#41 - Arabian Nights

The UAE: How to Generate a Design Culture

Courtesy of AYA Halbitar

How do you create a local design culture from scratch? For cultural players in the United Arab Emirates, the answer was two-part: launch creative outlets and build a design district. This systematic approach was wildly successful. In five short years, the Arabian Peninsula nation has made its creative economy a force to be reckoned with.


Creative Outlets Draw the Design Community


Launched in 2012, Design Days Dubai was the first such showcase. It is now the leading fair dedicated to collectible and limited-edition furniture and design objects in the Middle East and South Asia. In 2015, it was followed by Dubai Design Week, which just completed its biggest program to date. The six day event—November 13-18—included exhibitions, installations, talks and educational workshops. Among them were Downtown Design, a carefully edited roster of established and emerging international brands across a broad range of product categories. Another, the Global Grad Show, represented 92 of the world’s best design schools from 43 countries and was the largest student gathering ever. And there was Abwab (“doors” in Arabic), which exhibited work from countries in the Middle East North Africa and South Asia (MENASA) region.

Rue Kothari, show director of Downtown Design, spoke to ArchiExpo e-Magazine, recalling:

I arrived here 13 years ago, when the homegrown design scene was relatively non-existent. Around 2011, things started to change. Young native designers began to experiment with materials, fusing craft they had learned abroad with indigenous materials, Arabic motifs and a very modern sense of style and color.


ammar kalo macaron

Image (Left): The making of the recycled rubber, hardwood, and brass-plated steel Macaron stool by Ammar Kalo of Kalo. Photography courtesy of Kalo. Image (Right): Macaron, a recycled rubber, hardwood and brass-plated steel stool exploring the potential of locally recycled rubber particles by Ammar Kalo of Kalo. The collection was commissioned for Dubai Design Days 2017 by Bee’ah, the Middle East’s leading integrated environmental management company. Photography courtesy of Kalo.


Like Dubai Design Week, Design Days Dubai is owned and managed by Art Dubai Fair. Previously held in March, Design Days Dubai will move to the fall slot of Dubai Design Week in 2018 in an effort to consolidate the design events.


A Design Destination to Call Home


With the events rolling, the desire for a physical design address took shape. When talk of a three-phase, purpose-built development began to circulate, Amrish Patel, founder and principal of India-based collaborative design studio Apical Reform, took note. The first phase of the Dubai Design District (D3) made its permanent mark on the cityscape in 2015. Developed as a creative ecosystem, D3 now houses showrooms for local and international brands such as Artemide, Lignet Roset, Living Divani and Driade, among others. Patel opened his Apical Reform Gallery there this year. Patel told ArchiExpo e-Magazine:

The Middle East is making up for lost time by learning from the missteps and success of the international market. Design has established itself as a very viable and consistent revenue driver, and this has called for infrastructure development—the design events, design schools and design council that have followed are a testament to that.

Gossipers, a series of ceramic sculptures by Ali Shawwa to counter gossiping was shown in Dubai Design Week’s Abwab exhibit. Photography courtesy of Ali Shawwa.

A position as an emerging design capital has its distinct advantages, according to Kothari. “People are much more open to new and unique ideas, and hungry for opportunity,” she says. “Here, whole communities are being constructed, with the facilities and infrastructure that go with it. The grand plans for Expo 2020 Dubai and the development of entire cities bring with them huge opportunities for new brands, architects and designers.”

In 2018, the new Dubai Institute of Innovation and Design will open in D3, on a campus designed by award-winning architects Foster + Partners. The institute will offer 500 students Dubai’s first integrated bachelor of design degree, with a curriculum fashioned in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design.


UAE by the Numbers

Exceeding expectations, the UAE is now the largest design market in the Middle East and North Africa region, with a 27% share and $27.6 billion in revenues in 2014, according to Mena Design Outlook 2015. This report, commissioned by the Dubai Design and Fashion Council and produced by global consultancy Deloitte,  projects the continuation of a 6% annual growth, reaching $55 billion by 2019.

Porcelain vases in the Tebr collection by Dubai-based designer Aljoud Lootah are engraved with patterns that adorned the historic architecture of the United Arab Emirates. Photography courtesy of Aljoud Lootah.

Porcelain vases in the Tebr collection by Dubai-based designer Aljoud Lootah are engraved with patterns that adorned the historic architecture of the United Arab Emirates. Photography courtesy of Aljoud Lootah.

Population growth, a booming business market and tourism are the driving forces. “Across key business districts, such as DIFC, Business Bay and DWTC, it’s estimated that there are approximately 9.9 million square feet of office space due for completion by 2020,” says Kothari.

Oxford Economics forecasts that Dubai’s population will increase from 2.6 million in 2017 to 2.9 million in 2021, pushing demand for residential units. According to STR’s June 2017 Pipeline Report, there are nearly 95,000 rooms in 300 projects in the construction phase in the Middle East and 871 hotel projects under contract in the Middle East and Africa.

Architect and designer Ammar Kalo believes that the UAE’s momentum gives the nation both an edge and a challenge compared to US and European counterparts. “The pace of work in Dubai is phenomenal, mostly keeping up with the real estate and cultural developments,” he notes.

In a way, despite constant shifting of gears or, at times, a lack of refinement, this allows Dubai to be a playground for developing new ideas at a rapid pace.

A [Fabric]ations resin stool by Ammar Kalo of Kalo. Photography courtesy of Kalo.

Designers themselves are playing a role in the development of a design culture. Jumana Taha and Mentalla Said of Studio MUJU told ArchiExpo e-Magazine:

Many UAE-based designers look to their environment for inspiration and aim to create work that celebrates and defines an intrinsically ‘Emirati’ identity.

Some look to the natural landscape of the UAE, inspired by the desert, the sea and the mountains. Others look to the heritage of the country and the many traditional crafts that have been used in the region for centuries. With the rapid development of the UAE’s economy and the movement away from the nomadic Bedouin life, crafts such as Sadu weaving have become in need of protection and preservation.”

Fattoum floor lamp created by the ancient art of Sadu weaving. Courtesy of Studio Muju.

Fattoum floor lamp created by the ancient art of Sadu weaving. Courtesy of Studio Muju.

About the Author

Mairi Beautyman is a journalist based out of Berlin. She's been
writing about design and architecture since 2001.

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