The shape of things to come? contemporary design culture in the UAE

As the region’s design community gathered for Design Days Dubai, Nick Leech considered how transformations in the UAE’s economy and new ways of ‘design thinking’ are influencing the UAE’s burgeoning creative culture

Design Days Dubai 2013
Design Days Dubai 2013

Cyril Zammit’s phone rings continuously. Now there are only a few weeks to go before the opening of Design Days Dubai 2013, the Fair Director’s time is no longer his own. There are details of bespoke installations to finalise, public lectures to organise, exhibitors to shepherd, and media interviews to complete, but as he sits in a coffee shop in the industrial heart of Dubai’s Al Quoz district, Zammit finds time to take stock of the journey both he and the fair have made over the last twelve months.

“After the last show we all felt that we needed to work on the perception of what design is, how we think of it. I’m not saying we’re right, they’re wrong, but people here have a perception of design as an end-of-line object. ‘I need tables and chairs for my living room, so I’m looking for tables and chairs’. We are not a furniture show.”

Design Days Dubai may be a commercial fair aimed at collectors, but in its championing of international contemporary practitioners, much of whose work sits somewhere in the boundaries between design, craft and art, it’s also clear that the fair sees itself in a wider role as both a national and a regional catalyst for a broader notion of design culture. “For the first few years we want to have a large view of what design is.” Zammit explains. “We want to position ourselves as a fair of discovery.”

United Visual Artsits' Always/Never, a work that explores time and our experience of its passing, Design Days Dubai 2013
United Visual Artists’ Always/Never, a work that explores time and our experience of its passing, Design Days Dubai 2013

Nowhere is the fair’s sense of a broader remit better illustrated than in Design Stories, the public lecture series it sponsors that is aimed at engaging the local community in a conversation about the nature of good design. The latest talk, Design: from the city to the spoon, was presented by Philippe Garner, Christie’s international head of photographs and 20th century decorative art and design, and sought to discuss key icons of twentieth design not just as collectibles, but as important forms of aesthetic, social, and cultural investigation.

For Zammit, this quality gives the objects exhibited at Design Days their value. “These things are the product of a long intellectual process of research, designing, sketching, and prototyping. They are creations by artists. You can call them designers if you want to, but they are artists and their work is a new form of art.”

Zammit’s goal is to build on the success of Art Dubai in establishing the city as a global hub for collectors of design as well as contemporary art. Not only does he see Dubai – with its convenient location, business infrastructure, and mercantilist spirit – as the logical venue for the fair but he also believes the UAE has all the necessary qualities to become a leader in the creative economy of the region.

'A million times' installation by Humans Since 1982, on display at Design Days Dubai 2103
‘A million times’ by Humans Since 1982, on display at Design Days Dubai 2103

“I’m not sure if it’s thanks to us, but you now have some of the most unexpected galleries that have opened since the inception of the fair… We also have great institutions like the American University of Sharjah (AUS)… the political wish to create an exquisite city… people with a decent job who can spend and the UAE is probably one of the only countries in the region with all the heavy industries on site – plastics, steel, aluminium – everything can be produced here. We just need to join all the dots together.”

Zammit’s analysis may sound like a neat pitch but the issues he raises – about the nature of design, the breadth and depth of design culture in the UAE, and the emergence of a new creative economy based on home-grown talent – also exercise many of the designers, curators, critics and academics who constitute the UAE’s burgeoning design community. Among these is Peter Di Sabatino, Dean of the College of Architecture, Art, and Design (CAAD) at the American University of Sharjah (AUS).

“It’s a very active moment. At this second, [design] may not be as active as the art market, but the momentum is building rapidly and the work is increasing rapidly and I am very optimistic.”

Phoenician reading table by Noor Jarrah, a student at the American University of Sharjah.
Phoenician reading table by Noor Jarrah, a student at the American University of Sharjah.

Mr Di Sabatino’s optimism seems well founded. The past twelve months have seen the university, which already enjoys an enviable regional reputation, establish itself on the international scene. In April 2012, eight students and alumni from CAAD joined 700 of the world’s other designers at the Milan Furniture Fair’s SalonSateliite, an international showcase for the world’s brightest young design talent. The invitation was a first for any design college from the Middle East and, while it was primarily recognition of the quality of work produced by CAAD students it was also, explains Di Sabatino, evidence of a growing international awareness of the region.

“I have a lot of conversations with institutions, government, and industry. The interest in the Middle East from those outside the region is extreme. Perhaps some of that is recognising that it is an important market place and wanting to get in deeper, but there is also a desire to engage the region in design.”

Sarah Alagroobi’s ‘Amal’s Prayer Chair’, a scale prototype made using the American University of Sharjah’s 3D digital printer, displayed at the Milan SaloneSatellite in 2012

Di Sabatino cites pieces such as Sarah Alagroobi’s ‘Amal’s Prayer Chair’ – a rocking chair with a curved, organic shape designed to allow the elderly or the infirm to bow their head while praying – as just one example of “the voice of the Middle East making its presence felt directly and very well in Europe”. He also identifies a trend that he believes sits well with the UAE’s stated desire to diversify and to move toward a knowledge and an innovation-driven economy: the entrepreneurship of a growing number of CAAD graduates who leave AUS to establish their own design studios and businesses.

“Our alumni understand that they are part of a creative culture, for the nation and for the region and they know they are a part of a growing creative economy. They are creating and deepening [the] design culture.”

Salem Al Qassimi, founder of Fikra Design Studio, giving a talk on bi-lingual typography at Visual Arabia 2013
Salem Al Qassimi, founder of Fikra Design Studio, giving a talk on bi-lingual typography at Visual Arabia 2013

Key amongst these is Salem Al Qassimi, founder of the multi-disciplinary, Sharjah-based Fikra Design Studio and one of the region’s most respected practitioners of bi-lingual typography and graphic design. Al Qassimi set up Fikra in 2006 as a place “where there was room for research, experimentation, and self-initiated projects,” all of which, he believes, are essential for the development of a more meaningful design culture in the UAE.

“Design is about trying to make the world a better place through ‘design thinking’. Just focusing on the aesthetics of something is not necessarily design. Our understanding of design in the UAE is now very limited to fashion design, furniture, interior design, and architecture but design is so much more than that.”

‘Design thinking’ – central to Al Qassimi’s practice – is a phrase coined by Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, an American innovation and design consultancy. It defines design as a holistic, human-centred approach to problem solving that encourages contextual thinking and enables innovation not only in products, but also in areas that would traditionally fall far outside the remit of design such as business services, work processes, and even corporate strategy. Using this approach, IDEO designers have worked with private medical providers in the USA to improve patient care and nursing efficiency by applying design thinking to patient care routines on hospital wards. As Brown explained to Harvard Business Review, another example of true ‘design thinking’ is Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb.

“The light bulb is often seen as his signature invention, but Edison understood that the bulb was little more than a parlour trick without a system of electric power generation and transmission … So he created that, too.”

Seen from this perspective, ‘design thinking’ is a form of creativity that not only solves problems, it creates completely new opportunities, new businesses, and whole industries. Where, for example, would the iPod be without iTunes?

ADAM, a mapping project that records creative networks in the Middle East, presented by Fikra at Design Days Dubai 2012
ADAM, a collaborative project between Fikra and Pink Tank, is a tool to map the systems of collaboration between designers in the Arab world, was presented at Design Days Dubai 2012

Di Sabatino and Al Qassimi disagree over the depth and breadth of the design culture that currently exists in the UAE. Whereas Al Qassimi sees “a country and a culture that is completely unfamiliar with design,” Di Sabatino sees a strong tradition of making, creativity, and innovation that stems from the UAE’s traditional vernacular crafts. Both however, agree that some ‘heavy lifting’ is required before an explicit design culture develops that would enable local practitioners to make an impact on their environment at every scale from Philippe Garner’s ‘city to the spoon’. The region-wide absence of product designers is something that Di Sabatino hopes to address with the launch of a new undergraduate programme, while Al Qassimi bemoans the lack of Arabic design tutors, the absence of Arabic typography, art, and design from curricula, and the absence of courses that address the more theoretical aspects of design.

HH Sheikh Majid Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum viewing work by Mobius Design Studio at the Design House, SIKKA 2013
HH Sheikh Majid Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum viewing work by Mobius Design Studio at the Design House, SIKKA 2013

Al Qassimi is not alone in calling for more education that focuses on the breadth and the process of design rather than the finished product. Design House is an exhibition and a series of workshops organised by the Dubai-based Mobius Design Studio as part of Sikka 2013, an entirely commissioned programme of visual art projects from UAE-based artists in the Al Fahidi historic neighbourhood near Dubai Creek. Housed in a restored merchant’s house and featuring work by six local designers, the purpose of Design House is to act as “a catalyst for people to understand and explore design beyond the confines of the commercial.” As Mobius’s Hadeyeh Badri explains, “we want to show that you are able to explore things through design. There will also be workshops that will allow people to understand the processes behind the works exhibited; drawing, pattern-making, character design, moulding.”

Mobius Design Studio's 'Type Hybrid 1'
‘Type Hybrid 1’ Mobius Design Studio
Type hybrid #2, Mobius Design Studio, 2012
‘Type hybrid 2’, Mobius Design Studio

Mobius Studio was founded in 2010 by three friends and fellow graduates from AUS, Hadeyeh Badri, Hala Al-Ani and Riem Hassan and an alma mater is not the only thing they share with Salem Al Qassimi and Fikra. Both studios have worked on UAE pavilions at the Venice Biennale – Mobius produced the graphic material for ‘Second Time Around’ in 2011 while Fikra Design Studio have devised the latest the latest identity for 2013 – and both are dedicated to using design as a research tool for understanding the world and trying to improve it.

“For us, it’s about the process and how you work. When you eliminate this process, you downgrade it. It becomes an idea that has to be done and that’s it,” says Mobius Studio’s Badri. “When people produce ten marks for a client in a week, we don’t get that, we don’t work that way. Maybe the phrase ‘design integrity’ is overused, but you can’t minimise what design is just for the sake of producing more or faster. We really believe in it that much. We have made a lot of sacrifices along the way.”

Fikra's bilingual identity creation for Tashkeel in Dubai — an independent resource for artists and designers in the UAE.
Fikra’s bilingual identity creation for Tashkeel in Dubai — an independent resource for artists and designers in the UAE.

While Al Qassimi studied the UAE’s rapidly changing urban environment as part of his research into a newly emergent bilingual culture and identity of the UAE that he describes as ‘Arabish’, in Badri’s research Untitled-B, she has investigated the integration and the assimilation of Dubai’s built and natural environments. Both projects start a long way from the traditional sphere of design, both have a concern investigate the contemporary urban environment and the subtle influence of context, tradition, and identity.

IDEO’s Tim Brown describes this kind of sensitivity, the ability to notice things that others do not and to use this as a source of inspiration, as ‘empathy’ and defines it as one of the fundamental components of successful ‘design thinking’. Tellingly, Dr Taha Al-Douri, Assistant Dean of Architecture and Design at the New York Institute of Technology Abu Dhabi (NYIT), uses the same word to define what he considers authentic, culturally relevant design.

“There must be empathy between the designer and the environment and their surroundings. I don’t simply mean knowing about the temperature, the geography and the resources, but I also mean the history and the culture. Do you feel strongly enough about it to address that in a design or don’t you? Do you actually have a home grown crop of designers who can respond to what this place is?”

It would seem that in the work of Khalid Shafar, Fikra, Mobius Design Studio, and the designers exhibited at SalonSatellite and Design House, the answer is an overwhelming yes. It’s an assessment that Peter Di Sabatino agrees with.

“We’re now faced with the possibility of moving design to at least the level of national policy, or even an explicit national design policy. The country is naturally evolving to that. It sit’s well within economic diversification and the move toward a knowledge-based and innovation-driven economy. There’s now talk about manufacturing and national policy, and Made in the UAE as a brand mark. The next logical step is ‘Designed and made in the UAE’ and I think the UAE is relatively close to ‘Designed in the UAE’, which is incredibly exciting.”

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