According to Element Design House’s lead Principal Architect and Co-founder Rayah J. Al-Sabah, Kuwait’s architectural landscape is in constant evolution. Always looking forward with a contagious sense of optimism, she considers Kuwait’s local architecture and design scene to be ripe with incredible talent. She laughingly begins our conversation, “I’m not sure why many people wouldn’t want to admit that their competition is awesome. Truly, Kuwait boasts an astounding amount of talent in this field, and we should all be proud of that.”
I’ve personally known Rayah ever since we were little kids, making up funny characters with play-dough and formulating our research projects for our IB Higher Level Art class in high school. For someone extremely obsessed with working with her hands and being so creatively inclined, I felt that pursuing a career in architecture and design would have been a natural path for Rayah. But she didn’t quite see it this way, “I didn’t know I would land on architecture, as I didn’t quite understand the field until I was at USC in Los Angeles. It was quite a shock at first.”
While Rayah’s studies were grueling—she learned a lot from the experience, and graduated with a professional degree five years later, once again ready to start working with her hands. She continues, “I found that architecture is not just about design, it is about functionality and adding value, and understanding what the space services.”
She further honed her skills, working the graduate program of Kuwait’s Fund for Arab and Economic Development, taking her from Kuwait, to Zurich to Chicago and gaining incredible hands-on experience with the greatest minds in the field. This was followed by an impactful five-year tenure at architecture and design firm Kayan, where Rayah was “thrown into the deep end at Kayan, and in the best of ways. We had the opportunity to head our own projects, and it was a fantastic learning experience, even though it wasn’t easy. I’m still on great terms with them, even after leaving the firm.” As a young, female Kuwaiti architect, it could prove difficult when it comes to asserting one’s self, but for Rayah, this isn’t completely a matter of gender. “We’ve got a fantastic crowd of female architects, and while yes, you need to establish a sense of authority, this isn’t accomplished by being angry.
This is achieved by maintaining a respectable relationship with both your contractors and clients. While this can be a gender thing—it’s a relationship thing. I feel that communication and honing these skills is equally important, like the manner in which you speak to someone, or the way you allow someone to speak to you, while still maintaining professionality—these are all skills that develop with time.”
Rayah’s reasons for her departure from Kayan were quite simple, she states, “I wanted to leave the field in its entirety. I knew I needed a change, I just didn’t know what I wanted to do next. I guess that it took me leaving architecture completely to make me want to get back into it.” Even though Rayah had temporarily left the field, she never stopped literally envisioning life in a grid, where everything has to be framed beautifully, and symmetry is paramount to a level of happiness that is unbeknownst to many. Today, at her very own home away from home, Element Design House (EDH), this notion is omnipresent. Once a site of complete ruin due to a fire, perhaps what attracted Rayah to choose the renovated building that is Wafra Downtown Tower for an office space was its incredible potential, adding that “AGI did a terrific job in updating this building.”
Rayah’s family encouraged her to get back into the field, and EDH is a family affair through and through. She works with her sisters, alongside a small team that makes for a cozy, friendly and laid back vibe. From architectural design, branding to product design, and supervision of these designs during the execution process of each project, EDH does it all. She explains her team dynamic, “We all do everything. Not everyone is based in- house, and it’s always nice to see people come and go and not feel tied down to a rigid format. The way we work with our clients echoes how we, as employees, work together. It is a family affair, and our clients feel like they are part of the EDH family.” Rayah’s ethos adds value to the company, because these family values translate into comfortable clients. Comfortable clients open up about their desires, and this allows the creative process to take flight, Rayah decidedly says that “this separates us from many other firms.”
All of EDH’s clients are returning clients—a surefire sign that Rayah is on the right path. From commercial to residential, interior and exterior architecture design and supervision services, Rayah always ends up with a typical architect’s perspective, “I keep coming back to form, structure and function.” She references pendant lamps created for Elevation Burger, a longstanding client where EDH is working on changing up the interior and exterior design for all of Elevation Burger’s branches, even though EDH was strictly hired to initially work on the interior design alone. Rayah explains that Elevation Burger “hires local architects to design their interiors, and we have been selected to complete their rebranding projects for their interiors, based on our suggested designs. We will be helping them to build the design guidelines for their interiors, and this is something we’re really proud of.”
For someone so focused on design, Rayah has quite the penchant for EDH’s latest project, and excitedly talks about Pinnochios Pizza, where EDH “got involved from branding to visual communication, the team, the space, the furniture. What really helps a project like this, is when the client is so passionate, so translating the Neapolitan pizza concept into a vision of bringing the streets of Italy to your dining experience is amazing.” Rayah’s enthusiasm doesn’t end there, and she eagerly showcases coffee concept Barista Café’s portable coffee shop. Totally detachable and movable, the portable coffee shop utilizes materials that are industrial, complete with rotating doors, seating built within, windows, expandable attachments. She also cites EDH’s involvement with reworking the exteriors of a real estate developer’s projects with such fervor, that I couldn’t help but feel amazed. Rayah credits her keenness to how “some clients value design so much, that they are raising the bar when it comes to design projects in Kuwait.” That, in and of itself, puts Rayah’s mind at ease when looking to the future of architecture in Kuwait.
While Rayah’s goal for EDH is to consistently grow, she sees the firm launching its own product line next year, but her dreams are set on something much bigger—Kuwait’s skyline. Rayah looks over me, and points a contemplative finger towards the commanding view which we could clearly see from EDH’s floor-to-ceiling windows which surround the space, and says, “Now that’s something I never knew I wanted but would love to be a part of it. We have a very unique skyline, it’s different from every angle you see. I feel that I want to add to it, or change it slightly. Adding a stricture, changing one or adapting one. That’s an evolution, telling the story of how a building was and how it came to be. I think that is so beautiful.”
Al Soor Tower- Restaurant Storefront design and facade facelift. Image courtesy of EDH.
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL QUESTIONNAIRE
What do you most value in your friends?
Their sense of humor, and kindness.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being on a yacht in the middle of nowhere surrounded by family and friends.
What is your greatest fear?
The loss of loved ones.
What is the trait you most admire in yourself?
The ability to see beauty in everything.
What is the trait you most admire in others?
Having a sense of humor.
Which living person do you most admire?
What is your greatest extravagance?
I’m a secret shopaholic.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
What is it that you most like?
Which talent would you most like to have?
The ability to sing!
If you could have any job, what would it be?
What would you consider your greatest achievement?
Element Design House.
What is your most treasured possession?
My grandmother’s ring.
What is your most marked characteristic?
My enthusiasm. I find everything exciting!
Where would you most like to live?
What are your favorite words to live by?
Live and let live!