural" can't be luxurious or premium and create an immersive experience that would appeal to and educate the local consumer. Ixora products are COSMOS certified (the highest level of organic certification in the world) requiring that the soil from the land where ingredients are harvested, are tested to ensure purity. With this in mind, it was imperative that our design convey an authoritative stance for the product category, erasing the often "farmlike", shabby chic aesthetic that is often associated with other organic skincare competitors. Considering all aspects, the client requested a thoughtful integration of his personal journey developing the products within the design. Wanting to turn heads with a new approach to selling organic products, he requested an elegant and moody aesthetic with dramatic ceiling details, a feature wall composed from one of his key product ingredients and a trial area suitable for social media opportunities. Other requests included a VIP lounge that could serve herbal teas alongside a demo room where product education and private skin and hair analysis sessions could occur.

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What do you wish you would see more of in interior design?

I would love to see people really pushing the boundaries in terms of specifying finishes and art pieces that are experimental and have an innovative artistic quality about them. I think whenever we have worked with independent studios that specialize in art installations to create feature walls and moments of time within our spaces that are specially curated, we've had the best aesthetic results and the most genuine impact on the end user.

What type of projects do you enjoy the most?

I have been a self-proclaimed retail "geek" for years. I love how psychology and customer journey can come together under a conceptual narrative to create branded experiences that resonate with consumers whilst achieving the commercial objectives of the client. The quantifiable results that can be studied from the performance of these spaces removes the subjective nature of design that can sometimes be frustrating. A space that performs and achieves specific objectives while telling a story aesthetically is a true success in my eyes and the type of challenge that excites me as a designer. Recently, we have started to work on boutique hotel brands and concepts, which has been really invigorating for us as a studio as it taps into a side of our skills that is purely experience and leisure driven. We love creating spaces that focus on wellness and that have a positive impact on mental health. Spas, beauty lounges and fitness studios provide a creative outlet for us where we can indulge our design fantasies and create concepts that we ourselves would truly love and enjoy.

What's next for yourself and Brand Creative? Any new initiatives?

2015 saw the company opening its first branch office in India where we were able to expand our technical team and tap into technology and resources that were advanced in comparison to the Middle East. That office has been incredibly successful, which opened the conversations around opening a branch office here at "home" in Toronto. Many of our Arab and Indian clients have either immigrated or are in the process of immigrating to Canada, which means that their brands will also migrate. We're really excited to start seeing the brands we've created in this market reach North America and to hopefully thrive here as well. The residential sector has also come up with opportunities for our expansion on Canadian soil.

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Samantha Sannella
Samantha Sannella
"SAMANTHA SANNELLA, BFA ID, M ARCH, is a designer, educator and principal at Urban Retreat Homes. She is an expert in the field of design and construction and is a columnist for several HOMES Publishing Group publications."
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