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Fascinating Women: Let Isabelle Miaja Take You On A Colorful Journey With Her Resort And Hotel Designs

Design, art, and a taste for wonder come together in the many projects birthed by Isabelle Miaja with her design and architecture firm, Miaja Design Group

Isabelle Miaja is a woman brimming with ideas, with eclectic but energizing enthusiasm, and a taste for art that splashes itself across her many projects. Her quirky sophistication is almost a trademark in her works, as the founder, managing and creative director of Miaja Design Group—an international interior design and architecture firm known for its luxury resort and hotel creations.

When you look at the sustainable elegance of LUX* North Male Atoll in Maldives, the culturally appropriate allure of Club Med Sahoro in Japan, and the ingenious way of telling the urban story of Singapore through its local creatives at Sofitel So Singapore, one can’t help but wonder, “Where does Isabelle get her deep well of inspiration?”

Well, it all started with, quite literally, a love story.

How it all started

Isabelle was born in France, but she went to the States to study gemology to follow the footsteps of her father, who was a jewellery designer. But while her pursuit of gems did not pan out, she began to be slowly drawn to fashion school to pursue her love for fashion and fabrics.

“But then I met my future husband,” Isabelle recalls. Robert Arambulo was then studying Architecture, and it was his idea that it would be cool if they worked together. “So we did! We opened our first company together and I never looked back as Interior Design and Architecture are but the macro side of all the elements I loved playing with—structure, textures, and colors mixing together with elegance and style.”

But while it sounds like a cliched love story, it was not exactly Robert that opened Isabelle to the world design and architecture; it was her love and passion for the artistry of architecture that started it all.  And so, she started her work in interior design in the US—creating designs for homes in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, and New York.

Isabelle’s sense of wonder soon drew her away from her comfort zone, bringing her to the complicated but colorful world of Asia. In Singapore is where they would start Miaja Design Group. Eventually, the firm grew too big for the country, which brought them to different parts of Asia—in Dubai, Maldives, India, Bangkok, Japan, and even the Philippines.  

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A French woman, who started in America, setting up shop in Asia

Understanding and building for an Asian market was hard enough for locals; just imagine the effort, research, and heart that Isabelle had to pour to be able to adjust her sensibilities to the demands and rules of each Asian country she worked in.

In America, Isabelle learned of freedom.

“I learned many things related to design and art everywhere I went,” Isabelle shares. “The birth place of my career in Los Angeles taught me to be free and inventive; let go of conventions and be adventurous. I learned to have confidence and dare to juxtapose colors, forms, and function in ways the old Europe can’t teach for it is weighed down with a heavy past that is full of dos and don’ts. I felt so free to walk barefoot in Beverly Hills without judgement, and still be listened to with respect and attention. I designed with no boundaries, let my imagination explore.”

An original design by Isabelle | Miaja Design Group

But in Asia, Isabelle learned the value of respect and culture.

“When I moved to Asia, I was faced with much more restrictions and regulations, untold rules that are part of the different cultures I faced in each country I travelled to. I saw each country as a new learning palette—colors and materials changed; I had to adapt, transform, and digest the idiosyncrasies of each culture and make them mine. It took many rejections, tears, and determination to finally feel at home with the Asian way of life, but now I can navigate the tropical environment, design within its boundaries, inject my own flavor, and give it my own free twist. I learned to be different yet respectful; Asia made me the designer I am today.”

Isabelle discovered that it is her wanderlust—the very thing that brought her from country to country, culture to culture—that would help her take root in the complicated world of Asia’s architecture and design. And so she learned to immerse herself in every culture she would design for—soak up all the goodness, the rules, and the art of each place—and from there, take flight.

Isabelle in Bali, Indonesia | @isabellemiaja

This is why Isabelle says it is the first project that she works on in every country that ultimately leaves the most lasting mark on her. For her, the research and the adapting to the culture that comes in the very first stages of each project is where she leaves a piece of her heart in.

Sukhotai in Bangkok, Pullman in Jakarta, Desert Palm in Dubai, Sofitel in Mumbai, Huvafen in the Maldives, Metropole in Vietnam, and the homes of several prime ministers in Mauritius, Kuala Lampur, Australia, and Fiji—the list is long, steeped with so many memories,” says Isabelle. “The discovery of each of these countries and its people are part of my personal journey, which makes me the versatile designer I am today. They each hold a precious place in my heart, and like Gulliver, gave me the chance to travel and leave my own footprint, adding to the fabric of the place and making it part of the social environment it lives in.”

Sofitel So in Singapore | Afar
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This Luxurious Paris Penthouse Features 1450 Square Feet Of Curated Design

Miaja in Manila

At one point, Miaja Design Group had an office in the Philippines. Although it eventually had to close down, Isabelle has many fond memories of her work across the country, and a remote Manila team is still currently designing spaces in and out of the metro.

Botanika Nature Residences was one of their projects in the country, where they worked on a show unit for Filinvest Alabang that captured a nature-inspired theme and presented an eco-friendly yet high-end living space. Local shades and textures are prominent in the walls and the details of this project, showcasing original furniture pieces that were conceptualized and created by the Miaja team.

Botanika Nature Residences | Courtesy of Miaja Design Group

Isabelle also talks about how the pandemic changed the way they designed and handled projects—although most of the time, it’s challenging, it also brought about a big lesson on survival and trained her employees to become more self-confident about their own capabilities.

“We are working with Filinvest at the moment on residential projects and thanks to the great dialogue we already had, we are pushing forward. Our Manila team is learning to be more self-reliant, and everyone is growing more self-confident and appreciative of their own skills and capabilities. Even though they work as a team, they are independent thinking collaborators—and that is an asset any company can benefit from,” says Isabelle.

In fact, as a mother to half-Filipinos, Isabelle herself has begun to embrace the Filipino culture, maybe even more so than other countries she designed for. When asked about whether she has more to accomplish in the Philippines, Isabelle says it’s a resort hotel in one of the many beautiful islands in the country.

“I was lucky to discover the Philippines with my husband and his family. They made me the ‘Filipina’ I am today and I am proud to say, that even though I still have many places to explore—and that we can’t compare the traditions of each province—I would love to embrace them all and translate them into my design without fear to denature the place and its past,” says Isabelle. “My dream project would be a resort on one of the many islands that are still to be built from scratch. I have designed many such projects in the Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Fiji...but never in the Philippines.”

Lux North Male Atoll Maldives | Miaja Design Group

As an art enthusiast, Miaja also draws many of her design from art—the same way that she created the “Eight by Six” photo series collection for Sofitel So in Singapore, referring to the intimate relationship of art with the people in a certain place.

And so, she also draws inspiration from many women in art and design, one of them Filipina painter Anita Magsaysay-Ho. She is the only female member of the famous Thirteen Moderns, and specialized in Social Realism and Post Cubism, celebrating the beauty and complexity of Filipino women in her works.

“I find women in my life to be a constant inspiration. Whether they are trailblazers or just going about their life, they each show me the importance to keep going in life with a purpose no matter what is thrown at us,” says Isabelle. “There are not many women in design that become iconic, but when they do—like Zaha Hadid or Andrée Putman—they glow like beacons, and encourage us to push boundaries and make a difference.”

An original design by Isabelle, featuring the art of Kim Xu | Miaja Design Group

Check out the gallery below for some of Isabelle's works

As a fascinating woman

Although there has been much stride made in the struggle for gender equality and feminism, many women like Isabelle continue to be shaped by the challenges they had to overcome just because of their gender. And these shared challenges, and stories of resilience and strength, are what most often create the bond between women.

As an amazing and empowered woman herself, Isabelle says she find her fellow women just as empowering: “I find women fascinating; their view of life is both englobing and encompassing. I learn so much from them and find them so courageous. Yes, they are often my favorite people. I appreciate their emotional intelligence and their ability to think in many different directions and expressing their views without power struggle. This is also why my company is run as a collective and listening is a priority. Giving women a chance to express their views is important to me.”

Miaja and her friends | @isabellemiaja

Isabelle was lucky enough to be born to a family who thrived in art and in what they did, so she had the luxury to go out and see the world to find her passion and calling. But despite these privileges in life, Isabelle still had to overcome what most women had to deal with in the professional world—a gender handicap that continues to persist, even though it has been a bit better in the recent years.

Mimosa Event Pavilion and Golf Spaces in Clark, Pampanga | Miaja Design Group

“I think as a woman we are—consciously or unconsciously, since birth—being made aware of the fact that as a woman, there are expectations we must fulfil in society and rules that apply to us and not to men,” Isabelle says. “I think I naturally am a rebel, so I always refused to be put in a box. And even though I got married and had my three beautiful children, I made a point to have them come into my life and not become part of theirs, so I could continue to be the person I wanted to be in my field as a designer.

“Working is often a path dictated by our economic circumstances—and for many, not a choice to debate—but it’s also a path we can choose for our own personal development. One can’t switch a passion off; it just maybe can be redirected, but never suppressed. And if at times I felt I was being pushed around or disregarded because I was a woman, I found the courage to push other doors to continue my path. Rejection can push you to quit, but it can also spur you to be better and show your kids that if one wants, one can!”

Isabelle is a mom of three, and already, two of them have become part of the business— Séverine as a designer, with a talent for playing with colors and materials; and Julian with a keen eye for the overview of the business.

Isabelle with her daughter, Séverine | @isabellemiaja

It was a bit of a winding road before Isabelle found herself in interior design and architecture. Some may be luckier, their path clicking into place on the first go, but many others would find their own journey even much more difficult and complicated. But if anything, Isabelle is proof that with enough spunk and passion, in her words, “Anything you dream is up to you to make happen.”

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