Dubai is world renowned for its malls that sparkle with international fashion and design brands, but a new wave of local product designers wowed attendees of last year’s Dubai design trade fair Downtown Design by surprise. “I don’t think people understand the wealth and diversity of creativity here,” says the fair’s London-born director, Rue Kothari, who has lived in Dubai for 11 years.
This significant presence of Dubai-based talent is a welcomed recent phenomenon. Seven years ago, Kothari had just been appointed editor of the Dubai-based Harper’s Bazaar Interiors magazine and decided to give her first issue a “made in Arabia” theme.
“I very valiantly went off in search of local talent, but it was like looking for a needle in a haystack,” she recalls with a laugh. “There were so few people working in the UAE or the region. In the end, I managed to find three designers [Khalid Shafar, Aljoud Lootah and Fadi Sarieddine] who have since risen stratospherically.”
The UAE’s history as an oil-based economy, and Dubai’s focus on tourism, meant that for decades economic development efforts were simply focused elsewhere. But today, government-led initiatives that encourage local creative talent to emerge are appearing as the Emirates transition into a new economy. While the main thrust of investment is in science and technology, design, particularly in the realm of furniture and interiors, is getting a powerful boost from initiatives like the creation of a Design District and a host of Design-related events during Design Week, which takes place in mid-November every year.
International Talent Growing in Dubai
Fast forward to 2018, and there were 40 regional designers among the 175 brands exhibiting at Downtown Design’s new Downtown Editions event dedicated to bespoke and limited edition design. It was, as Kothari puts it, “a showcase of how innovative and how much more sophisticated [local] designers are than people believe.”
She points out that the designers come from a “massive mix” of backgrounds, from countries including Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, and their work is equally varied, “doing everything from marble pieces designed by algorithms and made by robots to pieces that are handcrafted, such as hand-made tiles made in the UAE.”
Many are graduates of the world’s best design schools. Others started as graphic designers, or in local architectural studios. Kothari says quite a few designers worked in Dubai’s booming real estate industry. As a result, she says, “they understand how to produce items that live well in a space, that are beautiful and functional and can be produced affordably.”
Even with some non-traditional backgrounds, Dubai’s new generation of designers are as sophisticated as talent around the globe. “We’re not holding these designers by a local, but by an international standard,” Kothari stresses.
Dubai is even attracting designers from outside the region, such as the Portuguese designer Sergio Mendes, who has set up production for his own design business in Dubai. Thanks to a less crowded marketplace than those in Europe and elsewhere, “the route between creating a piece and bringing it to market is so much shorter in Dubai,” Kothari explains.
Dubai also offers designers the benefit of being an international crossroads between Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Designers don’t have to travel far to find skilled regional craftspeople with whom they can collaborate, or to seek inspiration from the pared-down purity of the natural landscape and the play of light, shade and volume in traditional architecture.
Dubai Design’s Evolving Look
Downtown Design hopes to help the local scene to grow sustainably by providing a platform for designers to show their work to an international audience of design industry decision makers. It’s one thing to talk in the abstract about an emerging community, but quite another to walk through an exhibition space that is filled with fresh work of a high international standard, and to meet the people involved in its creation.
Kothari points out how much the audience in Dubai is also changing.”Thirty years ago it was all about superlative luxury,” she says of Emirati shoppers. “The consumer now is younger, has massive disposable income, travels all over the world and is cultured and knowledgeable,” she explains.
The old clichés about Gulf ‘bling’ no longer hold true. “The market is diversifying in the middle,” she points out. The new design scene, “is really part of a maturing community that’s young, growing and still finding out who it is.”
The designers reveal their local roots through aesthetic and practical choices, whether they are working with materials such as camel hide, collaborating with local mother of pearl inlayers, or playing with Arabian motifs, such as geometric shapes and patterns. Other themes include a preference for noble and natural materials, such as marble, wood and bronze, and a delight in subtle and delicious colours that bring to mind Middle Eastern desserts.
Local Support for Local Design
Dubai’s investment in design has been a significant catalyst in the emergence of the scene, starting with the creation of the Dubai Design District in 2015. Equally important has been the creation of Dubai Design Week, launched the same year, which runs in conjunction with Downtown Design (now entering its seventh year) and which features other ambitious projects such as the Global Grad Show, showcasing the best work from 100 of the top international design and technology schools.
Ultimately, Kothari hopes to see Design as the first industry that is truly “made in the UAE.”
In the meantime, the young Dubai design industry continues to develop. Kothari herself mentors emerging talent, giving practical advice and helping to build designers’ confidence. Sometimes she simply encourages them to talk to buyers and tell their stories. “People want to think about what they buy, its provenance, how it was made, how long it took to make it.”
Increasingly, Dubai itself is at the heart of those stories.
Up-and-coming Dubai Designers to Watch
A furniture design studio with production facilities based in Dubai. Working with materials like wood, marble and antiqued metals, The Line Concept’s handcrafted designs are timeless, streamlined heirlooms.
Born and raised in Porto, Mendes established his eponymous design studio in Dubai in 2016, after a successful early career working for the Portuguese design studio Ginger & Jagger. Mixing vintage influences with modern clean lines, Mendes’ designs are imaginative and unpredictable yet always harmonious.
Aljoud Lootah is an award-winning product designer who juxtaposes traditional Arabic motifs, such as patterns, folds and geometric shapes with modern aesthetics and experimental approaches to materials and techniques. Her work has been acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, making her the first Emirati designer to have her work in an international museum collection.
You can experience Dubai’s emerging fashion industry yourself during a stay at InterContinental Dubai Festival City, conveniently located near the Dubai Design District. Our local concierges are pleased to suggest design-focused events and destinations specific to your interests and schedule.