Design Interviews

A Day In The Life Of: Esra Lemmens

May 27, 2020

Esra Lemmens is the founder and director of eponymously named design consultancy which advises designers and design manufacturers on various aspects of their business including business strategy, market development and communication. The Dutch native and designer by training, who has offices in both Dubai and the Netherlands, is a firm fixture on the international design scene and is often invited to mentor design students at universities such as the American University of Dubai.

In addition, she has authored a book on the commercial aspects of design entitled ‘Conceptual Commercialism Commercial Conceptualism’, served as panellist at international design talk events such as InterTextile in Shanghai, and a jury member at Edit Napoli, an international design platform that champions up-and-coming designers. She is also working on establishing a design gallery that will enable some of the top designers to widen their reach and for people to access their objects more easily.

Esra Lemmens at the Ad Diriyah conservation site’s royal Inauguration at the Royal Dinner with the Custodian Of The Two Holy Mosques, King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Mohammed Bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. 

One of the high profile projects that Lemmens’ firm is working on currently is to develop the museum strategy for the Ad Diriyah masterplan in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which will be the size of the island of Manhattan. The Saudi Government has invited Lemmens to further define this project in line with the oil-rich kingdom’s ambitious Saudi Arabia Vision 2030.

In the fifth interview in this series, Lemmens shares with DE51GN her creative and balanced approach towards living and working over the course of a day.

5am to 6am: I am a total morning person. My day starts at 5am, even before the alarm rings. Just the thought of starting the day excites me, and I usually jump out of bed, definitely no snoozing. The first thing I do is to prepare myself for whatever the new day has in store for me. I make myself comfortable on my (Walter Knoll) daybed, practicing a series of powerful and directed breathing exercises and I set my intentions for the day.

This early morning session helps me centre my focus and set the tasks for the day. Taking this “me time” in the morning, along with a healthy breakfast, works as an energy booster for me. It helps me get into the optimum state and motivates me, changing my day for the better.

I start the day with a glass of fresh green juice. It’s a simple recipe: Celery, lemon, ginger, and a slice of green apple. Then I make a black coffee and move to my home office.

6am to 7am: I go through my emails. I also make a schedule for the day, prioritising my tasks. Since I want to focus, I prefer working in complete silence with no music, no nothing. This one hour saves me from hassle as I do all this work before most people reach their offices. So, by the time they get in, they have my emails at the top of their lists. It helps me get on with my actual tasks without delay.

7am to 8am: As soon as I finish this work, I head to the gym so that I can organise my thoughts and, of course, keep myself fit. I spend an hour in the gym. Luckily, I have these facilities at home, so this also gives me enough time to wrap my brain around complex tasks that might be ahead of me for the day.

After the gym session, I take a quick (ideally cold) shower. I am not really a breakfast person, and I usually prefer to skip it. However, sometimes I make oats, with coconut milk, some strawberries, and shaved almonds.

A great plus for me is that I live and work in the Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC). Since my living and working space are in the same building, I don’t have to waste my time commuting. While I am lucky in this regard, I believe it’s about discipline as well. I make sure that I don’t spend my evenings in the office too. Efficiency and time management is key.

Esra Lemmens at DIFC Art Nights; installation art by Cyril Lancelin

While the weekend in Dubai starts on Friday, I work Sundays to Fridays. It is because some of our clients and projects are in Europe, so I work that day. However, I don’t follow the same routine on Fridays as during the week; I prefer to work in a more relaxing mode.

My favourite breakfast/lunch place for the weekend is Life’n One in Jumeirah, the place that offers the best vegan food in Dubai. And it also offers yoga/meditation practice, and it’s pet-friendly too!

I love to try out new health hacks, such as oxygen bars and vitamin drips, and for that, I go to Cosmesurge. Also, I am hooked to cryotherapy for quite some time now. I am a sports person, so on weekends, you will find me outdoors, away from the hustle and bustle of Dubai city. It is my way to switch off and reconnect with myself.

I enjoy going for a good hike in one of the UAE’s wadis. I am fond of reading good books in the calm and quiet desert surroundings. I also love long walks by the beach. You will find me where the wild things are like the Desert Palm, where I enjoy horse riding. This beautiful oasis is one of my favourite weekend getaways that makes me forget everything around. Cycling and skating in Business Bay on a sunny Saturday morning is often a part of my weekend routine.

Amid all these activities, I manage to catch up with friends, making sure I make the most of such meetups. Sometimes, I go grocery shopping with friends – we make it a thing! Otherwise, grocery is my least favorite thing to do on the weekend

8am to 9am: I am behind my office desk at 8am. I start by checking in with my team – who is working on what and if they need my guidance. We all work in modern ways together, and everybody has the freedom to work from wherever and whenever they want. The only condition is to meet the deadline. It is a modern approach but we maintain old-school values in terms of delivering quality.

Esra Lemmens working from Essaouria in Morocco

While working, I usually listen to classical music. Call me a nerd, but studies suggest that music increases productivity, and that stands true in my case. The first hour, between 8am to 9am, the “Business Breakfast” at DubaiEye plays in the background. It is an infotainment programme, covering interviews, market updates, analyses, and opinions about the top morning stories and issues. It keeps me updated on global and regional developments.

We have an amazing portfolio with a variety of projects. Currently, we are working with some of the world’s best and biggest designers to help them cement their brands both in the region and the international landscape. For the agency, the biggest slice of the pie the design strategy. However, it might also be what we are least known for – not to mention that we always serve “behind the scenes.” This goes hand in hand with our communications and PR department, which is on the forefront and better known.

“I start by checking in with my team – who is working on what and if they need my guidance. We all work in modern ways together, and everybody has the freedom to work from wherever and whenever they want. The only condition is to meet the deadline. It is a modern approach but we maintain old-school values in terms of delivering quality.”

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, we are currently working on many differentiation strategies and restructuring entire businesses for our clients. We are making over-hours to ensure that the business operates more effectively and remains profitable in these challenging times.

Once everybody catches up with their flow, I work on my tasks. Since we are always working on multiple projects at the same time, the strict focus is a must. Different projects mean different clients and different requirements. I prefer to complete most of the tasks in the morning, as that’s when I am at my best and most productive.

1pm: I prefer to schedule the meetings in the afternoon; for lunch meetings, I usually cross the street and eat in DIFC – all within walking distance for me. If I don’t have a lunch meeting lined up, I eat something quick but nutritious behind my desk. I take out an hour from the tight schedule and spend it eating, reading, and researching at the same time. I utilise this meal break to check on the latest news about the industry, read online design magazines, like Wallpaper and Dezeen, and international news. I also flip through some regional design (print!) magazines.

Esra Lemmens in Ad Diriyah, Saudi Arabia

Luckily, I get to travel a lot due to my work. These work travel trips always feel like much-needed getaways. I always try to explore the local culture as much as I can when travelling abroad. My favorite holiday destination is the South of France as it’s tied to my childhood memories. But, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is on my list as soon as possible.

Esra Lemmens at Chateau Lacoste, South of France, with Crouching Spider from Louise Bourgeois

4pm to 6pm: Around 4pm, I drink kombucha as a “pick-me-up”. I am a big advocate of local brands, and I get my drink from a local brand called Saba Kombucha. They make the best kombucha in Dubai. My day at the office ends at 6ish, sometimes 7pm. If I am in the thick of things, I am unstoppable! You would have to drag me away from my screen.

I take pride in the way I balance my professional and personal commitments. Work-life balance is not to be taken for granted, and I have learnt it the hard way. It’s better now than it has ever been. They say if you love your job you never have to work a single day, but in my case, if you love your job you’ll forget about everything else!

My commitment to an independent way of working tends to make me appear as a solitary figure. Well, I like it that way: no ties, all the anonymity, and solitude that come with nomadic life. However, I am quite social at the same time.

“Let me admit that I am not a Netflix binge-watcher. But, I do love watching movies and going to the cinema over the weekends. Cinema Akil, an indie arthouse theatre in Alserkal Avenue, is one of my favorite places to go on weekends.”

7pm to 10pm: I eat at home only a couple of times a week as I am pretty much a social animal. There is an event every two days like I attend openings, launches, events, awards, celebrations, and dinners. So, I am out in the evening quite often. The design world used to be a small community, the professionals, the press, and the buyers. Now, we’ve started to talk to everyone interested in design immediately. The speed is extraordinary, and clients nowadays are even more demanding than a couple of years ago.

I don’t necessarily enjoy cooking much. But, I can prepare a delicious, healthy salad, and I love soups. If I am home in the evening, dinner is usually simple. It’s the lightest meal of the day and my transition time to switch from work to private mode.

If I particularly talk about nighttime rituals that could be to make use of the sauna, which I also have at home. I love watching Masterclass – it is a subscription-based programme that offers inspiring masterclasses from giants and experts across different industries.

Let me admit that I am not a Netflix binge-watcher. But, I do love watching movies and going to the cinema over the weekends. Cinema Akil, an indie arthouse theatre in Alserkal Avenue, is one of my favorite places to go on weekends. I also like the Reel Cinema at Rove Downtown, which is at a walking distance from my apartment.

I usually go to bed between 9pm and 10pm on days that I’m home, and that’s when my day ends.

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