Milan’s Salone del Mobile, April 2018. At the world’s biggest design fair, the industry’s black-clad tastemakers are circling. A chair stands in a pool of light: a gently curved cradle of pale-pink velvet, propped up on two peg-like wooden legs; a contemporary, highly covetable piece that looks as though it must have come from a design capital such as London, New York or Copenhagen. But no. Its creator, Alia Mazrooei, was there, alongside nine other Emirati talents, to tell the show’s visitors the real story: the chair was inspired by stingrays and made in the UAE.
“It’s modern design with an old story”
“I don’t know what their preconceptions were exactly, but I know they were surprised; they didn’t expect it to be from here,” Mazrooei laughs, relaxing on a low-slung couch at home in Abu Dhabi’s Al Mushrif district. “The picture many have of the UAE is of artificial environments – all skyscrapers and man-made islands – but I want to highlight our natural world. We have a lot of wildlife – and not just oryx!” She hoped her chair, which echoes a ray’s sinuous shape, would start conversations about the creature’s role in the Gulf’s pearl-diving heritage – once hunted for its barb and oil, today it’s a protected species.
Other UAE designers are also giving the nation’s heritage a contemporary reboot. There is nothing visibly “traditional” about jewellery designer Alia bin Omair’s raw-edged gold ear cuffs, nor the polished copper ridges of Aljoud Lootah’s Al Areesh stool – though both dwell on the myriad uses of palm trees in Emirati culture. As for Zeinab Al Hashemi’s sculptural aluminium and LED light, Palindromic Hexagon, it’s inspired by gargoor, the dome-shaped fish traps used by local fishermen.
Emirati craftsmanship and sleek modern motifs – this fusion has emerged as the defining identity of the UAE’s contemporary aesthetic. “It’s modern design with an old story inside it,” says Mazrooei. “It really opens your eyes: how one can take something from their tradition and turn it into an everyday piece that looks at home anywhere in the world.”
Rewind 10 years and it was a very different story: there were no design weeks here, no Louvre Abu Dhabi, no creative districts. The showcase at 2018’s Salone del Mobile was, in fact, a watershed moment for Emirati design, its largest ever presence at an international event, as 10 creatives took part in the touring display UAE Design Stories: The Next Generation from the Emirates (it went on to the London Design Festival, then Paris).
“The UAE’s design scene has been growing apace,” observes Lisa Ball-Lechgar, deputy director of the Tashkeel arts complex. “Over the last decade, practitioners from across the UAE have developed a definitive design language that articulates the dynamic, multi-layered fabric of our societies, the rich diversity of our local resources and the vast traditional craftsmanship and heritage of the country itself.”
While embracing a global outlook and innovative techniques, it’s unsurprising that local designers would seek connections to a past that far pre-dates the UAE’s foundation in 1971. “We live in a country that although very young has deep roots and an amazing culture,” Lootah points out. And as a minority within their own country – just 12 per cent of the UAE population is Emirati – many designers see preservation of crafts and visual heritage as a responsibility, albeit adding their own spin and aesthetic stamp.
“We live in a country that although young has deep roots and an amazing culture”
It’s an apparently winning formula, as Western luxury houses have now come knocking. With “craft” and “heritage” buzzwords for such brands, the approach of Emirati designers aligns well. Italian mirror atelier Arte Veneziana recently partnered with Khalid Shafar to create the collection Forma, merging the circular motif of the agaal – the woven rope band used to secure men’s head covers – with Venetian glass engraving. Al Hashemi has landed commissions from Tiffany & Co, Swarovski and Hermès – for the latter, she created a window display for its Etihad Towers branch that depicted the Emirati falcon as an Arabian phoenix rising from the ashes. “For the first time, I got properly paid, I got international publicity. So, then I understood the powerful effect of collaboration.”
Such commissions can also help with a challenge UAE designers face: realising design concepts using local resources. “We’re limited with the number of manufacturing facilities that produce limited quantities in high quality. Most of the facilities have a specific mindset, they’re used to mass production,” Lootah says. Enter projects like Co-Lab, showcased at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2018, which paired four historic French manufacturers with four UAE-based artists under the Emirati-French Cultural Programme. Al Hashemi, for example, travelled to Saint-Just glassworks near Lyon to develop her installation.
“Being a small community has its advantages”
The swift ascent of UAE design has been powered by strong governmental support – not only as a matter of cultural cachet but to pave the way towards a knowledge-based economy in the post-oil future. “All the Emirates are putting so much effort into promoting and showcasing works of UAE talents locally and internationally, and this helps open doors,” says Lootah. “My work was introduced to the National Gallery of Victoria [which bought two of her pieces, the first international museum to acquire Emirati design] through Design Days Dubai in 2015, and if it wasn’t for such a platform, I wouldn’t have had that exposure to international buyers.”
In Abu Dhabi, the centre of the arts scene is Warehouse421, which, besides running exhibitions and short courses in everything from jewellery design to leathercraft, last year launched the Nagwa design studio, a commercial space for product design inspired by “the people, places and stories of the UAE”, where customers can buy direct from designers.
Dubai, meanwhile, has the D3 design quarter and Tashkeel, an open-membership hub of multi-disciplinary studio facilities, galleries and workshops. The opportunities and support in the local design scene are now so strong, it’s even tempting Emiratis back from abroad. Architect Abdalla Almulla studied in California but returned to establish his multidisciplinary studio Mula in 2018; within a few months of arriving, he landed a commission to design the public seating for Al Safa Art & Design Library.
As for being a woman, none of the designers feel this has held them back (in fact, one of the foremost promoters of the Emirati arts scene is female: Sheikha Mariam bint Mohamed bin Zayed). As Lootah says, “Women in the UAE have always been at the forefront in many fields, whether it’s being fighter pilots or owning multiple businesses. I haven’t faced any challenges or misconceptions due to my gender. On the contrary, we’re always supported – by the authorities and by one another.”
Mazrooei agrees that while this may be a fledgling scene, the strong sense of camaraderie ultimately makes it mightier: “All of us have our own touch, so there’s no need to be competitive. I know I can pop into other designers’ studios and no one is hiding anything. We help each other out. Being a small community has its advantages.”
Meet the designers
The conceptualist: Zeinab Al Hashemi
Who Art or design? Zeinab Al Hashemi has spent the past two years debating her creative calling; now, she’s decided: “I can do both. For me, it’s not possible to draw a line between them.” Known for her site-specific, spatial-art installations, this prolific collaborator has partnered with international luxury houses Hermès and Tiffany & Co – “brands known for their craftsmanship” – as well as museums (Louvre Abu Dhabi) and artisans (French glassmaker Saint-Just).
Check out A new addition to Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, Reinforced Reality is a cluster of pyramids made from concrete mesh and palm-tree ropes, a physical interpretation of the UAE’s rapid industrial transformation. But her statement piece is still Hexalite x Swarovski: the kaleidoscopic outdoor installation of 1,145 crystals and 33 mirror-polished steel plates that headlined Dubai Design Week 2016.
She says “My concepts revolve around overlooked objects and materials within Emirati culture. Whatever I think people aren’t noticing, that’s what I want to make into design or art, then people pay attention to it.”
The multidisciplinary designer: Aljoud Lootah
Who Aljoud Lootah is the first Emirati designer to have her work acquired by an international gallery – the origami-esque chairs and lamp from her 2015 Oru series, both now in Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, typify the designer’s obsession with geometric shapes and multiplying pattern. Clearly, the abstract motifs of Islamic art are a strong influence. Working across product design and corporate gifts, her output is diverse: bespoke leather-bound journals and dagger-shaped bookends; residential lighting, furniture and rugs; the octagonal nylon rope installation Yaroof (referencing fishing heritage) that stood on JBR Beach during Dubai Design Week 2015.
Check out Reimagining the UAE’s historic palm-leaf structures in sleek copper-covered stainless steel, Lootah’s 2017 Al Areesh collection uses striated planes to imitate stacked, dried palm fronds; handwoven carpets Misnad and Uwairyan reinterpret the geometric designs of Al Sadu weaving; Mandoos, a fresh take on the Emirati wooden chests for storing precious possessions, released in 2018; the 2017 special edition of her Tebr coffee cups for Etihad Airways, translating Islamic architecture into delicate gold patterns on white porcelain.
She says “Merging traditional UAE crafts with a modern aesthetic makes products more relevant to the current life we’re living. I tweak certain elements while preserving their essence.”
The jewellery designer: Alia Bin Omair
Who DDFC/Vogue Fashion Prize 2017 finalist Alia Bin Omair casts statement jewellery in 18-carat yellow gold under her eponymous label, giving the metal an elegant, modern reboot. Her Satami 18 line reinterprets Al-Satami (the traditional Emirati necklace of medallion-sized coins) using smaller, hand-moulded disks. Whether it’s a chunky cocktail ring or nugget-like ear cuff, the richly textured, hammered surfaces give her “wearable art” pieces a raw, organic appeal – fitting, since many of her collections are inspired by desert flora.
Check out Her recent collaboration with Irthi Crafts Council, Safeefa x Gold Casting, used Emirati palm weavings by Bidwa artisans as moulds for necklaces, rings, earrings and wearable perfume bottles. The pieces were exhibited at London Design Fair 2019. Also: Tears, the range that launched Bin Omair’s jewellery brand in 2016, is based on fragments of frankincense resin.
She says “I produce all my pieces in the UAE. As an Emirati, it’s very important for me to preserve our rich traditions by using local craftspeople. We’re living in a world where everything is mass-produced, so, to me, unique, handmade pieces are far more interesting.”
The fashion designer: Latifa Al Gurg
Who An electrical engineering degree isn’t the obvious path into fashion. But Latifa Al Gurg says an analytical, methodical approach has helped her build her Twisted Roots brand and the elegantly draped apparel for which it’s known. “I’d describe myself as more of a problem-solver than a creative type,” says the Emirati-Danish designer (“Twisted Roots” references her own mixed heritage) who decided to create a line of travel wear after struggling to find coordinated, high-quality separates that married modesty with modernity. The result: clean lines, impeccable tailoring and luxurious fabrics, with each collection based on a different country or city. She recently won a competition to design the official uniforms for Dubai Expo 2020.
Check out Among Al Gurg’s globe-hopping collections, the China-inspired Green Tea collection (SS16) stands out with its intricate custom print and mandarin collars, as does the pastel pleating and geometry of L’Arc (AW19), which interprets Parisian architecture in a Rococo palette.
She says “I believe women should never be judged by the way they dress. There are many Arab women today who are combating stereotypes – these women are stylish, modern, independent, outgoing.”
The interior designer: Alia Mazrooei
Who Abu Dhabi-based Alia Mazrooei made waves at her 2017 Zayed University grad show with The Shelter Bench: a multi-faceted community structure that offered construction workers a place for repose, shade and socialising. Design with purpose and free-flowing, organic forms continue to be hallmarks of her covetable seating, often inspired by Emirati wildlife, which drew much attention at Salone del Mobile in Milan in 2018. “Whatever piece I make has to have a function,” she says. “It has to create this energy of communication, to bond people.”
Check out Stingray, a sinuous pale pink chair inspired by the body and movement of the stingray – a creature linked to the Gulf’s pearl-diving heritage, when it was seen as a threat and hunted for its barb (used as a cutting tool), meat and oil (for lanterns and polishing wood); Thuluth, an elongated, sinuous sofa, referencing sand dunes shaped by the wind.
She says “I tried making tables for a while, but I went back to chairs. I’m really attached to [them] as they’re the centre of the living space. [They create] this bridge between people when they sit down together.”