Although David Collins Studio has undertaken a handful of projects in the Middle East – notably luxury fashion and jewellery boutiques – it took one particular commission to truly inspire us about the region’s potential for design excellence. That commission was to create the interiors of Mandarin Oriental, Doha, the hotel group’s first outpost in the Middle East and a new benchmark in terms of Qatar’s hospitality offering. It’s one of the biggest projects the studio has done to date – there are 250 guest rooms, of which 91 are apartment-style residences, as well as nine restaurants, two rooftop pools and separate spas for men and women. “When we realized the huge scale of the project and its commitment to quality, we knew it was something we couldn’t say no to,” says founder and CEO Iain Watson. “The brief wasn’t to do the kind of glassy, curtain-walled, neon-clad hotels that you see a lot of in the Middle East; instead it was low-rise, on a very human scale, and very considered, involving an impressive rosta of international architects.”
The hotel is the centrepiece of a much larger development, Msheireb Downtown Doha, which is a new lifestyle quarter for the city. A complex of museums, shops, mosques and cultural institutions, it has been masterminded by Sheikha Moza, a prominent cultural and educational ambassador. At its heart is the Baraha Msheireb, a strikingly modern square of which Mandarin Oriental, Doha forms one side. The hotel occupies a contemporary limestone building by John McAslan + Partners; its linear design echoes the sophisticated system of canopies and louvres that protect the square from the harsh Doha heat. These climate-controlled screens regulate sunlight and temperature to make it easier to linger outdoors. Like the square itself, the Mandarin Oriental, Doha building has LEED sustainability accreditation, so all interior fittings had to meet the highest environmental standards.
The vast scale of the Msheireb Downtown development has made this a long and complex project. In fact, it has been a decade in the making, with our initial concept presented in 2010. The late David Collins played a key role in creating that vision, and it marks one of his final collaborations with creative director Simon Rawlings.
As the hotel was Mandarin Oriental’s debut in the Middle East – and, as such, a landmark destination – it was vital that the design acknowledged both the hotel group’s Asian heritage and Qatar’s own pedigree. “Mandarin Oriental wanted to understand how the two cultures would collide,” explains Rawlings. “The visual motifs of Mandarin Oriental – their signature fan and Asian touches – and the way these could come together with the patterns and materiality of the Middle East was a big selling point for our concept.”
Founded in Hong Kong in 1963, Mandarin Oriental is known for its superb restaurants, bars and spas, and for offering stylish residences for long-term stays alongside more conventional guest rooms. Meanwhile, Doha is a relatively young city – it was founded in the 1820s – so the studio had to take an intelligent approach to giving the interiors a sense of place. “It was very important that the design was rooted in the culture of Qatar – it couldn’t just be generically Middle Eastern,” says Rawlings. At the start of the project, the team was given a book on the history of Qatar that detailed its past as an ancient pearl-fishing centre. The pages also outlined the country’s seafaring tradition and its status as a trading post, with Arab dhows and Oriental junks meeting in the harbours. Among the book’s illustrations was a photograph of antique pottery shards depicting arrowhead patterns, unearthed in the desert beyond the city. Put together, these references formed the beginnings of an evocative design story.
From the outset, the team’s ideas had to be very focused. “Mandarin Oriental wanted just two concept boards, so we really had to distil the essence of the design,” remembers Watson. “It created clarity from the beginning and a template to which we always returned.” On a broad scale, the concept was inspired by the local landscape: natural shades of sand, earth, blue and gold, the undulating ripples of the sea and the desert dunes, and the play of light and shade in the hot climate.
To this palette, the studio added references to Qatar’s nautical heritage, with lamps that recall the shape of dhow sails, inlaid mother-of-pearl tiles, rope-style details on carpets and mirrors, and a series of fishing-net patterns, notably on golden cage chandeliers in the tea lounge. The region’s craft heritage was expressed through woven fabrics reminiscent of handmade Qatari baskets, while studding and embroidery on walls and upholstery were borrowed from traditional interiors. The arrowhead design from the pottery shards was translated into an intricate pattern for walls, ceilings and carpets. At once traditional and modern, it exemplifies the studio’s subtle approach to giving the hotel a local narrative.
The complex layering of elements is key. “It’s very telling of the style that David Collins pioneered, which is what the studio is still about,” says Rawlings. “When you look at the designs on paper, you think there’s a lot going on, but in real life, they appear simple, edited and harmonious. We build up a story through lots of small touch points and textures. You might walk into a space that’s very neutral, but the more you look at it, the more you see patterns unfold. In that way, the architecture was very much aligned with what we were trying to create – it’s very refined, simple and classical, but it has modern twists and layers of detail.”
Colours are similarly nuanced. At first glance, the creamy marble and mother-of-pearl finishes, sand-coloured fabrics and burnished metals seem classically neutral, but on closer inspection, delicate accents are revealed. Some - such as the soft aquamarine blues and dusty pinks in the guest rooms - are the merest hints of pigment. Others, such as the cobalt and saffron hues in the tea lounge, or the russet and chocolate shades in the club lounge, are more stimulating. “We wanted to use confident colours,” explains Rawlings. “Each space tells a different story. The guest rooms are muted, so you feel instantly at ease, but in the public areas we wanted people to feel elevated, and that they’ve arrived somewhere special.”
Perhaps the best example of the latter is the dramatic quadruple-height entrance lobby. It’s framed by an ornate bespoke “cage” structure, inspired by Islamic metal veils and made up of screens and canopies in hammered bronze and straw marquetry. This is the first time that guests encounter the arrowhead pattern – which adorns both bronze panels and a bespoke carpet in front of the reception desk – and the refined materials palette sets the tone for the rest of the hotel.
This project represents a new standard for David Collins Studio in terms of creating bespoke furniture. Around 350 special pieces were made, from seating in warm woods and marble-topped tables to alabaster wall lights by artist Hannah Woodhouse. There are also many custom finishes, including verre églomisé panels with a rattan pattern in the tea lounge, shagreen and liquid-metal effects on the reception desks, and ivory gesso reliefs on walls and ceilings, decorated with the arrowhead motif (gesso plaster, like the blue shades and Art Deco references in the hotel, is something the studio revisits time and again in its work). Perhaps the most impressive finish of all is the white lacquered timber fretwork screening created for the presidential suite. It encloses an indoor-outdoor living area at the heart of this palatial apartment, and features lace-like patterns based on sacred geometry.
Selecting artworks to complement our layered design required a sensitive eye, with gold and neutrals forming a recurring theme. “We worked closely with the art consultants, Soho Myriad, because we had a strong idea of how the art should look,’ says Watson. ‘It had to tone with the scheme, but we also wanted to create soft, interesting moments that had integrity.” Among the pieces commissioned was a fan sculpture in the ground-floor lobby, which symbolises the hotel’s cross-cultural identity. Crafted by a local artist, it represents Mandarin Oriental's logo.
Of the nine bars and restaurants, two were created by Paris studio Jouin Manku. According to regional custom, anywhere serving alcohol must be screened from the street, and this rule helped to create a varied design language for each of the venues. The daytime spaces, like the tea lounge and chrome-clad gelato café, have a bright, open feel; more formal areas, like the club lounge and its private dining room, are secluded and restful. Here, layered canopies and screens conjure the idea of privacy so important in Middle Eastern society.
For visitors drawn to Doha by its burgeoning cultural scene, the new Mandarin Oriental, Doha is the ultimate place to stay, cementing the city’s status as a global destination.