As the UAE prepares to host its first regional design fair in March, we talk to Emirati designers about the state of the local industry.
Focus on local Emirati crafts and design
There are now more than 50 galleries and arts centres across the UAE, most in Dubai, which is a formidable number and dramatic leap in recent years.
Such start-ups found momentum after Dubai's first auction in 2005. This was bolstered by the indelible stamp on the artworld made by Art Dubai, the city's art fair, and a solid, sustainable and remarkably hub-like platform for art has since arisen.
But where has that left design? The market has a spectrum of collectors for art from the Middle East but there's yet to be a discernible centre for those looking for high-end furniture produced in the region.
Traffic, once Dubai's only gallery amassing such a stable, has turned its sights to contemporary art over the past two years. Similarly, while art programmes slowly proliferate, there are no discipline-specific furniture design degrees in colleges here.
All that, however, could be due to change. The team behind Art Dubai are turning their hand to a brand new fair: Design Days opens on March 18 in Downtown, in a 3,500-square-metre tent at the foot of Burj Khalifa. More than 20 exhibitors are due to take part, drawn from Sao Paulo to Seoul via Kuwait City and Beirut (arguably the region's current linchpin in design production and selling).
Cyril Zammit is heading up the operation, and believes there are buyers hungry for high-end design. "It's a natural next step when you have a market that's maturing in terms of art," he says.
Zammit explains that the galleries are bringing pieces that range from prototypal work through to vintage classics from the early to mid-20th century.
The roster so far includes Galerie Diane De Polignac from Paris, bringing tables by the American sculptor Jedd Novatt; Milan's Nilufar space, which sells pieces by Verner Panton (one of Denmark's most influential 20th-century designers); as well as Smogallery from Beirut, with an enviable collection of contemporary Lebanese and international names.
How did Zammit convince them to trust his vision? "I explained that Dubai is a catalyst city," he says. "Also, a number of these galleries have clients in the region so for them it's about bringing works to their doorstep."
Making sure that this commercial process trickles down to a local design scene is, he continues, of prime importance.
One of the key hindrances for budding designers here is finding a manufacturer prepared to produce and, potentially, sell their pieces to clients. "We need to find a local manufacturer who will be courageous enough to step in," he says.
The thinking is, get major exhibitors over and tap into a hungry buying market. This begs the opening of more permanent design galleries locally, thus giving local designers potential spaces to get their work seen while simultaneously stoking manufacturers in the UAE to start accepting and producing new designs.
It's a view seconded by Khalid Shafar, an Emirati furniture and object designer who ditched a day job in marketing to pursue his ambitions at the Centre for Fine Woodworking in Nelson, New Zealand. "The audience in the UAE is very demanding, and they want to get their hands on unique pieces. Design Days is a positive step and a milestone to reach them."
Shafar has exhibited with success in Tokyo, Berlin and The Pavilion, Downtown Dubai. His work draws on elements of traditional Emirati craft practices - the Palm series, for instance, is a selection of stools, tables and coat stands that evoke the trunk of the palm tree in the base while incorporating Emirati embroidery on their top.
The designer is on a judging panel for the DXB Store, a pop-up shop during Art Dubai, Sikka Art Fair in Bastakiya (March 18-25) and Design Days selling pieces produced by locally based talent. The inclusions for this year will be announced on February 6.
But he notes that one of the major obstacles in getting design up and off the ground is the absence of a significant programme of study. The American University of Sharjah is attempting to correct that. Amir Berbic is a professor in AUS's visual communication department, and has collaborated with the architecture professor Bill Sarnecky - who has previously taught some furniture design to his students - to develop an elective module in furniture design, available to students across a number of disciplines in the college.
"We're just wrapping up with the first set of 15 students at the moment," says Berbic, explaining that the module's structure seeks synthesis between furniture design and typography. "Patterns of letter forms became a skin for the final design, but in some cases, the forms of letters played a direct role in the shape of the furniture. One student made an object in the shape of the Arabic word 'La' (No), for instance."
Exposure to processes and method in the design-to-production chain sits at the heart of this module. "I think it's also important that students have the ability to respond to the environment and context that exists here. I don't just mean the history and tradition, but I mean the present: in the case of graphic design, I get them to look at what exists and pull it apart." This ethos is equally applied to furniture design, in the hope that these young designers emerge with relevant, context-aware pieces. The college has been invited to Salone Internazionale del Mobile (or Milan Design Week), the largest of its kind in the world, where it will potentially showcase some of the output of this module in April.
Berbic is enthusiastic about the effect of Design Days. He notes that beyond the commercial side, fairs like this play a vital role in creating discussions about trends and objectives.
This is something that the director of the fair is also keen to insist on, and Zammit says to expect workshops and conversations with significant trend forecasters throughout. He also knows that there's some way to go before Dubai can boast a design hub as boisterous as its art scene: "It's a new market, a new fair: two points in a very unsettled economy. But we have the experience of Art Dubai and know how to do a fair."
Design Days is scheduled to run from March 18 to 21, while Art Dubai runs from March 21 to 24. For more information, visit www.designdaysdubai.ae
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