x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

UAE designers hope to make their mark in the world

Of the many Emirati designers to be showcased at Abu Dhabi Art this year, Aljoud Lootah and Mohammed Abedin have more reason than most to celebrate.

The Emirati designer, Mo Abedin, will be one of the exhibitors at the Shigeru Ban design souk. He is also, with Aljoud Lootah, on the first Abu Dhabi Art UAE Designer Programme. Delores Johnson / The National
The Emirati designer, Mo Abedin, will be one of the exhibitors at the Shigeru Ban design souk. He is also, with Aljoud Lootah, on the first Abu Dhabi Art UAE Designer Programme. Delores Johnson / The National

Of the many Emirati designers to be showcased at Abu Dhabi Art this year, Aljoud Lootah and Mohammed Abedin have more reason than most to celebrate.

Not only is their work being exhibited in the new Abu Dhabi Art Design Souq – a specially commissioned temporary pavilion designed by the renowned Japanese architect Shigeru Ban – but the pair have also been selected as the inaugural designers for the new Abu Dhabi Art UAE Designer Programme. It is a year-long initiative sponsored by the British Council and by the design strand of Abu Dhabi Art.

For the next 12 months, Lootah and Abedin will work on the design and development of a brand new product, the prototype of which will be displayed at next year’s fair.

The challenge? To design something that is not only innovative and contemporary, but which is also distinctive in the way that it makes reference to the traditions of Emirati crafts.

To assist them on their journey, the British Council will introduce Lootah and Abedin to UK-based designers who will act as guides and mentors throughout while providing the industry insights and introductions that should hopefully help them realise their designs.

Lootah and Abedin are understandably excited. “Being given the opportunity to be mentored by an established designer is amazing. This will help me bring my product to life,” beams Abedin, a 26-year-old toy designer and entrepreneur.

Lootah, the founder of Niftee, a design brand specialising in graphics, fashion design and gifts, is equally delighted. “This is an honour,” she explains. “I hope I can set an example for the designers who will take part in coming years.”

The potential know-how offered by the Abu Dhabi Art UAE Designer Programme is the kind of support that would have benefited Mo Abedin at the very beginning of his career.

“I came in to the game thinking ‘this can’t be that hard’. Then I was confronted by a million things that I had never even thought about,” Abedin explained during a lecture as part of TEDxDubai.

“I thought I just needed to find someone who would make my product, share my drawings with them, that they would produce it, ship it to my doorstep and that everybody would be happy. It really wasn’t that easy.”

Abedin blames everything from a lack of awareness of manufacturing techniques, licensing, import and export, and contract law as the reasons for the long and painful gestation behind the development of Mega, the designer toy with which he has so far made his name.

Despite the success of her design brand, Aljoud Lootah feels similarly constrained. “The major challenge I am facing is the lack of materials available in the country.

“I like to experiment with different materials, and I’ve been trying to find ceramic or porcelain manufacturers I can work with, but they aren’t available so that limits me in terms of production.”

As Tairone Bastien of Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA)explains, it is precisely with these early career obstacles in mind that the Abu Dhabi Art UAE Designer Programme was devised.

“We wanted to work with upcoming designers but to push them to think beyond something they were used to doing,” he says. “Our aim is to provide them with the help they need to develop a prototype along with a plan that will enable them to take their product to market.”

While young designers the world over face similar issues to the ones encountered by Abedin and Lootah, there is a more specific context in which the UAE’s burgeoning design industry needs to be understood, as Michel Bechara, the British Council’s director of projects in the UAE, explains.

“The UAE is implementing a wider economic strategy that places great value on culture as it shifts towards a knowledge-driven economy. As part of that shift, there is a need to balance what is imported and what is produced locally. We are not only talking about super exclusive goods that are available through galleries, we are talking about mass production.

“We believe that even though we are interacting with a small number of individuals, we are setting the standards for a certain group of designers to know just what is required to achieve their production ambitions, ambitions that are aligned with those of the UAE as a whole.”

As the new home and focus for architecture and design at Abu Dhabi Art, the Design Souq will not only feature the work of Mo Abedin and Aljoud Lootah, but will include other Emirati and UAE-based designers such as Nasir Nasrallah, Mohammad Al Mandi and Azza Al Qubaisi, as well as artisans from TCA Abu Dhabi’s department of intangible cultural heritage.

For Tairone Bastien, this not only makes the Design Souq a showcase, but a vehicle for engaging with an issue that goes to the very heart of another debate about the role and the identity of UAE-based design – the proper relationship between modernity and tradition.

“There is a tradition in the UAE of craft but there is, in many instances, a disconnect between younger designers and the older generation who remember and maintain these traditions,” says Bastien.

“You have artisans who have knowledge and designers with fantastic ideas, but how do you take those traditions and make them relevant and interesting to younger audiences?” Bastien explains.

“We want to bridge that gap at the same time as promoting contemporary design and to strengthen those links so that younger designers can recognise their traditions and keep them moving forward.”

Among the Design Souq’s other exhibitors are a team from the American University of Sharjah led by the tutor and professional designer Francois Clerc, and a team of students from the university’s Centre for Architecture, Art and Design (CAAD). If events such as Abu Dhabi Art and organisations such as TCA Abu Dhabi act as important patrons of design in the UAE, few organisations can claim to have educated quite so many of the country’s design luminaries as CAAD and work by university alumni such as Salem Al Qassimi, Hadeyeh Badri, Riem Hassan and Hala Al Ani is distributed throughout this year’s fair.

Like Michel Bechara, the architect Peter Di Sabatino, dean of the centre, believes that the UAE design industry has reached a critical point in its development. “Now is a very active moment and the momentum is building rapidly and work is increasing rapidly. I am very optimistic.”

Di Sabatino says the entrepreneurialism of a number of CAAD graduates who leave AUS to establish their own design consultancies and studios as growing evidence of the deeper structural changes taking place in UAE-based design.

“Our alumni understand that they are part of a creative culture, for the nation and for the region and they know they are part of a growing creative economy. They are creating and deepening the local culture of design.”

Foremost among this new generation of Emirati cultural creators is Salem Al Qassimi, whose work features on one of the buses that have been wrapped in poetry as part of this year’s Durub Al Tawaya strand at Abu Dhabi Art.

Al Qassimi, who was also responsible for designing the branding and identity for this year’s UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, established his own design studio, Fikra, in 2006 as a place where “there was room for research and experimentation”, things he believes are essential for the development of a more meaningful local culture of design.

“Design is about trying to make the world a better place through ‘design thinking’. Just focusing on the aesthetics of something is not necessarily design. Our understanding of design in the UAE is very limited at the moment – to brands, fashion, interiors and architecture – but design is about so much more than that.”

While Di Sabatino and Al Qassimi may disagree over the depth and breadth of the UAE’s design culture, both agree that some “heavy lifting” is required before a more explicit local design culture can develop. It is precisely this kind of “heavy lifting” that initiatives such as the Abu Dhabi Art UAE Designer Programme have been designed to address.

Unfortunately, it will take some time before the efficacy of such schemes can be judged. Aljoud Lootah and Mo Abedin have not even begun their journey and even when they present their prototypes a year from now it will still be too early for the programme’s effect to be assessed. That is because the true test will be in its legacy – not just in transmitting and rejuvenating Emirati traditions, but in developing a body of knowledge and expertise among contemporary UAE-based designers that can also be transferred from one generation to the next.

What is clear, however, is the serious “design thinking” behind the scheme, as is the need for more of it if the country is to meet its stated economic aims. Peter di Sabatino, however, remains optimistic.

“The country is naturally evolving toward the possibility of an explicit national design policy. It sits well with economic diversification and the move towards a knowledge-based and innovation-driven economy. There’s even now talk about manufacturing and ‘Made in the UAE’ as a brand mark. The next logical step is ‘Designed and made in the UAE’. That’s incredibly exciting.”

nleech@thenational.ae