Spolight on Dubai Design Week 2020
By Sophie Arni
Published on November 19, 2020
Dubai Design Week has been one of the most exciting events to look forward to in the UAE’s art calendar. This year’s fifth iteration rings a different tone with the pandemic, but that did not deter Dubai Design District (d3) to activate itself with an array of exhibitions, events, outdoor installations, and pop-up marketplace. The fair also featured concurrent online programming which made the whole enterprise accessible from a distance — an important characteristic, as I am typing this review from Tokyo, Japan.
2. View of UAE Designer Exhibition including Acrylic Collection by Reem Al Bustani. Images courtesy of Dubai Design Week.
The fair’s ethos is to highlight, for a week, innovative and exceptional design coming from Dubai and its international networks. Dubai offers a fertile ground for such presentation, as the Arabian Gulf region as a whole has a long history of trading design and craft. Meticulous textiles, carpets, jewelry, and perfumes have long been traded in the city, a practice that continues to this day. Over the past few decades, intricate interior spaces of Dubai’s luxury hotels and homes have also built the city’s reputation for refined design.
Dubai Design Week highlighted emerging talent coming from the UAE as well as reaffirmed Dubai’s strong position as trade center. Notable exhibitions included the UAE Designer Exhibition and Christopher Benton’s “How to Be at Rest” installation, the Swiss Embassy for the UAE and Bahrain’s Reflections on Swiss Innovation pavilion, the Desert Cast - Towards an Identity project presented at Sharjah’s 1971 Design Space, the Fantini Mosaici Designed for Sharing charity sale, as well as the Tanween presentation by Tashkeel.
Emerging Designers Refer to UAE’s Heritage
The UAE is a country taking a robust stance towards building the future, yet one which prioritizes strong connections to its past. It thus offers a very interesting meeting point for designers to think about heritage and innovation. Dubai Design Week 2020 showed the work of UAE-based designers often using locally-sourced materials and shapes inspired by the country’s pre-oil history. One example comes from the UAE Designer Exhibition featuring works of 20 UAE-based creatives curated by Ghassan Salameh. As part of the exhibition, Dana Amro presented Burqa, a wooden chair and accompanying carved side tables that reflect the pronounced curve of the traditional burqa headpiece.
Dubai Design Week 2020 showed the work of UAE-based designers often using locally-sourced materials and shapes inspired by the the country’s pre-oil history.
Another highlight is Lina Ghalib’s Yereed bench-seat. The bench was exhibited as part of the seventh Tanween Design Programme organized by Dubai-based contemporary art and design incubator Tashkeel. Inspired by heritage and sustainability, Ghalib’s bench-seat featured a new and innovative application of arish, the traditional palm-tree leaf particular to the UAE’s pre-modern architecture. This limited-edition piece was designed and manufactured entirely in the UAE, over an 11-month conceptualization and training period.
This limited-edition piece was designed and manufactured entirely in the UAE, over an 11-month conceptualization and training period.
5. Dubai Design Week 2020, Tanween 2020 by Tashkeel. Images courtesy of Dubai Design Week.
In Sharjah, the 1971 Design Space offered exciting exhibitions as part of the Dubai Design Week programming. Desert Cast - Towards an Identity is a project by Kuwait-based designers Jassim AlNashmi, Kawther AlSaffar, and Ricardas Blazukas. Looking back at the Gulf’s architectural heritage, the designers offer a promising take on the profiles used for extruded gypsum cornices and friezes. These designs were then re-imagined using sand-casting and foam-cutting, processes local to the vernacular architecture of cities throughout the Gulf.
This year marks the second time that Desert Cast is presented at Dubai Design Week. For 2020, the trio invited the UAE-based designer Talin Hazbar to express her interpretation of Desert Cast using Emirati materials and inspiration from the UAE’s architecture. The results from the collaboration were projected through public installations within the Emirate of Sharjah.
Christopher Benton Reflects on Power, Taste, and Sustainability
The star piece of the Dubai Design District (d3)’s showcase was arguably Christopher Benton’s How to Be at Rest installation. Highly-rated by local tastemakers and attracting international attention, Benton’s installation was the fruit of two years of research and collection in working-class communities across the UAE.
As Benton explains, “stroll around [Mina Zayed in Abu Dhabi, Satwa in Dubai, and Khor Fakkan in Sharjah] and you’ll find some of the most inventive furniture that you could imagine.” Exhibiting these eight ingenious yet humble creations in pristine d3 represents in itself a statement on class politics. It raises questions about power and taste in the context of Dubai’s conspicuous consumption.
Exhibiting these eight ingenious yet humble creations in pristine d3 represents in itself a statement on class politics.
Part sculpture and part found-object, the chairs of How To Be At Rest celebrate vernacular design and showcase a refreshingly authentic version of sustainability. While these chairs lack sturdiness, they possess prized qualities in today’s world: adaptability and long life-cycles. In one of the chairs, for example, a broken leg was replaced by a plumbing pipe. In another, a thick cushion was added on the seat of an otherwise unassuming rotating office chair. While these are not luxuries by any means, the resulting design reflect noble values of self-reliance and repurposing.
While these chairs lack sturdiness, they possess prized qualities in today’s world: adaptability and long life-cycles.
Benton comments, “these objects have everything that good design aspires to be: comfort, durability, a sense of play and improvisation, and relevance. Most importantly, there is a strong spirit of eco-consciousness. The majority of the materials are recycled and anything that is broken can and will be restored.”
Interviewed by Dezeen, Benton points to terms such as “improvisational vernacular” and “critical jugaad,” the latter coined by researcher Deepa Butoliya and referring to a mode of thinking derived from the Indian subcontinent. “These DIY, hacked designs are one of the only available forms of resistance and subversion to consumer culture and mainstream design typologies,” the artist explains.
Chairs, perhaps more so than any other kind of furniture, have a highly personal connection to their respective owners.
Chairs, perhaps more so than any other kind of furniture, have a highly personal connection to their respective owners. A chair is an intimate object, especially if it is used in a workplace where one spends most of the day sitting. Accompanying his d3 installation, Benton created a stunning series of photographs, which added a layer of reflection to the chair’s object value. Placed in the middle of a portrait studio set-up, the chairs reverberate personality and exude charm. Human presence becomes redundant as the chairs take on the performative role of suggesting individual stories.
“For this project, I thought it was important to document the chairs in a way that was context-specific. The backgrounds are actually floor vinyl, which is a cheap way to cover up space and make it nicer. When I went into different bedspaces — where most of the makers of these chairs live — floor vinyl was in every home. I think it's a part of that same improvisational ethos of making things more comfortable and functional, just like the chairs.”
“For this project, I thought it was important to document the chairs in a way that was context-specific.”
- Christopher Benton
I was personally reminded of Hassan Hajjaj’s portraiture, who places his subjects in front of highly saturated weaved patterned backgrounds. Benton agreed. “Stylistically, the backdrops play into West African portraiture, something that Hassan Hajjaj references too.” With unseeming ease, Benton uses the medium of staged photography to personify repurposed chairs and assigns them additional performative value.
With unseeming ease, Benton uses the medium of staged photography to personify repurposed chairs and assigns them additional performative value.
With every project he undertakes, Benton delivers novel ideas, clear execution, and continuity with his portfolio. His background in advertising might explain why he is able to propose conceptual ideas with great visual eloquence — but I digress. Benton continues to both curate and create. For Dubai Design Week, he presents new conceptions of sustainable designs and gives credit to under-represented migrant communities. Meanwhile, his photographs introduce innovative approaches to object-centric studio photography, and for that, How To Be At Rest elevates the scope of Dubai Design Week to a platform bridging design and conceptual art.
Other highlights of the fair come from embassy pavilions at d3. I was attracted to Designed for Sharing, a project initiated by the Italian mosaic firm Fantini Mosaici. The firm has been responsible for adorning the walls and floors of many of UAE’s landmark buildings including the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Qasr Al Watan Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi, as well as the Palazzo Versace Dubai hotel.
For the fair, Fantini Mosaici partnered with the Embassy of Italy to the UAE to present a charity collection of mosaic tables inspired by the UAE’s map outline.
The table decorations have been conceptualized both in-house and by long-term UAE residents, including artists, journalists, designers, and entrepreneurs. The mosaic artisans at the Fantini Mosaici Middle East headquarters in Abu Dhabi then transformed individual artworks into hand-made mosaic patterns for the tables in the shape of the UAE map.
In times of COVID-19, the Swiss Embassy to the UAE and Bahrain presented a pavilion titled Reflections on Swiss Innovation, offering a glimpse of their offerings for the upcoming Dubai Expo. In it, the major draw was an installation called “Bring Your Own Mask” (BYOM) brought by HyperAktiv and a team of emerging Swiss designers. BYOM highlights an object that has been at the forefront of our global consciousness for the past six months. The different designs and installation also suggest a step towards integrated technology. The idea of an Artificial Intelligence-powered mask might seem far-fetched but may soon materialize as we enter the post-Covid world.
BYOM highlights an object that has been at the forefront of our global consciousness for the past six months.
Both in the postmodern architecture that characterizes the city’s skyline and in the vibrant migrant communities that give charm to its streets, trade and exchange are at the heart of Dubai’s urban fabric. Another defining trait of the city is innovation, which can often be understood as adaptability to fast-changing environments. Dubai Design Week proved that Dubai could adapt to the pandemic and propose a wide array of thought-provoking design suggestions.
Dubai Design Week 2020 ran from November 9th to 14th, 2020.
Visit Dubai Design Week’s website.
Follow Dubai Design Week on Instagram.
Follow Dubai Design District (d3) on Instagram.
Follow 1971 Design Space on Instagram.
Fantini Mosaici mosaic tables are available to purchase via online auction, and proceeds will be donated to the UAE Red Crescent. Buyers can submit their bid by sending a message via email at email@example.com The silent auction bidding process starts on 9 November and closes on 5 December.