Dubai Design Week

Is this the Middle East’s most creative city?

Dubai’s annual design event brings together unique heritage crafts with a world view. Sylvia Smith looks ahead.

Walking through the succession of outside installations being created in Dubai’s Design District (d3) in preparation for the city’s design week, guest curator Ghassan Salameh is bubbling over with enthusiasm. “The scale of Dubai Design Week reflects the size of the market – one of the largest in the region,” he explains, He is thrilled at having a 100-sq-m space in one of the marquees in which to explore some of the big questions facing the region’s design community. Last year, 75,000 visitors poured in to Dubai Design Week, and this year even more are anticipated.

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This is the region’s most important design event, providing local and international visitors with a glimpse of design’s evolution in the high-octane Emirate and the region. Only five years ago when the forerunner to Dubai Design Week was first launched,  d3, a custom-built district, was still under construction and not all the ‘for rent’ offices and shops were occupied. Today it is teeming with life, and Salameh’s vision is taking shape next to Downtown Editions, a trade show dedicated to bespoke and limited-edition interiors. This year these have largely been inspired by the region’s history and traditions. For the first time Sharjah-based Ithri Contemporary Crafts Council present their new project, featuring collaborations between international designers and Emirati artisans. This approach typifies the way Gulf designers are becoming part of the global scene – yet maintaining their distinct heritage.

“I want to look close up at regional activity through the work-in-progress of local designers and craftsmen,” says Salameh. The result is ‘Orbit’, or Madar in Arabic, a carefully curated focus on practice and processes, featuring artisans from Kuwait, Cairo, Beirut and other regional cities.  ‘Madar’ is a metaphor, showing that ideas are moving around, never still and always evolving.

Designers in Dubai’s extensive fair are increasingly championing solutions to pressing global issues such as the plastics epidemic, global warming and water shortages. Dubai Design Week is a good opportunity to show the sort of positive contributions that emanate from the region. This is what interests Salameh – social relevance. Using 60 different sources for his show, he showcases overlooked, behind-the-scenes advocates, such as universities, training programmes, public sector initiatives and publishing houses. “I’m aiming for an inclusive, diverse representation of everyone who plays a role in the process… from its conception to end product,” he explains.

The population not only accepts change, but thrives on it, using it as fuel for creative endeavours – Ghassan Salameh

Here handcraft and artisanship blend with imagination to create useful products. Salameh puts the emphasis on urban farming and up-cycling materials, especially plastics. By creating new construction materials, fabrics for rugs, bags and durable textiles, visitors get a unique insight into the entire process from start to finish.

Creative city of design

 “Anything that takes a lot of time and individual care is suffering in our mass-produced world,” says Ghassan. “In ‘Madar’ I am showing that designers have to be resourceful. The Middle East has an incredibly young population in relation to the rest of the world, and it’s a population that not only accepts change, but thrives on it, using it as fuel for creative endeavours.”

In some ways the emphasis on process rather than finished object dovetails with the Global Graduate Show, which is a significant part of the overall event. It exhibits gadgets and gizmos with a social impact by graduate students across the world, and also has plenty of novel ideas (150 in this edition) that need incubating. Projects may be high or low tech, and one aim is to remove hierarchy between innovators and schools with all sharing space equally. Another intention is to use social and environmental advances to create a more equitable, sustainable and prosperous world. But on the other hand it also offers those with little experience of the industry a chance to meet manufacturers and get their ideas out into the market. Dubai Design Week is full of opportunities for design entrepreneurs to start their careers here, having made good connections.

Last year Dubai became the first city in the Middle East to be appointed a Unesco ‘Creative City of Design’

With more than 200 events in the programme it’s not always easy to spot winners among the abundance of offerings, but the Design Forum is right on trend. Talks and workshops are made all the more relevant as last year Dubai became the first city in the Middle East to be appointed a Unesco ‘Creative City of Design’. Preparations are already underway for the biggest show in its history, Expo 2020. The Design Forum 2019 will present an opportunity for those attending to get acquainted with some exciting industry topics such as millennials’ approach to design, the demand of human-centric buildings, revolution in healthcare design, and the importance of lighting in architecture. Included in the line-up, acclaimed shoe-designer Christian Louboutin shows how he incorporates different cultures into his designs, referencing pop culture, theatre, dance, literature and cinema.

There is also a strong emphasis on variations in the opportunities offered by the region's design industry. Salameh explains that this is evident in the contributions from cities across the area. “Beirut may have its eye on global trends, while keeping a finger on the pulse of local artisanship,” he explains. “But Amman is heavy on sourcing local materials, with a focus on traditional crafts.”

Elsewhere on the huge d3 site another perennial favourite Abwab, meaning doors in Arabic, is an annual section that highlights the work of exceptional artists from across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. In this edition inter-cultural dialogue speaks volumes, with works from Saudi Arabia, the Lebanon and India. More than two million Indians live in the United Arab Emirates, and the Indian pavilion reflects collective dreams, memories, childhood stories, flavours, sights and smells within one interactive space. Curated by Goa-based architecture and interior design firm, the Busride Design Studio, of Qissa Ghar, presents a collaborative retelling of age-old creation myths from various cultures across the nation. Seven contemporary artists have interpreted these stories, translated into an immersive experience.

Ayaz Basri, co-founder of the Busride Design Studio, feels that this theme closely echoes the work of his studio. “Throughout history, stories have been the way we hold information. The Qissa Ghar is literally a microcosm of India, and we wanted our pavilion to focus on the abstractions of age-old creation myths that abound in the tribal regions of the country”.

Each year Dubai Design Week reaches out beyond the immediate area to embrace other continents. This year Africa takes pride of place, with South Africa demonstrating a commitment to the environment and respect for indigenous crafts. An outstanding example from South Africa is Ashanti Design, a company dedicated to extending the life span of fibres used in the product and fashion design industries. The vibrant fabrics are hand-woven from fabric that would otherwise be sent to landfill when the item is finished with. The studio works closely with rural craftsmen who use traditional tools and techniques that have been passed down through many generations, and together they rework fabrics, giving new relevance to ancient traditions. It’s an inspiring example of what can be done to preserve the planet through an open-minded approach to recycling.

Dubai Design Week may have a regional focus with a keen eye on the area’s heritage, but the message is that locally-inspired ideas are increasingly leading the way when it comes to questions of global significance.  

The fifth edition of Dubai Design Week will take place from 11 to 16 November, 2019.

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