Elie Khouri, a visionary leader in the MENA region, has been at the helm of Omnicom Media Group since 2006, serving as CEO and chairman. He has a keen eye for art and design, serving on the Tate MENA Acquisitions Committee and MoMA Director’s Council, and has transformed Omnicom Media Group’s HQ into a dynamic gallery showcasing contemporary art. In addition, Khouri is a board member of Endeavor UAE, where he shares his expertise to support emerging companies.
Khouri’s most recent undertaking involves bringing Cassina, an Italian design company founded in 1927, to Dubai. Cassina is known for launching industrial design in Italy in the 1950s, shifting from hand craftsmanship to mass production. Today, Cassina’s vision is expressed through ‘The Cassina Perspective,’ emphasizing research, innovation, and collaboration with renowned architects and designers to create exceptional products.
KHAMSA met Elie Khouri to discuss Cassina and the future of design in Dubai.
As someone who loves art and design, do you own any specific piece that carries sentimental value?
Naturally, when you have design pieces, you live with them and sometimes you love one more than the other. But that changes over time, so you always love the latest piece of design you buy. What I’m particularly attached to is one by the Campana Brothers called Sushi. The collection uses circles of colors to produce particular designs, and now, they have a buffet from that production. That buffet follows me everywhere I go in all the homes. So I tend to always change the pieces of art, furniture and design of the house, but this one stays all the times everywhere I go.
Was there something specific that drew you into that piece?
The craftsmanship of that piece, and the particular attention to detail of the mixed material, some brass and fabric, and how they all put it together. The aesthetics, the design, and the craftsmanship.
Would you say that’s what you look for within interior design as well?
A piece of art is something that is meaningful, and I think a piece of design is often the same thing. It has to have meaning within the space and it has to have a dialogue with one another. So that’s something common with the pieces that I buy, whether it’s art or design.
How would you describe your interior design taste in three words.
This is common across everything for me, not just interior design – I would use the word timeless. I like the word craftsmanship. And the third word would be active. Some pieces are much more alive than others, and much more active. It would have a presence, even if it’s minimalistic.
How do you balance the aesthetics and functionality and the personal living space?
I think it’s the most difficult thing to do. A lot of times you see things that are beautifully done, but aren’t comfortable. So it’s the challenge of curating a home, and how you mix objects together to make it homey. I think it’s an art and a lot of people don’t know how to do it. If you do it, you strike a good balance…but it’s essential to think about how you mix those two.
You’re behind Cassina’s Dubai debut, can you tell us more about this decision?
I’m an entrepreneur that likes to invest in the things that I’m passionate about. So at the family office, we have many things, but they’re all consistent, and there’s a common thread between them. The first one is real estate. The second one, it’s called passion investments, and design sits at the core of that. The third one is technology.
And when you like to collect art or buy a piece of design, what is better than being in the business of design? Because then you’re blending your flair for entrepreneurship, with your love for design, more importantly, for your love for brands. Being someone who has been brand building all my life, I’ve always appreciated the value of brands versus products. There’s a big difference between those two. And all the investments we do we look at brands and leaders in the space. So this is why I felt that Cassina was a natural connection. The idea is to work with something meaningful, aesthetically appealing, and adds value to the country and the culture.
What value do you hope that this adds into the design culture in the region or Dubai?
I would say there’s very few mono brands. Dubai has always been used to the big stores where you go in and you see a bunch of furniture from different brands. But I think this is an old way of looking at furniture. The present or the future is about mono brands. It’s about one space that has the flair and the essence and the core of one particular brand. So with Cassina, we believe that bringing that sense of quality and aesthetic is important. Elevating the design language in Dubai is important because it’s at the forefront of design in the region.
How do you feel like the design hub within Dubai might change within the next few years?
I don’t know exactly in which way it’s going and how fast it will accelerate, but I think the only way is up for that Dubai. It’s still a role model in many things such as arts as a business, and not art as museum and culture because that’s more Abu Dhabi or Sharjah.
So Dubai Design Week is an event that celebrates design and they’re doing partnerships with famous global brands to boost that business as well. They’ve been doing it consistently for a decade. There are many things in this country that are promoting design, and there are many designers that are based in Dubai and producing in Dubai. So Dubai is definitely the hub of design the region and Cassina will come to complement that scene but from a different angle, showing more historical names and also contemporary global names.
What piece would you recommend a young design enthusiast to invest in?
I think it’s a very personal choice. But for an object from Cassina, that will be the Utrecht Armchair. It was designed by Gerrit Thomas Rietveld in 1935, and you see it until now in people’s homes and in design magazines. That’s timelessness. That’s the beauty of design.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.