Ground zero at the inaugural Dubai Design Week
The stone swing-seat Liyan al-Jabi invites you to sit down on represents earthly reality, she explains. But, with a push, you rise into cloudlike sheets of white cotton.
For the young Jordanian curator, speaking inside her country's design pavilion at the inaugural Dubai Design Week, it's about exercising the mind's limitless powers to create new worlds:
"You take flight and you fill this empty canvas with your own imagination."
Beyond the walls is d3 -- the purpose-built design district -- where imagination is in demand. According to royal patron Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, this is a flagship showcase of the emirate's credentials as a "fast-emerging global design capital."
"We're living a different time-space here," jokes Cyril Zammit, the event's new director, sat in a sandy vacant studio space. "One Dubai-year is equal to 10 normal years."
Zammit claims that in 5 more years, here, we could see a global power pushing to rival London and New York. "It's still a city that is growing the offer of design, so we won't claim to say 'OK, we are a capital of design...' But we aim to be soon."
Even though it does feel like a work-in-progress, not aided by the fact that during my visit it is relatively empty of people, there is still plenty to love.
Emirati designer Raudha al Ghurair presents "lot 36587" -- dazzling sugar-coated sculptures of human internal organs that somehow still look good enough to lick.
Glass sculptor Anjali Srinivasan's project throws open the design process to the public, with an eight-foot arch made up of glass rods, blow-torched together piece-by-piece by festival-goers. Each contributor has a say in the arch's evolution by deciding where they will stick their shard, and the short life-span of the archway -- it is fated to crumble when moved, as it will be at the week's end -- means construction is fast and playful.
Also temporary, Jordan's dreamlike pavilion is joined by Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and hosts UAE. All six are built to the same specification by local architects LOCI Architecture + Design: walls of transparent plastic, half-filled with local red sand, glow sunset orange when lit from within at night, capturing the silhouettes of anyone inside.
The theme for each pavilion is "Games" and each contain imaginatively redesigned play-things and traditional activities. But Kuwaiti curator Waleed Shaalan explains there's a serious edge to all this: "We found out that play is kind of a rehearsal for life: acquiring skills they'll need when they grow up."
In another lot, there's a spotlight on one of the design scenes already shining in the Middle East: "Iconic City: Brilliant Beirut" traces the development of the multicultural Lebanese capital's architecture, product design, and graphic design since the the 1950s. Accompanying this, as the highlight of a six-day program of speakers, provocative Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury explains how he designed the city's best nightclubs and why he once built a $100-a-course sushi restaurant in the middle of a Beirut refugee squat.
Refreshingly, all of this is free, open to the public, and intended to highlight a regional axis emerging as an alternative to the western centers in Paris, Milan, Berlin, New York and the rest. Taken together, the expanded MENASA (Middle East, North Africa, South Asia) region has been a "sleeping beauty" for decades, due to political turmoil, says Design Week director Zammit, and it is about to wake.
Zammit says that Dubai -- originally a port city and now a major aviation hub -- is an ideal focal point for this reawakening: a city "necessarily open to the world" and eager to look beyond its borders. The Paris-born curator says his greatest aim is for the week to be "a place of discovery":
"I want people to go back home and say 'I got it there in Dubai,' or 'I met these people in Dubai.' I'm happy if you go back home and say: 'I discovered the Pakistani Design Scene there.'"
(Scroll through the gallery at top for full list of our favorite discoveries.)
But how big is design in Dubai?
In total, more than 120 designers from 35 countries are represented at 100 events across the city, in addition to the centerpiece Downtown Dubai show which counted 90 brands from 24 countries. Zammit praises: "the strongest concentration of local designers in one place" so far seen.
There's no doubt here that emirate is stating its case to be the "New York to the Middle East," as Ahmed bin Shabib, co-founder of Dubai-based culture magazine Brownbook calls it. When I speak to Zammit and Noora al Jamea, from the government's Dubai Culture & Arts Authority, they both share a (slightly unnerving) certainty that this is the city's destiny.
As a place where design objects are bought and sold, Dubai is already world class. The gilded luxury district of the Dubai Mall -- like plenty of buildings, here, the largest of its kind in the world -- host the world's great fashion brands Chanel, Dior, Armani, and all the rest.
If we want to know about designers actually designing things, here, the picture is different.
Deloitte's research shows locally produced design accounts for approximately 35% of the total market size and design currently accounts for only 1.5% of the region's GDP (less than half the figure in developed economies).
Deloitte say this shows there is potential for growth, but Ahmed al-Ali, executive chairman of celebrated Emirati architecture firm X Architects, seems more hesitant. He wonders how much of that 35% belongs to "real Emirati designers."
"It's really, really slim," he says.
"The reality on the ground for creative people, it's really really difficult."
The reality on the ground
There are certainly challenges facing emerging creatives in the UAE, and across the region -- not least the fact that intellectual property rights here aren't covered by all the agreements that protect the work of designers in the world's major design hubs. For product design students, the lack of fabrication labs to build prototypes means most designs never exist beyond the computer, or at best will be arrive slowly from China. A lighting designer tells me that to develop designs, he has to go to the Czech Republic.
Young furniture entrepreneur Ayah al Bitar says her biggest problem is selling: there are few retail platforms available for her work, in a city where retail space is dominated by big brands. For many design businesses, Durou says difficulties include their near inability to recruit freelancers -- bedrock labor for the graphic and web design in western business models -- but the policies are catching up.
But when I ask Zammit and al Jamea about challenges, I hear about new schemes to provide mentors and advice on raising investment. I suggest IP protection and Zammit admits it's a problem, but says it's an issue that young students will confront with the aid of the newly created Dubai Design and Fashion Council.
These questions -- the challenges, the opportunities, the journey to get to the design capital -- seem to me the most fascinating ones this design week throws up.
The burgeoning success of similarly master-planned and heavily invested media, technology, and internet districts by government-owned d3 developer TECOM suggests this district will not be allowed to fail.
Zammit says most designers are already coming from local education institutions, and stresses the importance off developing talent. Al Jamea is similarly confident: "This is what has really distinguished Dubai: if you look at the whole creative scene, or the arts sector in Dubai, it has been organically grown."
"We, as a government entity, oversee everything. But everything has really grown organically: you have the private sector, you have the government, and you have the individuals, the entities, all working together to create the creative scene of Dubai. So it's really a collaborative work."