The Exciting World Of Design In Dubai

The last few years have been an exciting time for the design sector in Dubai and it is continuing to move forward with expansions, initiatives, and new programs to aid in further increasing interest and understanding of the vital world of design.

Design officially became an area of interest in Dubai in 2012 when Art Dubai Group hosted the region’s first collectible design fair, Design Days Dubai. This was followed by design trade show Downtown Design which launched in 2013, and Dubai Design Week which made its debut in 2015. Each of these annual fairs plays an important role in presenting design to the public and each shares a distinct perspective on a wide-ranging sector, allowing for varied exposure to diverse offerings of creativity.

Design Days Dubai characterizes itself as a boutique fair and typically features around 40 exhibitors. As it has grown, the focus has been on depth, and the 2016 edition of the fair shared work from exhibitors from 20 countries. It also exists as a platform for young international and regional talents, and the annual program includes workshops, talks and other activities. To emphasize the quick growth and vibrancy of design in Dubai, Design Days Dubai 2016 also included a retrospective entitled ‘Wasl’ which featured 25 pieces from Dubai-based designers, including UAE nationals and expats.

Comparatively, Downtown Design defines itself as a platform for the region’s trade professionals “to discover original, high-quality design from all over the world.” Also founded and managed by Art Dubai Group, Downtown Design offers a mix of established and emerging brands in a variety of product categories and has worked to enact initiatives to facilitate a profitable relationship between exhibitors and buyers. Since its third edition, the fair also includes the presentation of several Design Weeks from around the world to increase visitor’s exposure to products that would not typically be found at big shows. This ongoing project called ‘Destination’, in its 2016 edition featured curated presentations from Addis Ababa, Barcelona, Beirut, Reykjavik and Taiwan Design Weeks. Additionally, Downtown Design shares a series of industry talks and discussions to further enhance the public’s interest in design.

Downtown Design takes place every year under the umbrella of Dubai Design Week, a city-wide design week which celebrates design throughout Dubai and is a platform for local talents. Events included exhibitions, lectures, workshops, installations, pop-ups, screenings and brand launches. Highlights of Dubai Design Week include the Global Grad Show and the Abwab initiative.

Global Grad Show, now in its second year, is an exhibition of works from the world’s leading design schools. Last year it shared 145 projects from 50 universities, many of which focus on sustainability and social design. Comparatively, Abwab is a series of six pavilions built to showcase the works of designers from six different countries in the MENASA region. Representatives from different countries are chosen to participate each year, and all are tasked with sharing design focused on the same unifying theme. Last year’s participants created new design content addressing the theme of the Human Senses and included designers from Algeria, Bahrain, India, Iraq, Palestine, and the UAE. These three annual fairs are complemented by a number of other city-wide events which share creativity, and are supported by Dubai Culture and sponsored by Dubai Design District. While they have played a significant role in furthering the course of design in Dubai, no initiative has been more significant than Dubai Design District, d3. Established in 2013 by UAE’s Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, d3 is a multi-phase project which aims to exist as a “curated space designed for people and businesses operating in the fields of design, fashion, art, and luxury.” In addition to office space and workspace, d3 will also offer living spaces and a Fabrication Lab which will provide designers and artists with the latest technology and tools to create. The final result, expected to finish in 2019, will include over 2000 hotel rooms and over 1000 apartments, a Sports Park, and a Creekside promenade with retail and entertainment outlets. As part of its progress, d3 hosted the 2016 edition of Downtown Design and will also be the site for the 2017 edition of Design Days Dubai.

This type of government support is vital to furthering the field of design in Dubai, yet to ensure a future for designers and creators, education is another important factor to be addressed. Recently, Dubai announced that it is ready to meet that need with the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation. DIDI, a private, non-profit institution is hoping to accept its first students in 2018, and will be located in d3. It is being developed with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Parsons School of Design in New York, and the curriculum will offer undergraduate degrees in design with concentrations in product design, design management, fashion design, arts, visual arts, and media.

Guests at the preview day of the Design Days Dubai Fair in March of 2014.

The opening of such an institution is hoped to aid in fulfilling the expected demand for at least 30,000 design graduates which was highlighted in the MENA Design Education Outlook study, released by the Dubai Design and Fashion Council in collaboration with d3. It is also part of the ongoing goal to increase and maintain sustainable growth. As with any initiative, education is the way forward, and DIDI will be focused on “nurturing, mentoring and creating the next generation of designers who will turn today’s ideas into tomorrow’s reality.” It’s the start of building the necessary infrastructure to properly support and improve already existing design sector. With a strong foundation, design in Dubai can move forward and continue to increase interest and influence throughout the region.

Creating and maintaining sustainable growth in the design sector will result in vast financial benefits, and it will also aid in improving the quality of our everyday existence. However, as anyone involved directly in the design field knows, for this to occur, it is also of vital importance that people gain experience and understanding of what design entails and the role it plays in their daily lives. While we have come a long way in increasing exposure to design and educating the public, we still have a long way to go.

Many people encounter the concept of design as a novelty and fail to realize the impact it has on our day-to-day routines. Instead, it is often viewed as inaccessible or unimportant, or a collector’s hobby. Increased education will alter these perspectives with time, but we also must make efforts to share design on a basic level. Public installations are aiding in this effort, with creations such as Fadi Sarieddine’s ‘Dubai Syndrome’ which was placed around d3 earlier in 2016. Originally developed in 2008, the outdoor furniture collection which is made from concrete and rebar was created as a “commentary on Dubai’s strategic construction plan and post-industrial times,” as it takes concrete from its original context and celebrates this material that is made to be hidden. The result is public seating which provides a function, but also encourages thinking about one’s surroundings and how we typically interact with them.

Other noteworthy examples come from Zeinab Al Hashemi whose Hexalite installation, crafted from mirrored steel and Swarovski crystals was the outdoor centerpiece of this year’s Dubai Design Week offerings at d3. This kaleidoscopic design offered distinct views depending on the time of viewing and the light sources which interacted with the creation, thus reinforcing the idea that existing external forces can be incorporated into a design while sharing the importance of continuity in public design. Comparatively, Yaroof, a geometric installation created by Aljoud Lootah in 2015 and displayed on the beach in JBR, was inspired by a traditional fishing technique and shaped to resemble the fishing process it was named after. However, the design also incorporated an additional functional element, as it created a shelter-like form and offered shade for beachgoers as well. The result was a complex creation that transformed an everyday object and action into art, while the patterns created by the ropes used in design offered a cultural aspect in referencing Arabesque motifs.

These three examples highlight the differences that even small initiatives can make on people’s perceptions of design. Often it is the smallest act that can make the biggest difference, and it is reassuring to see that innovations are occurring in Dubai on both sweeping and small scales. All of us in the design sector must take whatever action we can to impart the necessity of design to the region. While great steps have been taken and great progress has been made, there is still much to be done.

To inspire emerging talents and retain them, they must be offered a nourishing and supportive environment. It is encouraging to see initiatives on behalf of Dubai Culture, which in addition to its expansive support, also offers artist residencies. Tashkeel also provides residencies, along with fellowships, studio facilities and access to a Fabrication Lab. Design competitions have furnished an additional outlet for budding designers to share their work and gain exposure, and we are slowly developing a design community where creators collaborate and support one another to continue moving forward. This may possibly be aided by the global trend of established brands supporting or collaborating with local designers and artists in an effort to expand their reach to a local scale. We can see this movement reflected in the consistent sponsorship of Dubai-based events by global brands such as Audi and Swarovski, and in the expanded coverage that design events in Dubai are receiving on a larger scale.

As our design initiatives continue forward, Dubai is putting all the pieces into place to ensure a strong and sustainable future. It is exciting to be a part of such changes; there is so much to be proud of, and so much still to look forward to.

Words by Hazem Aljeser, Founder and Owner and Founding Managing Director of Cities Design & Lifestyle Stores