x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 October 2017

What to expect from Amman Design Week 2017

Amman Design Week will feature events, talks, workshops, installations and concerts that celebrate local craftsmanship in all its forms. 

Fahres Al Khattat is a cause-driven nonprofit publication and interactive installation that aims to support the calligraphers in Jordan. Courtesy Eyen Design
Fahres Al Khattat is a cause-driven nonprofit publication and interactive installation that aims to support the calligraphers in Jordan. Courtesy Eyen Design

A vending machine that churns out a directory of Arabic calligraphers; the common rooftop tank that one peers into to check water levels displaying a far more potent picture: facts on water scarcity; a coat inspired by both Christian Dior and the Middle East’s heritage of mosaics. As the second Amman Design Week kicks off in the Jordanian capital, designers are celebrating what is quintessentially local, while reflecting on issues facing the city, country and wider region.

Amman Design Week takes place between October 6 and 14 in the downtown Ras-al-Ein neighbourhood, and also incorporates independent events across the city. Unlike its more glamorous counterparts in Dubai and Milan, this is an event that is deeply imbued in the spirit of the local community, and aims to celebrate home-grown ingenuity and revive an appreciation for the handmade. A design week in Jordan is about trying to make the local just as covetable as the high-end.

This year, the programme features an extensive series of events, talks, workshops, installations and concerts. One of the focal points is the Hangar, a 1930s-era space that will feature the work of dozens of designers and design firms. There’s a district that celebrates local crafts and food, as well as offering guided walks. On show will be work produced under the mentorship of designers and architects, steeped in the same spirit of tradition and history – from black plastic bags used to represent Jordan’s national flower, the black iris, while also highlighting littering, to fashion designs inspired by traditional textiles and memories of regional wars. “I’m expecting to reach a wider audience this year,” says designer Hussein Alazaat, who is conducting calligraphy workshops as well as leading a tour – demand for both exceeded the number of available spaces.

“My aim for the tour is to introduce dying craftsmanship – the old techniques of painting signs with oil brushes – and for the participants to meet one of the famous artists and learn from his experience and history.”

Craftspeople “are the heart of Amman Design Week”, declares the event’s co-director, Abeer Seikaly. “Bringing back the conversation about crafts is really essential because we live in a consumeristic society, so [it’s important] to make people aware about how things are made, and appreciate the value of the objects they’re buying and hear the stories of these craftspeople.”

This year, this will take place through direct interaction: visitors can work on mosaics, and practice the arts of glass-blowing and dagger-making with people who’ve honed these skills over many generations.

“We think of the crafts district more as a social space than an exhibition space,” says Rana Beiruti, co-director of Amman Design Week.

Seikaly and Beiruti had not initially planned on launching a week dedicated to design. “There are a lot of initiatives in Jordan to do with culture and art, and lots of art galleries, but there wasn’t enough going on specifically in the world of design,” says Beiruti. The duo spent several months talking to the design community, as well as people in both the private and public sectors, to figure out what kind of platform would work best. The result was Amman Design Week.

The event’s co-directors hope to not only draw attention to regional crafts, but to also create a learning environment that encourages craftspeople and designers to collaborate. The collaborative work displayed at the event – like that of Palestinian designer Dima Srouji, who worked with glassblowers in the village of Jaba’ to create new glass shapes – shows how young artists can revitalise traditional work.

Dima Srouji's Hollow Forms (2017). Objects are not blank, hollow shells; rather they have a power to draw people in and alter perceptions. Courtesy Dima Srouji
Dima Srouji's Hollow Forms (2017). Objects are not blank, hollow shells; rather they have a power to draw people in and alter perceptions. Courtesy Dima Srouji

The term doesn’t just cover the conventional notion of artisans – the organisers also hope to restore the status of artist to everyone from the scaffolding designer to the welder, whose work is often dismissed as mere labour, but who make installations and exhibits come to life.

“It’s the way they share their story, their identity, they’re carrying on from their father and grandfather. It’s so undervalued,” Beiruti says. “And then some designer comes and is so interesting and wants to know everything about their work. It’s a feeling of belonging; that their work really matters.”

The programme extends beyond the venues to the source: guided tours will take visitors into the lanes of downtown Amman, to the workshops where calligraphy is practised, and into fabric shops and South Asian restaurants. The independent programme features workshops and exhibits spread across the city, and covers everything from coffee and kombucha to regional weaving techniques.

Of course, there’s always the risk that the event remains limited to the bubble of the design community and privileged Amman residents, or that it appears like outsiders taking over a space. The organisers seem cognisant of this, and rather than putting the event in downtown Amman, making it free, and the programme being bilingual, they’ve engaged with local vendors to make them a part of the event. They’ve also taken the show on the road through an initiative called the Mobile MakerSpace, a mobile creation lab that toured schools in other Jordanian cities ahead of Amman Design Week.

But this isn’t a design week that simply celebrates creativity – exhibits reflect the real, everyday challenges of life in Jordan. This year’s theme is Design Moves Life Moves Design, which the curator for the Hangar exhibition, Ahmad Humeid, says could be movement that is kinetic, artistic or between extremes.

It elicited more than 300 submissions, and Humeid is excited that this year they’re featuring work by Jordanian designers based abroad, as well. For Humeid – who has worked as a multidisciplinary designer since the 1990s and runs the design firm Syntax – it’s critical that design is also practical.

“My biggest problem with the field of design in Jordan is that there is a gap between design as a discipline, and all the creative disciplines, and the mainstream of society,” he says. “One of my main messages has been that design is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. All these social, economic, educational challenges — what is the role design can play?”

The result is work that addresses some of these challenges, from exhibits on water scarcity – like the UAE-based designer Amal Ayoub’s Salt Pond that highlights the Dead Sea’s declining levels – to work that addresses learning.

Amal Ayoub's Salt Pond (2017). This piece highlights the rareness and beauty of the Dead Sea, the fragile nature of this rare local treasure, and concern for the future of the site. Courtesy Amal Ayoub
Amal Ayoub's Salt Pond (2017). This piece highlights the rareness and beauty of the Dead Sea, the fragile nature of this rare local treasure, and concern for the future of the site. Courtesy Amal Ayoub

Humeid describes a visit to the education ministry where the minister complained about the design of chairs used in schools. That inspired a commission for a new kind of chair, he says, that is adjustable, has spaces to accommodate books, and is produced locally.

“We’re calling it Jordan’s most important chair,” Humeid says, because of the millions of hours spent by students on these chairs.

The hope, he says, is that projects like these will show how designers are employing local resources to create something that the public sector can use to enhance what they’re delivering to citizens. “If design is not turned into useful jobs, then all the work we’re doing here is experimentation, or niche work,” Humeid adds.

As the scaffolding went up days before design week and the installations came together, Beiruti and Seikaly hoped for an increase in attendees — at least 50,000, up from 35,000 in 2016. But the organisers and curator are also hoping that the event cuts away at the stagnation that has crept into design.

“We often hear: ‘We don’t have anything here, we can’t do stuff.’ But actually, you can do so much with just a plastic bag or a cinder block or metal scaffolding,” says Seikaly.

At the end of the day, it’s a triumph for designers to create something out of what might be dismissed as ordinary. Jordanian designers might not have the same resources as their peers abroad, Beiruti says, “but they do really beautiful and impressive work out of limited resources. It’s always mind-blowing”.

Amman Design Week runs until October 14. For more go to, www.ammandesignweek.com

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