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Design Days Dubai: Modern Middle Eastern Designers Discuss Their Work

The realities, and renaissance, of Middle Eastern design

For the fifth year running, the Design Days Dubai festival attempts to offer an overview of an entire region’s design scene, from the Arabian Peninsula to the Levant and Northern Africa, a dynamic mixture of modern design. It offers both a catalyst for local producers and an introduction to the work of an area many international observers overlook.

"I joke about calling the region Sleeping Beauty," says Cyril Zammit, the fair director. "The region has traditionally been very strong, with a legacy of patterns and architecture appreciated by the West. But because of the political situations of the 20th century, it fell asleep. Now it's ready to wake up."

The latest edition, which opens Monday, features work from 182 designers from 20 countries. Curbed spoke with three participating designers to learn about their processes, careers, and influences.

Aljoud Lootah (Aljoud Lootah Design Studio, United Arab Emirates)

How did you become a designer? What inspired your entry into the field?

"It was somewhat of a natural progression in my opinion. Having studied graphic design in university and worked as a graphic designer, product design intrigued me. Sketching and designing is one aspect, but working with materials and craftsmen and testing limitations, that really captured my attention. In 2014, I rebranded my studio to be named Aljoud Lootah Design Studio and focused my energy on producing limited-edition designs."

Can you tell me about some of your newer pieces, such as the Oru Chair and Uwairyan textiles? What was the inspiration?

"The Oru Series is inspired by origami. The idea was born after playing with a Post-It Note. While folding it in various ways, I tried to create different shapes and forms. With Uwairyan, the process was quite different. It was my first time working with carpet weavers in Afghanistan. I reinterpreted the geometric shapes of the traditional Al Sadu weaving, which is an indigenous style of weaving which employs color and pattern motifs as decorative elements that also convey social artifacts and cultural values. It is mostly practiced by women in rural communities of the United Arab Emirates to produce soft furnishings and decorative accessories. I used Al Sadu weaving as an inspiration to produce a modular carpet which allows users to completely customize their flooring by using up to four carpets together to form a different shape. One edge of the carpet extends to form symmetrical lines that are inspired by the fringes, which are often found on both sides of a traditional carpet."

Are there any new pieces or works you're showcasing for the first time at Design Days Dubai?

"I will be debuting Double Square. I continue exploring the angles and geometries that were first established with the Unfolding Unity Stool. Except this time, the angles are multiplied, the products are varied, and the material is Carrara marble. The material was a challenge to work with, but an exciting one, and the process was a great learning experience in terms of understanding the limitations of marble and its possibilities. The Double Square collection depicts a recurring Arabesque eight-pointed star motif when viewed from the top. The motif, which consists of two squares, one rotated 45 degrees with respect to the other, is the starting point of a variety of Arabesque patterns, and through it, different combinations can be generated. I am proud of the results and hope the audience likes them."

What are the challenges of being a designer in UAE, especially a female designer?

"My biggest challenge initially was finding producers. Manufacturers and factories in the UAE aren't built to work on small series or prototyping, and since the design scene had only really been formed five years ago, it took some time to find the right people. Personally, once I knew the right people to work with, production wise, it was simply about finding projects that excited me and propelled me forward. Gender was never an issue in design in the UAE. On the contrary, the city and the country made conscious efforts to support designers and elevate the design scene through initiatives, institutions and competitions."

How has design in the region changed over the last five years? What are the challenges and issues holding the design industry back?

"Five years ago, it was a field people didn't know how to approach. Designers existed, but the audience needed some time to understand and grasp the idea of product design. The last five years have really allowed individuals to undertake product design as a full-time career and not only as a hobby. It is a great moment to see people follow their passion and be able to make a living out of it."

Hellal Zoubir (Curator and Designer, Algeria)

How did you become a designer? What inspired your entry into the field?

"I studied at the School of Decorative Arts in Paris between 1970 and 1974. I specialized in interior design. My greatest achievement was overseeing the planning studies for the first line of the Algiers Metro. I had a rather special route. Working as a design teacher at the College of Fine Arts in Algiers from 1977 to 2010 enabled me to form relationships with a good number of Algerian designers who subsequently were invited to participate in exhibitions I organized. My main concern is that we have to do more for this profession, make our voices heard, and show the Algerian society the usefulness of our actions. Algeria does not have an industry that allows designers to create prototypes for serial production."

How has your environment and culture inspired your work?

"We have ancestral knowledge that allows designers to produce unique items of quality. We live in the Mediterranean, one of the major cradles of great civilizations, and our influences are rooted in this space. I design exhibitions that allow me to present the works of designers in Algiers, Paris, and Johannesburg. I've discovered many new designers: Hamza Driouche, Idir Messaoud, Issadi Said, Walid Bouchouchi, Rahil Neila, and Zitouni Radia, along with many other experienced designers."

What are the challenges of being a designer in Algeria?

"The great challenge of being designer in Algeria is to gain recognition for the design profession. I’ve even suggested that it should be considered public interest work."

Khalid Shafar (Khalid Shafar Studios, United Arab Emirates)

How did you become a designer? What inspired your entry into the field?

"I was pessimistic for my own future and worried about job opportunities for me as an young Emirati interior designer in 2002, therefore I shifted to a business major in university. I graduated as a Business Management Bachelor graduate and then as an Interior Design graduate, too. I pursued a job in the corporate world until the economic crisis of 2008, when I decided to quit and focus on design."

How has your environment and culture inspired your work?

"I take a lot of inspiration from my culture and the city I grew up in, Dubai. I believe my work is true to Dubai culture, but has midcentury influences. I’m trying to define a UAE style, not alone, but collectively, with other designers. I’m evolving two lines that are becoming signatures. The Palm Collection, which I have worked on since the very beginning, and work that utilizes the material used in a traditional male headscarf. I recently introduced three products in that line, and I’ll be making an installation out of that material for Design Days Dubai."

How has design in the region changed over the last five years? What are the challenges and issues holding the design industry back?

"We need to expose more work locally and export it as well. We need to strike a balance between local and international. Second, we need to provide better education for students who want to enter the design world, and prepare them for visual or industrial design. Design Days Dubai is playing a major role. But I think just spaces alone doesn’t help if the chain isn’t complete. We need better availability of material and material labs where we can discover and experiment. We need to work to reach those small workshops. Along with three other UAE-based designers, I started the Design Ras AlKhor (DRAK) workshop to promote this industrial area and hope it becomes a creative district in the future."