When life gives you Lemmens…Elevation expert Esra on embracing the business of design

“I was a designer with my own studio while I was studying for my degree in Fine Arts and Design. At that stage, I had such a romantic image of what being a designer was, like coming up with ideas and sketching all day. But I found the reality was very different.”

Esra Lemmens is a designer by trade. She’s also an international lecturer, tutor and art director – an author too. All this she squeezes in around her day job, running arguably Dubai’s most influential design management firm.

The Esra Lemmens Agency – led by its uber-chic, socially-magnetic Dutch founder – could well be the region’s premiere design match-maker. Spreading themselves across PR, events and partnership mediation, the firm – which has just celebrated its ten-year anniversary – has helped some of the world’s biggest and best designers along with their brands cement themselves both in the region and internationally.

Esra Lemmens is a designer by trade. She’s also an international lecturer, tutor and art director – an author too. All this she squeezes in around her day job, running arguably Dubai’s most influential design management firm.

More than a decade ago and heading into the final year of her study at The Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Maastricht, Esra could quite easily have been the next big name coming out of one of Europe’s most creative design hubs.

Esra explained: “I was specialising in product design. When I hit my final year I decided not to design the next best chair. I thought, ‘We have so many chairs already – why should I design the next one?’

“I became very critical and decided to graduate with a book about my vision, not a product. I was the first one in the history of my Art Academy to do so.”

A bright-eyed student, Esra had quickly grown weary of the challenges young designers faced in getting their sketches from concept to commercially viable. She explored that haze and discovered a grey area that, if correctly managed, she could untangle and mold into a business that she knew the design world needed.

She investigated how designers contribute to the commercial world through their creativity, and discovered a clear set of indicators that she felt account for why the commercial market seems to open up to the designers’ conceptual projects.

Conceptual Commercialism Commercial Conceptualism, by Esra Lemmens

Her final publication Conceptual Commercialism Commercial Conceptualism put to paper the cause and effect of designers acting on their vision and the social, economic, educational and cultural questions such work raises.

From here, The Esra Lemmens Agency was born.

Esra explained: “I started with designers to make people understand and value what they were doing. There was no one else doing it. It was not really a proper job. I often find designers are very good at creating but not so perfect with communicating.

“I talk to them. I speak very directly to them, because I’m working for them, not the press. And the press is never direct with the designer. It’s amazing how people come backstage after a launch or exhibition, and there’s not one person who says, ‘I didn’t like it as much as last time’. That’s misleading for designers.”

Has she ever lost a client because of her honesty? “Not often,” she says, after a quick pause.

“Communication is more important than it used to be because there is so much more out there. Now, the media maw — old media, social media, any kind of media — is constantly ravenous, demanding feeding all the time. When a designer is at the point where they are no longer emerging, and not yet established, that’s when they come to us.”

     

Esra quickly grown weary of the challenges young designers faced in getting their sketches from concept to commercially viable. She explored that haze and discovered a grey area that, if correctly managed, she could untangle and mold into a business that she knew the design world needed

Under the sharp artistic approach and future minded guidance of Esra herself, the Esra Lemmens Agency has developed custom strategies that bring clarity and definition to the designers work; they come into their own by helping convey a specific message to a particular group of people, whether that is a conceptual or a commercial environment.

Esra said: “Optimised design management is the core competence that circumscribes the process of enabling designers to achieve clear business objectives in a broad spectrum, working on both sides of the divide, reaching beyond design itself. It is the art and science of empowering design to enhance collaboration and synergy between ‘design’ and ‘business’ to improve design effectiveness.

“Understanding the nature and the inner workings of each medium of design management enables us to choose the most suitable medium for every single situation. Good management provides the best strategic and financial benefits for a company, and investment in solid design management leads to more sales and higher profits. The nuance you need to make is that this effect only occurs when design is driven by customized design management. However, it is not only about driving creative skills, it is also a matter of organizing the organization in such a way that these competencies can be fully realised.”

After starting out working with many renowned brands including Louis Vuitton – famed for their luxury travel ware – Esra received dozens of requests from other companies, not all necessarily design related, who wanted to find someone like her to be the intermediary between their firm and designers, allowing for them to create design products together. This is what her mediation department is based on.

Since moving to Dubai in 2014, Esra and her DIFC-based agency have accrued a client list of the UAE’s most renowned design studios and architecture firms. 

PR is one of Esra’s favourite pillars of the agency, even though it is a small aspect of what her firm do

In that time, she has noticed changes in approaches to product buying across the Emirate.

“I still believe there are many frequent misconceptions about the market here and what we do in Dubai. By now the majority knows that Dubai is one of the fastest growing cities in the world and is at the centre of a bustling region emerging as a major force within the global economy. What not everyone may know is that here has been a great focus on the cultural, arts and design scenes in Dubai Supported by the top echelons of the Dubai government including His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

“The UAE design sector is worth over $100billion and is growing twice as fast as the global average. Locally designed and produced design is high with the local production market only contributing 1.5% of GDP well below the average of 4% in developed markets. With all this talents coming from this region and the numerous initiatives going on, international brands establishing here, Dubai is set to further consolidate its leading position fuelled by its geographical location, liberal outlook and commitment to free trade.

“We should stop judging this book by its cover and see beyond the sparkly and shiny. To me opportunities lie in staying down to earth.”

Her role as a self-styled “elevation expert” is non-stop. Ideally starting the day with a sunrise swim, run or horse-riding, Esra will spend her days catching-up with her clients. Being selective in who she works with – and ruling out every wanting to own a large firm, but preferring to spread out over various cities such as London, Zurich and New York – Lemmens helms her office with a vision that suits the fast paced market, while advocating old-school values. Away from her people, she’ll be orchestrating shoots, hosting meetings with potential partners, and reading all of the region’s design magazines word-for-word to see if her projects feature.

PR is one of Esra’s favourite pillars of the agency, even though it is a small aspect of what her firm do.

“The design world used to be a small community, the professionals, the press, the buyers,” she reflects. “Now, we’ve started to talk to everyone who’s interested in design immediately. The speed is extraordinary, and clients nowadays are even more demanding than a couple of years ago.”

Esra openly admits that her resolve and commitment to an independent way of working tends to make her seem a solitary figure, alone in a design crowd. She says she likes it that way: no ties, all the anonymity and solitude that come with a nomadic life. At the same time, she insists she’s “pretty much a social animal. There’s an event every two days. But I kind of enjoy it. If I didn’t like to be with people, I couldn’t do this job and definitely wouldn’t love it as much as I do.”

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