In an age where design thinking has become integral to almost all aspects of everyday life – from architecture to clothing to interiors to media to technology to representations in the digital world to food, and so on – Dubai’s ambition to establish itself as a strategic hub for art, design and culture is an extremely judicious move on its part. Dubai has pursued this vision with a great clarity of vision and efficacy of speed.
The city’s annual art fair, Art Dubai, launched in 2007, is now recognised for its position on the roster of leading art fairs globally. Similarly, but perhaps with even more vigour, the city has activated itself as a hub of contemporary global design, most significantly perhaps through the Dubai Design Week. It is then no surprise that both these endeavours fall under the larger umbrella of a single organisation: the Art Dubai Group.
In June 2013, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum first announced plans for d3 (Dubai Design District). The district was launched less than two years later, in April 2015, and later that year became the host and partner of the first Dubai Design Week in October. This year, in its third iteration and taking place from 13-18 November 2017, Dubai Design Week seems to have moved in leaps and bounds towards its aim of not only establishing “the city as the regional capital for design, but also as a global meeting point for the international design community”. d3 itself has come a long way since 2015, now home to a thriving population of restaurants and cafes, design stores, studios and offices, thus establishing a dynamic and growing community of design thinkers. At the time of design week, the energy here is particularly vibrant; while there are many exhibits and activities spread around the city, the major components of the design fair take place in d3, the ‘hub venue’ of the event.
Perhaps the most important of these components is the principal trade fair, Downtown Design, which is held under the patronage of the Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice Chairman of the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority, which is also the lead supporter of Dubai Design Week. Initiated in 2013, Downtown Design became one of the key projects of Dubai Design Week following its launch in 2015. This year in its fifth edition and showcasing over 150 carefully selected local and international brands, the fair also boasts its position as the only such platform in the Middle Eastern region with a focus on high quality, original contemporary design manifesting innovation and research. William Knight, the recently appointed Head of Design for Dubai Design Week and Managing Director of the Art Dubai Group calls this year’s edition “dramatic and beautiful”.
Abwab (meaning ‘doors’ in Arabic) is a Design Week initiative that is dedicated to the showcase of the best design from the MENASA region. This year exhibiting the work of over 45 designers representing 15 countries, Abwab expands into its own pavilion designed by the multidisciplinary architectural firm Fahed + Architects. Constructed from discarded bedsprings sourced from waste management company B’eeah's, the temporary pavilion forms a mesh that is light and airy and yet strong – an ephemeral copper structure that is evocative of the clouds and cotton candy, of coral and the rolling of ocean waves. Its form invokes a sense of hope and a lightness of being, highlighted by its positioning in the large open-air corridors of d3, and juxtaposed against the large mass of buildings in the district.
A platform for young and emerging designers, Abwab often showcases some of the most beautiful and innovative designs in the Dubai Design Fair, such as the exquisite metal cast bowls by young Kuwaiti designer Kawther Al Saffar, whose techniques of pouring, plating and cutting are developed in collaborative experimentation with the metal craftsmen that she works with; or Lebanon-based Rana Hazim’s serene spiral booths, which offer the potential for a moment of privacy and reflection within the fervor of urban landscapes.
Also at Abwab is Karachi-based Coalesce Design studio, with their Ralli chair, made from polished shisham wood that plays with staining in the creation of patterns inspired by the traditional patchwork textiles after which it is named. This is not Coalesce’s first time in the design fair – in the first year, the firm brought the project Dalaan, one of the most well received projects of 2015. Coalesce’s Lattoo stools, which garnered much appreciation in Abwab’s first year, are also featured in a new design configuration this year as part of the installations at Dubai Design Week.
A largely outdoor component of the design week programming, the installations are spread through d3; this year it hosts 10+ such site specific interventions. Within this, Coalesce’s revolving Lattoo stools are interactive and fun, inviting viewers to sit and take a spin – in their new imagining (manifesting in a vibrant, traditional palette), they bring a bright and playful pop of color to the monochromatic setting of d3, constantly drawing visitors who stop to take a rest, to sit, and spin. Other installations include those by Swarovski, Paula Zucotti, and the indoor kinetic light installation Silent Call by Dubai-based Khalid Shafar (with Lasvit), drawing upon the mosque as the ‘crown of Islamic architecture’ and the poignant beauty of the call to prayer.
An integral part of Dubai Design Week, the Global Grad Show, is dedicated to showcasing the brightest and most innovative of research-based design talent from leading institutions around the world — several from this year’s edition focused on design solutions geared towards the growing global refugee crisis. The show has this year also grown to twice its size, with more than 92 universities participating globally.
Perhaps one of the most poignant and poetic projects of this year’s Dubai Design Week is its Iconic City exhibition, an annual spotlight on a regional city. This year curated by Morocco-based Salma Lahlou, Iconic City: Loading Casa focuses on the city of Casablanca through mapping, audio, video, and archival works. In a conversation, Lahlou says that when invited to curate the project, she had cautioned the organiaers that this would not be a ‘design object’, but rather a representation of the city through form and content.
In formulating the methodology for the project, Lahlou says she decided to break this into five elements: the geographic, social, cultural, philosophical and historical, which when combined form a ‘habitus’ which signifies its ‘transhumance’, or how the city has grown over time from a small village of approximately 50 acres to its current 160,000 acres, and from a population of just 20,000 to its present 5 million inhabitants. Seeking to grasp at the identity of the city of Casablanca through its architecture, cinema, music, visual art and culture, this project is also witness to the mutability of the city and its amnesiac memory.
Dubai Design Week also views its extensive series of talks, symposiums and workshops as integral to the scope of its reach and the discourse that it generates. This year’s keynote speech was delivered by influential architect Sir David Adjaye, while previous years have seen ‘starchitects’ such as Santiago Calatrava deliver this address. And while d3 may be the hub of Dubai Design Week’s activities through its major programming, the Around the City program activates a number of sites across Dubai, particularly in the Al Quoz district and Al Serkal Avenue.
Here, another Pakistani design studio, Lél, makes its debut at Dubai Design Week, hosted at the eclectic design store O’de Rose, and part of the exhibition ‘Design in Bloom’. Founded by Farhana Asad almost two decades ago, Islamabad and Peshawar-based Lél is now run in collaboration with her daughter, Lél’s Creative Director, Meherunnisa Asad, who has a forward-thinking vision for the brand whose central mission remains the preservation of the art of ancient craft of pietra dura in Pakistan. Lél has also recently been featured in Harper’s Bazaar Interiors and with this inclusion into a strategically important international design event, it is poised to take on the global market that it seeks to sustain its ethos while moving into the future of contemporary design.
While Dubai Design Week may yet be a young initiative, it has already quickly established itself as the leading annual design event in the region. This, combined with the city’s other art and design initiatives such as Art Dubai and Design Days Dubai, its 85 per cent international expat population and the city’s recent triumphant win in the bid to host the World Expo 2020 reveal the strategic positioning of the city’s vision to not only act as an anchor to the art and design communities of the region, but also to act as a bridge to the global market, an ambition it is already well on its way to achieving.
The writer is a curator and writer based in Karachi. Currently Head of the Liberal Arts program at the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture, she was also most recently Curator at Large of the inaugural Karachi Biennale 2017.