x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Arab heritage meets pop culture at Dubai-based designer's hands

Khalid Sharan, known for his one-of-a-kind chairs, is among the contemporary designers putting a modern twist on the traditional Arabian aesthetic.

His appreciation for pop culture is reflected in Mad for Madonna. Amy Leang / The National
His appreciation for pop culture is reflected in Mad for Madonna. Amy Leang / The National

Khalid Sharan's chairs offer an interesting glimpse into his psyche. The Classics collection, with its strong equine motifs, speaks of his long-standing love of horses; models such as Bint Arabia and Inta Omri are an expression of his Middle Eastern heritage; pieces inspired by Madonna and Michael Jackson point to his appreciation of pop culture; and Pain, with its picture of a woman piercing her lips with a pair of scissors, can probably be linked back to his love of Quentin Tarantino movies. One thing's for sure, Khalid isn't afraid to wear his heart on his chairs.

Khalid's interest in furniture design began when he was a student in Toronto, Canada. Like most students in the western world, Khalid lived in an apartment full of Ikea furniture. Unlike most students, however, he decided to customise it. Soon he was getting calls from people across campus asking for interior design advice.

What started out as a hobby became a commercial endeavour in 2009. Khalid had studied international business in Canada and went on to do a master's in hospitality management at the Swiss Hotel Management School. He came to Dubai in 2007 and set up his own hospitality consultancy business, ByKal Creative Hospitality and Design.

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As a hospitality consultant, Khalid is involved in every aspect of a hotel's development, including furniture selection. However, he often struggles to find unique furniture and decorative items in this market, particularly when he is looking for pieces that promote a more contemporary Middle Eastern aesthetic. So he decided to come up with his own. "I wanted to create something that was more relevant to the local culture, but in a more contemporary way. And a more fun way," he says.

Khalid's cultural background is also instrumental in driving his desire to develop design objects that are both modern and Middle Eastern. Of Jordanian descent, he was born and brought up in Kuwait, and now calls Dubai home. "Arabic culture is one of the oldest in the world, but sometimes when it comes to art and design we get so caught up in that sense of history that we don't look forward," he says.

Khalid's first collection of chairs consisted predominantly of revamped antiques that he hand-picked in Jordan. Since then, he has developed two distinct lines, the ByKal Collection and the ByKal Classics. The classics are understated and elegant, and are characterised by their striking horse imagery. The collection favours a more muted, monochromatic colour palette and particularly appeals to ByKal's Emirati customers. "There is that strong cultural connection with the horse," he points out.

By contrast, the ByKal Collection juxtaposes baroque forms with bold, uber-contemporary iconography. "I am very influenced by popular culture and my work includes both international and Arab celebrities," says Khalid. The collection is colourful and unashamedly flamboyant, with a focus on strong imagery and unexpected textures. "The chairs definitely get a reaction out of people. People either love them or hate them. There's no in-between," he says.

Every piece that Khalid produces is one of a kind, hence the frequent references to "couture furniture". Fortunately, the price tags are a little less couture, with some items retailing for as little as Dh3,000.

Given the chairs' pop culture references, the fashion parallel seems apt, but Khalid sees the two entities as very different. "My philosophy is that furniture is more personal than fashion because it surrounds you on a daily basis, unlike a piece of clothing that you can wear once and then hide away at the back of your wardrobe. The space you inhabit should be a true reflection of your personality."

If anything, the chairs are more akin to pieces of art - at least according to Khalid's customers. "They say that the chairs are more like a sculpture," Khalid says. "They are a statement piece or a conversation starter."

While Khalid, a self-confessed art fanatic, finds inspiration in many places, his love of interesting materials and unusual textures truly sets his creations apart. The imagery - whether it's a rapturous Umm Kulthum or Madonna posing as Marilyn Monroe - draws you in, but the textures make each chair original.

From multicoloured skins, furs and hides (including the odd springbok) to embossed leathers and an original 1960s fabric hand-picked in a market in Kuwait, Khalid works with an incredibly diverse palette of materials. "I travel a lot and the one thing I always come back with is a unique, hard-to-find fabric," he says.

For the iconic Bint Arab, or Daughter of Arabia, Ayad Damouni's photograph of a woman in traditional attire was printed on leather. This was coupled with a hand-carved frame foiled in gold leaf, a suede back and a seat made from embossed leather. For Inta Omri, Khalid combined an image of Umm Kulthum, one of the Arab world's biggest celebrities, with suzani, a traditional, hand-stitched fabric from Afghanistan that he came across in Sharjah's Souq al Arsa. Unusually, the fabric depicts human forms, meaning that it's from the pre-Taliban era and incredibly rare.

For Pain, Khalid opted for an embossed white leather that is made to look like python skin, while the aptly named Grass Chair has a back made entirely out of artificial grass. Elsewhere, Khalid has juxtaposed a black and white picture of Hind Rostom, an Arabic celebrity from the 1940s, with a sparkly "disco" material that he found in Jordan.

Khalid now has his eye on a whole new type of material: traditional Arabic kitchen utensils. He plans to develop a collection of furniture out of common items such as pots and pans - particularly the enormous pots used at Middle Eastern weddings. There are also plans to branch out of chair design, with a collection of carpets currently in the making. One can only imagine that they will be as original, outlandish and in-your-face as all of Khalid's other creations.

Visit the ByKal studio in Al Barsha, Dubai. Call 050 919 3409 or e-mail info@bykal.com. For other contemporary Middle Eastern designs, visit www.kafkagoespink.com, www.hosseinrezvani.com; www.localandco.ae; www.katringreiling.com and www.medusedesign.com