How Arabian design scene is moving from product to purpose

Special How Arabian design scene is moving from product to purpose
El-Seed working with Zareeb Community in Egypt on his iconic Mural 'Perception' (Photo: Courtesy of
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Updated 12 August 2020

How Arabian design scene is moving from product to purpose

How Arabian design scene is moving from product to purpose
  • Experts say sustainability and upcycling are finding their rightful place in the landscape of design
  • Focus on values key to forging long-lasting relationship with consumers in post-coronavirus era

DUBAI: In a market often misperceived as solely lucrative and consumption-dependent, a new and refreshing wave of local creativity is shaping the design scene and enriching it with meaningful contributions.

In the process, indispensable pursuits such as sustainability and upcycling are finding their rightful place in the creative landscape.

I was born in the UAE, where I initially studied architecture before venturing into fashion and luxury brand management in France.

Since then, I have collaborated with former design classmates in a range of design disciplines and projects. What I have noticed over the past few years are some interesting patterns or rather, values, emerging in the creatives’ visions and work.

We have slowly moved from product to purpose, and from selling to inspiring or even creating an impact.

The Dubai-based Saudi label Abadia refers to itself as “ethical luxury.” The family-owned brand, co-founded by Shahd Al-Shehail and her aunt, Naeema Al-Shehail, aims to empower and support Saudi women artisans by integrating traditional crafts such as sadu (a weaving technique) and naqda (a technique of pulling thin metallic threads through cloth) in their designs.

Mochi, a fashion label founded by Dubai-based Palestinian designer Ayah Tabari, collaborates with artisans from different countries with collections dedicated to the craftsmanship of those communities — from Budapest to Marrakech.

French-Tunisian artist eL Seed, who became known worldwide for mastering the art of “calligraffiti” (a hybrid of calligraphy and graffiti) and dynamic collaborations with brands such as Louis Vuitton, is known to work with local communities in the making of his big canvases.

In his studio stands the TEDx award and a large coffee-table-like book titled “Perception.” Both point to the story of eL Seed’s collaboration with the marginalized Zaraeeb community of garbage cleaners in Cairo, who have collected and recycled garbage for decades using a sophisticated and efficient system.

This collaboration is possibly the highlight of his growing career, where he created something impactful and out of scale, covering nearly 50 buildings, while highlighting and celebrating the kindness, generosity and contributions of a hard-working, and almost invisible, community.

Though not yet deeply integrated into the local design thinking and practice, sustainability is, nevertheless, beginning to make its mark.

Sharjah-based Reemami minimizes waste from design to manufacturing and upcycles fabric waste into accessories, while advocating for local production in Sharjah.

Upcycling in art and design is also becoming increasingly common. Dubai-based artist Patricia Millns (FRSA, Fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts) integrates recycling as a key practice in her work.

I curated an exhibition, “A Second Skin,” in 2016 featuring two artists: Patricia Millns and Una Burke. Patricia had created large site-specific sculptures in crisp white hanging from the ceiling, unfolding on the floor like the roots of a gigantic tree.

The work was made out of recycled tea bags and explored a common theme in Patricia’s work — the spaces in between. From the original exhibition in the Cartel in Dubai, the exhibition traveled to Paris Sorbonne Abu Dhabi and was part of the Arab Knowledge Forum.

The sculptures were suspended from the dome in the heart of the atrium of Sorbonne Abu Dhabi campus building.

In a recent phone call with Patricia, she said: “Working from home was great during the lockdown.” She had to use what she found (at home).

She decided to use doilies and develop her work centered around the idea of “dhiyafa,” or hospitality, using her signature paper mandalas. Her latest work uses wastepaper from a local factory. In a world of excess, as she describes it, the purity of her work has a monochromatic simplicity.

The work of African artist El Anatsui is well-known for upcycling bottle caps into large undulating canvases with a shimmering appeal.

The Ghanaian artist refers to his work as “metallic fabrics” where he references the liquor industry and the slave trade in Africa. The last El Anatsui tapestry I saw was displayed at the 2019 Abu Dhabi Art Fair in London’s October Gallery.

The upcycled bottle caps, challenged against their nature, were crushed to create smooth undulating waves in an installation that was one of the most expensive artworks in the fair, offered at around $1 million.

The creative community in the UAE is rather small. Enabled by the clusters system in Dubai such as Alserkal Avenue and the Dubai Design District d3, creatives have been grouped under a large physical umbrella and given a common address. However, the size of the community has been not been an impediment in leading to numerous collaborations between different disciplines.

Dubai-based jewelry brand Bil Arabi, by Nadine Kanso, known for its signature Arabic font in bold jewelry design, has several collaborations to its name.

Inta El Kheir, hanging carpet installation co-designed by Nadine Kanso and Iwan Maktabi. (Supplied)

How did the collaborations start, I asked Nadine over the phone, as meeting in person is not possible during the current climate.

“They approach me most of the time,” she said. She named collaborations over the years — from a photo exhibition with Louis Vuitton in 2009 to aligning with local creative players such as haute couture designer Rami Al-Ali and the Iwan Maktabi carpet gallery, which co-conceived a hanging carpet commemorating the Year of Zayed in the UAE.

On the benefits of partnering, Nadine told me how her jewelry brand could have expanded to other mediums, but it called for a bigger responsibility in securing funding and redesigning structures. She prefers instead to collaborate with creative minds who align with her ethos, she said.

Earlier this year, we witnessed an unprecedented collaboration at the international level between luxury jewelry brand Bulgari and Sheikha Fatima bint Hazza Al-Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family and a cultural patron running her own cultural foundation.

The collaboration, which entailed two years of co-designing work between Rome and Abu Dhabi, gave birth to Jannah, a limited-edition high jewelry and fine jewelry collection reflecting a spirit of tolerance and understanding between two cultures with the hashtag #FromRometoAbuDhabi

What’s next for the UAE design scene?

As the industry experiences a massive struggle due to the global COVID-19 crisis, it seems that the only way forward is to focus on values that will forge a long-lasting relationship with today’s conscious consumers.

No doubt the challenge is great given the job losses and income shrinkage in the region but the future, despite the gloominess, may as well be promising with brands narrating successful, and purposeful, stories of the Arabian region.


May Barber is a brand management consultant, fashion entrepreneur and art curator based in Dubai @thecartelme