Founder Ellen Søhoel reflects on more than two decades of design in Dubai
Words by Laura Cherry in Design & Architecture · Nov 22nd, 2023
Fresh out of university with a degree in interior architecture, Ellen Søhoel found herself drawn in by the untapped potential of Dubai during a vacation in the early 2000s. Fuelled by determination, she embarked on a journey to establish her presence in the UAE, collaborating with top designers in the city before founding her own venture, XBD Collective.
Now, with offices in India, the UK, and the UAE, Ellen leads her team in undertaking ambitious projects, ranging from royal palaces to coveted commercial spaces. Ellen attributes her success to keeping everything in-house. XBD Collective integrates residential and commercial divisions, offering a comprehensive suite of services, including architecture, interior design, landscape design, MEP (Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing), and structural coordination. This holistic approach not only ensures aesthetic harmony within their projects but also enhances overall efficiency. Now, Ellen takes us through her dynamic journey in design.
Ellen: After completing my studies in interior architecture in Oslo in 2002, I left Norway to visit Dubai for Christmas. My brother was living in the Desert Palm, and at that point, I was ready for new opportunities. This was the point where I decided to take my life in a different direction. I had a friend who owned a furniture shop, a rather odd little space that specialised in Balinese furniture. It was in the middle of the desert at the Defence roundabout behind the Dusit Thani hotel. I took a job there, but it only lasted for two days before I returned to Norway. After just nine days, I returned to Dubai, lured by the strong draw of the city.
I vividly remember looking out of the plane window during my return and thinking, "I'm an interior architect, and I'm now flying over expanses of desert with lots of cranes and abundant opportunities. I'm not going to give up on this." As soon as I landed, I was headhunted and joined a company called Presotto Middle East on Umm Suquiem Road. They specialised in Italian furniture, and my first project was the palace of one of the Sheikhs from Ras al Khaimah. This unforgettable experience marked my introduction to personal and professional life in Dubai.
Reflecting on the design styles of the past, Dubai used to be all about gold and white marble. Back then, there were only a few hotels – Dusit, Fairmont, and Emirates Towers. The design evolution over the years has been incredible. There isn't a specific style today rather a dynamic and eclectic range of aesthetics to be encountered across the city.
In the early days, we had to import materials like curved glass from Italy because these resources weren't available locally. Now, there's a wealth of possibilities nearby.
I stayed at Presotto Middle East for three years and then decided to seek investments so that I could start my own venture. I managed to secure $1 million - I distinctly recall that moment. With that capital, I opened an office called Estique Interiors in Media City. One of the consultants who came on board to assist me was Paul Bishop, who remains a prominent interior designer in Dubai. The rest, as they say, is history.
Paul and I fell in love, and I made the decision to close down Estique Interiors to join him in establishing Bishop Design. We became business partners and husband and wife – and together we built a successful firm. I played an integral role in running and building a business with Paul for nine years. Eventually, I left the company. I relinquished my shares, left with two visualizers and two interns and established XBD Collective in 2014. This is what I wanted for myself as an entrepreneur. Today, we have approximately 85 team members and operate from three offices located in Dubai Design District, London, UK, and Kerala, India.
XBD Collective encompasses residential and commercial divisions, covering architecture, interior design, landscape design, MEP (Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing), and structural coordination. A critical aspect of my vision was to have all services under one roof. This was driven by my own frustration with the pace and quality of external sources. Our significant advantage lies in our ability to handle everything in-house.
Our clientele spans various sectors, including hospitality, residential, and commercial. XBD works with names such as Emaar, DAMAC, Dubai Properties, St. Regis, Fairmont, and W Hotel. On the residential side, we undertake a wide range of projects, from sweeping mansions to major refurbishments where virtually everything has been demolished other than the structure. We also regularly start from scratch, building everything from the ground up on a new plot. We handle high-end penthouses, large-scale apartments, and luxury projects that include procurement services.
We've also ventured into property development in recent years, focusing on run-down, distressed, or abandoned properties that we transform into sought-after destinations.
I always knew I wanted to start my own company. My entrepreneurial spirit was even stronger than my creative side, although I've never been able to leave configurations in spaces alone. As a child, I would constantly reorganise our house. I have a knack for standing in a space and envisioning how it would look with specific changes, those definitive details that really elevate an environment. Clients trust me when I say, "I can see this," and then XBD makes this vision a tangible reality.
Seeing a restaurant come to life is so rewarding - people from around the world joining at the table to enjoy excellent food in an equally excellent setting. And, as you can imagine, providing a home for someone is incredibly fulfilling. I've had clients start to cry and hug me, saying, "You gave me a home. I've never had a home." It's the expression of gratitude that resonates with me.
While I live and love design, I also find the challenges of strategy and expansion extremely intriguing. Being a businesswoman is thrilling, the idea that I've built something that offers people a particular perspective, a career, a platform to collaborate, and to add value to our clients' lives or businesses is a driving force. I also thoroughly enjoy developing people and pushing them to reach their full potential, whether they're part of the administrative team or the architects.
Currently, we're working on approximately 85 different projects! There's a good balance between high-end residential projects, such as Riviera, Casa del Sol, and Solar House, and commercial destinations including restaurants and hotels. We're even working on a 100,000-square-foot palace in India! We've also partnered with developers on branded residences, including St. Regis Financial Centre Road, which was secured by XBD managing partner, Marc Roca Bravo. There will be two more launches before the end of 2023, one being a five-star hospitality brand that's set to go live with their project in Downtown Dubai and another boutique development that will launch in Dubai Hills.
All images courtesy XBD Collective