For the first instalment in a new series that profiles the region’s best design talent, we pay a visit to Tashkeel and speak to its Deputy Director Lisa Ball-Lechgar about the Tamween Design Program, an initiative to foster a new generation of UAE designers. We also sit down with this year’s alumni about how they create innovative products using age-old local artisanal methods.
Founded 12 years ago, Tashkeel provides facilities, workspace, support and programming that enables UAE-based artists and designers develop their careers and enable the creative and cultural industries in the country to evolve. The organization launched the Tamween design program, an open call for UAE designers over the age of 21 to submit work with the ultimate aim of receiving several months’ support in research and experimentation with materials and process. This is delivered via a series of interactive “LABs” at Tashkeel and supporting working sessions involving collaborative practice, facilitation, workshops, mentoring and constructive criticism. We recently spoke to Lisa Ball-Lechgar about the initiative.
How did Tamween come about?
Tashkeel had collaborated with an organization in Spain called Creative Dialogue on skill development programs for designers here in the UAE. Those short courses went very well so we decided to develop a one-year program in which we would select emerging designers to help them develop their skills in order to pursue a professional career. Those skills include how to set up a business and at the same time develop a product that is inspired by, designed and manufactured in the UAE. It is very much about contributing to the development of a UAE design aesthetic.
What do you look for in the candidates?
When we put out an open call for applications, it is a ratio of three to one for each place. It is quite a tough process to get through. This year, we were impressed by their curiosity. Curiosity and passion are the first thing we look for and also a wish to pursue a line of inquiry. For example, Lina Ghalib was interested in creating something with material that bridges the cultures of both her home country of Egypt and the UAE. She focused on Arish palm wood. What she has done is nothing short of a miracle. She has not only taken a native sustainable material such as Arish, but she has used modern technological fabrication to manipulate the raw material into a brand-new product in contemporary furniture design. The way she works with the Arish allows it to bend 90 degrees, which is something unheard of. It has never been done before and she's called that new material “ply palm”. It has huge potential moving forward. It also has a sustainability message and that's something that you can see in many of the pieces that come out of the Tamween Design Program.
Does this have any knock-on effects?
Arish is core to Emirati heritage. There are lots of traditional practices and crafts that use elements of palm trees. But all of this is being thrown away at the moment and those crafts are being forgotten. What happens currently is that millions of palm trees end up in landfill sites all over the UAE because they're not being recycled. These new contemporary design practices are allowing us to explore the application of Emirati craft in the 21st century, but also to repurpose and recycle materials as well.
Tell us about the Tamween Design Collection.
At the end of each year, what comes out of that program are prototypes of functional design pieces that integrate Emirati heritage and craftsmanship with modern design technology practices. Once they have been prototyped, it's time to get them to market. The Tamween Collection was created as a commercial arm of the Tamween Design Program. Every year, we add another three or four pieces to our collection and we sell them as limited editions, internationally as well as at home. A percentage of the profits from each sale then goes back into the Tamween Design Program to support the development of future generations of designers.
How would you define Emirati design?
What makes Danish design unique or what makes British design unique? I've lived in the UAE on and off for 20 years and I would say that when you talk about the design aesthetic of a place, you see the place in the design language. Not just in terms of the materials that are used, but also in the way those materials are harnessed and in the form of the design itself. I think it's very much celebrating the soul of the place. To many, Dubai has been perceived as a place without soul. Au contraire. This country has a rich history that goes back centuries — indeed millennia — and it's through contemporary research and a new appreciation of historical practices and the intangible heritage of the people that have lived here that allows us to create this new language: UAE design.
Describe the UAE’s creative and cultural industries.
Creative and cultural industries is a term that was coined during the 1990s in the UK when Tony Blair was in power and Chris Smith was the Minister of Culture. It was a way in which Britain measured the economic impact of the creative and cultural industries, which is a broad sector of both commercial and not-for-profit industries and how they contribute to the national economy. Since then, this practice of analyzing those industries in terms of economic value has swept across the world. I'm happy to say that the UAE government is itself analyzing and quantifying the contribution that the growing creative and cultural industries in this country is contributing to GDP, to employment and so on. It's a very exciting time because it allows for the nation and the rest of the world to really understand the economic value that arts and culture contribute to a nation's ongoing development. When I came here in 2005, for someone to stand up and say, “I am an artist,” or “I am a designer,” was almost taboo. Fast-forward 15 years and you are seeing pride — pride in the UAE design aesthetic; pride in homegrown design and visual art expression; pride in a creativity that speaks about the past, the present and the future of the UAE. It's incredible what's happening now.
Dubai is such an international destination, how is it developing its own identity?
We appreciate the global, but it’s time that we invest in and celebrate the locals. The UAE aesthetic is growing, you are starting to see architectural elements from historic houses, for example, being reflected in contemporary designs of buildings. The wind towers are very evocative of Emirati heritage and you see those in modern buildings now throughout the UAE. We’ve still got a long way to go to develop this UAE design language — both in an architectural sense and through furniture and other products — but we’re heading in the right direction.
Nada Abu Shaqra
Born and raised in the United Arab Emirates, Abu Shaqra developed a passion for product and interior design after graduating from The College of Architecture, Arts and Design with an architecture degree from The American University of Sharjah. Having practiced architecture for years before shifting towards interiors, Abu Shaqra is the interior architect at FeelingSpace Designs.
What was the inspiration for Hisn?
Hisn is inspired by the traditional Emirati architecture and the contextual materials, based on research into dynamics of traditional forms and the space they create. The arch niches were the architectural elements that interested me the most. I tried to understand what it was like to inhabit such a space and how can that be achieved through terracotta tiles and texture surrounding the seater.
What is it about working with terracotta that attracts you?
Terracotta has retained its identity and diverse functionalities since the earliest eras of existence. It has a sense of individuality which is the result of a handmade product. The material’s behavior and weathering with time is what interested me the most. It exhibits different textures with age and usage.
How does traditional artisanship play a part in your work? Traditional artisanship plays a primary role in the design and generation of my work. Whether being inspired by the process of artisanship or by the final look and feel of traditional products, they are both equally vital. I am interested in making the traditional artisan approach more dominant and functional rather than decorative.
What are your ambitions for the future?
I look forward to creating sustainable and affordable products that combine luxury and comfort and implement traditional artisanship in a contemporary context.
Ghalib is a product designer with a bachelor's degree in interior design from the College of Architecture, Art and Design at the American University of Sharjah. She made the jump from interiors to product with the belief that society needs more product design and further exploration of the field to be able to aid the interior design sector as a whole.
What was the inspiration for Yereed?
The inspiration behind Yereed was the connection between two cultures — Egyptian and Emirati — and a strong element that exists in both which is the use of palm tree branches to produce furniture in Egypt and homes in the UAE.
Why did you choose to work with Arish in the first place?
I was interested in challenging myself to be able to start the conversation about both cultures as they have both helped me be the designer I am today.
How does traditional artisanship play a part in your work? I believe I always come back to the traditional ways things were produced and designed even if people were not aware then that they were creating the stepping stones for design culture. It continuously inspires me to learn from our forefathers; even those that date back to the Pharaohs and their way of life.
How would you describe UAE design?
It is quite a broad term for the UAE because it is a melting pot of different cultures and outlooks of the Emirati culture itself. The way they come together is what makes it UAE design.
An architect, product designer and researcher based in Dubai, Salmanpour currently works as an architect exploring the relationship between the local design language and the resulting geometries that define its regionality.
What attracts you to lighting design?
Light has a charming quality that commands and fills the space and allows the lighting piece to live beyond its physical form. In my attempt to create a piece rooted and defined by the UAE, I was keen on integrating light as a material because it possesses a strong degree of symbolism and is synonymous with cultural identities across the region.
What was the inspiration for Qaws?
In my attempt to create a piece which feels truly Dubai, I deconstructed different entities that define our region, including anything that previous generations found to be worth creating and preserving including architecture, jewelry, Quranic graphics and the like. I reduced the motifs and designs into bare geometric structures in order to identify a range of geometries that encapsulated the identity. I then processed them in a way that created contemporary forms which are novel yet feel deeply rooted in their context.
How does traditional artisanship play a part in your work?
Traditional artisanship has defined the forms and geometries which we have inherited from previous generations. Although Qaws is digitally fabricated, it was heavily inspired by the ways certain materials have been treated or sculpted in the past. It was very important for me personally to create contemporary objects and forms which are innovative in their approach but still relate deeply to our collective subconscious and understanding of beauty and aesthetics which has been defined for us by our heritage and forefathers’ artisanry.
What are your favorites places to find design inspiration in Dubai?
I believe inspiration can be found anywhere if one’s mind is open. But I do enjoy exploring the older neighborhoods where design almost feels unintentionally beautiful, like it was not meant to be showcased but it simply lives within its context. I often find similar inspirations in the industrial areas as well during my “photo-walks”.