Conspicuous creatives

Being a designer isn’t considered a proper job in some parts of the Middle East, where there’s too much money floating around for there to be any real need for innovation and entrepreneurship. But there are clear signs of this changing, says Clare Dowdy

With its awe-inspiring developments, swathes of retail and tourists aplenty, you might have thought that Dubai already had its hands full. But now it wants to get in on the design act. It’s not enough to be loaded, it wants to be creative as well.

‘Design is a new force in the development of companies and nations. We need to harness it, understand it and grow it,’ says Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, chairman of the Executive Council of Dubai.

Khalid Al Malik, chief executive officer of Tatweer, which is part of the Dubai Holding conglomerate, set out three challenges at the inaugural International Design Forum held last month in Dubai: ‘To establish a college for innovation and design in the Arab world; to establish Dubai as a capital of design; and to establish a union for Arab designers.’

But while the United Arab Emirates’ can-do attitude is applauded, many at the conference questioned whether Dubai or the UAE really has what it takes to generate home-grown creativity. Could it be that the region’s combination of top-down authority and deep pockets could actually hinder innovation and design?

Todd DeVriese, associate professor of Art and Design at the College of Arts and Science, Zayed University, UAE, claims that there is a marked lack of innovation among students emerging from design backgrounds in the Middle East. At the moment, any creativity comes out of the Levant, particularly Lebanon, where architects Nadim Karim, Bernard Khoury and designer Nada Debs (see above) are based, and Jordan, where Design Jordan is making some headway.

For nearly a decade, the American University in the emirate of Sharjah has been releasing designers and architects into the world. But as Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah, founder of Middle Eastern fashion emporium Villa Moda, says, ‘architect graduates from Sharjah are snapped up by international firms like Rem Koolhaas’s OMA’.

What’s more, says Samer Asfour, chief executive officer of Design Jordan, ‘Entrepreneurship is not in the culture because it’s not seen as good to make mistakes, even if you learn from them. We are shy of addressing failures.’ He points out that in Jordan, 0.36 per cent of companies’ expenditure is invested in research and development, compared with 5 per cent in the rest of the world.

Some put this apparent lethargy down to the region’s wealth. ‘The oversupply of money works against invention and innovation,’ says Ahmad Humei, designer and site founder of in Jordan.

Hossein Amirsadeghi, who founded the short-lived magazine Creativity Beyond Borders, agrees. ‘We have the curse of oil, meaning we will never become creative as only countries who have nothing breed entrepreneurs. We are only consumers,’ he says.

And this is certainly the right place for those with a consuming nature. As Fitch chief executive officer Rodney Fitch points out, ‘Dubai is set to have more shopping space per capita than anywhere else in the world.’ Yet Debs couldn’t get her furniture designs stocked in Lebanese shops because the retailers told her consumers are only interested in Western design.

Al-Sabah also claims that there’s a stigma surrounding the creative industries. ‘We are all Bedouin. To be a designer is not [considered a proper] job. You cannot say to your family that you want to be a designer.’ His latest store for Kuwait was the creation of Turkish group Maybe Design. He suggests that a school of design in the region could help change that perception.

Olivier Auroy, general manager of Landor’s Dubai outpost, echoes this. ‘There is no school for design in the Emirates and this is not the type of job people are looking for. They are bankers or in trade. I dream of having an Emirati designer [in the office],’ he says. For local clients, ‘the thing that matters is being Arabic or Muslim’, so Auroy makes sure he has an appropriate person on every project to shed light on the culture and aid communication. For example, Landor’s team for Oman Oil’s branding programme comprised Riaan Muller from South Africa, Swede Bengt Eriksson, Jordanian Nathalie Khalaf, and Nejib Ghanmi, who is Tunisian and Muslim.

Paola Antonelli, architecture and design curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is more optimistic about Dubai’s design potential. ‘Something is happening in Dubai similar to what occurred in Japan and China. Rulers brought in foreign architects and designers, but then local traditions again took hold. I want to see how fast it happens in Dubai and the Gulf. The solutions must come from here,’ she says.

Lebanese designer Nada Debs can’t help but be influenced by her own and her adopted cultures. She grew up in Japan, but since 1999 has based herself back in her hometown of Beirut.

She also worked in the UK in the 1990s, and was involved with the overhaul of the Lebanese restaurant Fakhreldine in London’s Piccadilly. Her break came when Jordan’s Queen Rania commissioned her to create the children’s wings of the palaces in Amman.

However, getting her furniture business off the ground in Lebanon proved tricky. Retailers told her that local consumers were not interested in local designers, so she was forced to open her own furniture showroom. ‘Arab designers will have to make it outside the Arab world before they will be accepted here,’ she says.

Her East and East collection marries the cool Minimalism of the Japanese aesthetic with the lavish warmth of Arab ornamentation. This approach has found favour abroad, with stockists in London, Rome, New York, Dubai, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. And with foreign approval followed local interest, meaning Lebanese consumers are now accepting of Debs’s creations, particularly her floating stools.

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