For all that art and design may sometimes appear opaque, abstract and arbitrary, they are not disciplines that exist in a vacuum. Creative innovation has always been prompted by social circumstances, from the neo-classical tropes of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to the pastoral yearning that accompanied the industrial revolution. If there is one place in the world today that echoes history's most seismic changes in life and design, it is the UAE, where the combination of wealth, philanthropy, endeavour and graft are not dissimilar to the conditions in the industrial Glasgow that gave us Charles Rennie Mackintosh or the Chicago, being rebuilt after its Great Fire, that fostered Frank Lloyd Wright. Since the millennium, buildings have thrust unstoppably upwards from the Emirates' sands and people have flocked from around the world to make their fortunes here.
When, then, will we see the art and design movement that one might expect to take root in such a teeming, cosmopolitan urban landscape? If Rami Farook, the founder of Dubai's pioneering design studio and gallery Traffic, is to be believed, it could be within the decade, and he and his gallery will be at the centre of it, thanks in part to its nascent design competition, the second edition of which launches today.
"In Dubai, whatever we've done over the last eight years we've done from need," he explains. "There was a housing crisis, we made the airports and ports bigger, we built hotels. Now that things have slowed down, what's coming are our thoughts on education, culture and the arts. Yes, there is going to be an amazing movement. I work with students a lot and I've got two interns in the office and I see what they're up to and I think there's going to be a great art and design movement coming over the next five to 10 years."
For this, says Farook, there will need to be some changes in the methods employed to educate the country's budding designers and artists, including a dedicated institute for the visual arts as a whole. "I work with the American University of Dubai on the visual communications course and they're on the right track, and I like what the American University of Sharjah is doing with architecture, but I hope for an institute for design within five years, insh'Allah. You're having designers who are graduating and are sort of in this vacuum of design: they don't know much about the humanities, they don't know much about business, psychology, consumer behaviour, sociology. So they're not really designing for a community, for society; they're designing just for themselves."
Art as a focus and a salve for the general public as a whole is something that is at the core of this edition of the Traffic Design Competition, in which the theme "design as reform" manifests itself in four categories, each related to the public functions of art and design. A mosque, a majlis, a mashrabiya (the traditional window screen of Arab architecture, usually carved in geometric patterns) and a public installation offer budding designers the chance to apply their ideas to a real situation.
This chimes strongly with the ethos of the post-industrial Arts & Crafts movement of William Morris, which was to influence subsequent styles including modernism and Bauhaus. Art, in this view, should work in the service of society; form and function should be inextricably fused. In the manifestos of later designers, from Mackintosh to Walter Gropius, there was no distinction between art and design. Certainly, at a time when contemporary art is the preserve of the super-rich and the super-educated, Farook's approach, combining experimental art and industrial design, has the potential to make a significant and lasting mark on the UAE's landscape.
"Art right now is unfortunately confined not even to museums, but to galleries and to people's houses. You don't even have it in many of the private sector buildings," he argues. "What I'm trying to do is hopefully encourage this movement indirectly, through public art." What Farook is not trying to do, though - and he is adamant on this point - is to create some kind of definitive Arabian style. For him, design and art - and again he is adamant that these are different disciplines - are about innovating within tradition, not returning to pastiche.
"People have just kept on repeating the same patterns, building the mosque in the same way, and the reason we decided to do this competition is because I wanted to tell people: enough! This has worked and it's done a great job, but guys come on, design new patterns, innovate, there is so much technology and so many changes in the global design language that we need to apply to our buildings." If the UAE is to develop its own coherent design movement, Farook might just be the man to provide the momentum.