Interpreting the design scene in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates in general is complicated for people who do not directly live there. Dubai is a city with traditions of crafts and manufacturing, springing from the crossroads of cultures it has welcomed starting in the 20th century, when its port began to function as an international trade axis. The recent real estate development initiated in the 1990s has created a network of international creative professionals that have made the city a center of experimentation in architecture and urbanism. The local design scene is also taking on its own identity. This is borne out by Dubai Design Week, the region’s biggest creative festival, managed by Art Dubai Group. We asked its director Mette Degn-Christensen to give us some keys of interpretation for the local creative scene.
“Design and crafts in the United Arab Emirates,” she says, “have traditionally been influenced by the available natural resources. Even today, many designers draw on this tradition as a source of inspiration, above all in the use of local materials and regional decorative motifs. The United Arab Emirates have a variegated population that has traveled, a factor that stimulates knowledge exchange between locals and ‘expats’ and opens the way for iconic local design, shaped by multiple cultural influences. Dubai, which has been regularly flooded with new cultures and constant growth, is also a bridge between east and west in geographical terms, as well as a hub of international and regional culture. It is a meeting point for nearby communities, including Amman, Cairo and Beirut. So the direction of local design is constantly evolving.”
Can any design trends be identified?
“Sustainability is a topic that urgently guides design and creativity in the Emirates, in which innovation and progress have always been key factors. But in recent years there has also been a rediscovery of history, crafts and material culture.”
What are the sectors in which the design industry becomes a herald of opportunities?
“The exportation of products of the United Arab Emirates has grown remarkably over the last few years, through there is still much to be done to fully support the local ecosystem. There are some players and designers that act as facilitators in the growth of this sector, like Dubai Culture and the design incubator Tashkeel, or architects like Abdalla Almulla and Riyad Joucka, founder of the studio Mean. The strongest sectors for Dubai, especially after the lockdown, are high-end hotels and residential projects. People have resumed investing in their own spaces, also thanks to the rise of many design ateliers, creating new energy and ways of thinking outside the box. And because the designers of small studios are in direct contact with clients, unlike what happens in larger studios, opportunities are created to inform those clients regarding investments in quality. This is leading to a change in perspective of end-users, who look beyond the price to make more solid investments in design, generating more opportunities for local brands and producers, given the preference for objects that are traceable and sustainable. Dubai has become the regional hub for development of design practices aimed at innovation and collaboration with local producers, which thus remain constantly up to date.”
What are the aspects of the local tradition to be emphasized and reinterpreted through design?
“In Dubai and in the United Arab Emirates there are age-old practices still carried out by the older artisans, such as the techniques of Safeefah (the weaving of palm leaves), sewing and ceramics. The local organizations are taking steps to preserve and boost this cultural heritage, adapting crafts for a contemporary audience. For example, the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council of Sharjah aims at economic and social responsibility among artisans, contributing to sustain the local tradition. The Making Space section of Dubai Design Week 2021 has organized a series of workshops of the Hirfati Youth Program, an initiative of Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council, to teach ‘Gelli,’ a traditional printing technique, inside an interactive workshop, along with the traditional weaving of the Emirates or pottery courses based on the motifs of Safeefah.”
What about emerging local design talents?
“During Design Week we have shown furnishings by designers like Reem Albustani, works of textile design such as those of Shaikha Al Teneiji, handmade accessories for the home, traditional crafts and contemporary design pieces that use 3D printing and rapid prototyping technologies. The interior designer Maitha Bin Jumah from the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah presented Tadarais, a line of sustainable custom tables that combines nature with recycled materials for modern design. Omar Al Gurg has created a furniture series, Metodo Modu, made with different types of solid wood, with the idea of creating more durable products. Like the coatracks set into marble to prevent loss of balance while conserving a slender form, or the stools designed to interlock with each other, thanks to a large storage space.”