A dozen Western brands dominate retail markets across MENA capitals, so it is easy to mentally reduce regional design to kitschy versions of traditional crafts sold in tourist bazaars. Contemporary design scenes are forming in the Arab world, however, and despite limited state interest in environmental issues compared to other developmental challenges, most emerging brands exhibiting at the second Dubai Design Week last month clearly consider environmental impact through choice of materials, production processes and working with local artisans.
These efforts also reflect a broad interest in utilizing old craftsmanship to create new materials, particularly for furniture production. As Egypt has a strong competitive advantage in this field, being the largest furniture exporter in the MENA region, local brands have a lot of potential. Egypt’s furniture exports are projected to grow by 9 percent to reach US$455 million in 2019, while its overall production is expected to reach US$1.9 billion, according to the MENA Design Outlook 2015 Report.
Still, most handicrafts in the region have not reached their full potential. A common misperception is that they are simple and lacking in detail compared to their ancient counterparts housed in museum collections around the world. They tend to be standardized, with little variation except for those inevitably resulting from manual labor. They are cheap, owing to the low wages artisans can claim across the Arab world. They are dying, slowly, in favor of trendy designs or less expensive plastic imports. Several designers have built their projects in the hope of reviving these crafts and developing a competitive advantage that is not based solely on price cuts.
Focusing on sustainability, Lebanon’s Muriel Kai shatters our perception of fruit leather as a food — she uses this biodegradable material made of mashed, cooked and dried fruit and vegetable waste to make earthtone felt-like jewellery boxes. Kai exhibited in the Destination section of the design week’s trade fair, Downtown Design. Directed by former chief editor of Harper’s Bazaar Interiors Rue Kothari, Downtown Design presented high-end international brands alongside emerging designers selected through partnerships with Design Weeks in their respective cities.
As well as Kai, Beirut Design Week, for which the 2016 theme was “Growing sustainability,” presented the work of designer Paola Sakr in Dubai. Sakr also makes home accessories, specifically containers and baskets made from the coffee grounds and newspaper waste many of us produce at the beginning of each day.
Another innovative material made from waste at Design Week was the award-winning Plastex by the Cairo-based Reform Studio. Founders Hend Riad and Marian Hazem reduce used plastic bags to threads and weave them with cotton yarn using traditional looms. The abundance of plastic bags and the persistent garbage collection problem in Cairo make Plastex a truly Cairene product, and the fabric is soft, colorful and beautifully patterned. Invited by curator, architect and researcher Mohamed Elshahed to take part in Cairo Now: City Incomplete, this year’s annual Iconic City exhibition, the studio presented three chairs upholstered with Plastex. Their Ahwa chairs’ backs and legs are inspired by the spontaneous designs street vendors and doormen create, mish mashing discarded chair parts.
Marketeer-turned-designer-maker Dina Naguib also upcycles Cairo’s waste in her newly launched brand Ehem. Fascinated by the rough industrial aesthetics of old water pipes, Naguib scavenges Cairo for their remains as they are gradually replaced by the more hygienic polyvinyl (PVC) systems. She cleans and hand paints metal pipes to make lamps and ceiling lights.
Also part of Cairo Now: City Incomplete was a slick white magazine table, with a grid-like rack, alongside a colorfully upholstered ottoman, from which bead-sized cotton balls dangle. Designed by Egyptian architect Manar Moursi of Studio Meem, both are slightly disorienting, being made of date palm leaf midrib, a material commonly used around the city as baskets and coos for moving agricultural produce and live poultry. For this collection, Moursi collaborated with a master palm crate maker, observing closely to incorporate the full potential of the craft in her designs. Her fun and environmentally sound tables, seats and bookshelves earned a Red Dot Design Award in 2011.
Moursi’s use of date palm leaf midrib makes a lot of sense. The annual pruning of the indigenous date palm results in hundreds of thousands of tons of waste that is incinerated, because traditional uses in building rooftops and fences have died out. Several designers, engineers and NGOs have been working with communities in recent years to put midrib to new use. The Center for Development of Small Scale Industries, for instance, has trained women of the Dakhla Oasis to use it in arabesque designs instead of imported beech wood, while the Egyptian Society for Endogenous Development and Local Communities has, with the help of Upper Egyptian artisans, produced wooden blocks that design studios, including the award-winning Eklego, currently use.
Similarly, Menn Baladha focuses on supporting Egyptian potters by re-introducing clay cooking pots, long known for healthy and tasty dishes, as trendy household objects that can go straight from the oven to the dining table. It started as a graduation project by a group of students at the German University in Cairo’s design program, and has developed into a brand with a tangible market presence over the past two years.
Maitham al-Mubarak and Othman Khunji designed “Unearthing, Kingdom of Bahrain,” one of six country-specific pavilions responding to the theme of ‘The Human Senses’ as part of the Abwab project, along the same lines. Dozens of clay vases, cups, pots and bowls were laid out, paying tribute to the island’s rich pottery heritage, which dates as far back as 3000BC during the Dilmun civilization. Some of the vessels, placed on mechanized plinths, twirled, as if getting their final touches on the pottery wheel. As Abwab was a curatorial endeavor rather than a showcase of finished products, each vessel was designed through an interactive website, where visitors could select the diameters of the neck, waist or base, as well as height, and state what they intended it for.
The “Mass Imperfections” pavilion highlighted the struggles and potential of olive woodworkers in the Palestinian Territories. Designed by Palestinian-French architects Elias and Yousef Anastas in collaboration with a woodworker from the West Bank, it celebrated the “errors” and “imperfections” caused by manual labor. Using a hand-powered 12-headed wood router, they created 552 six-point stars (every dozen shares the same errors), and integrated them into a magnificent arch-like structure that emitted a mesmerizing interplay of light and shadows. A series of short videos highlighted the process, putting it into the context of Palestinian woodworkers’ olive-wood artworks losing ground to imported trinkets and souvenirs sold to Holy Land tourists.
The regional design industry is projected to grow at a compound annual rate of at least 6 percent over the next five years, reaching US$55 billion by 2019, according to the MENA Design Outlook report. If there was a more enabling environment for designers, sustainable design could be an integral driving force in this. But educational institutions are currently lagging — most designers featured in the exhibitions are either self-taught, graduates of design programs in expensive private universities, or had the privilege of pursuing their studies abroad.
Industrial and product design programs are scarce, with private educational institutions largely focusing on architecture, interior and graphic design. The few state-run universities that do teach product design have outdated curricula, such as the Faculty of Applied Arts’ Industrial Design Program in Cairo. Dubai hopes to fill part of this gap and position itself as a regional design hub. It is currently building the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation in partnership with MIT and the New School’s Parson’s School of Design, both well-respected US institutions. Scheduled to open in fall 2018 with degrees in product design, strategic design management, visual arts, media and fashion design, DIDI will have capacity for 550 students.
Other challenges facing regional designers include the lack of publicly accessible data on market trends and consumption patterns — such data remains largely centralized within state institutions — as well as minimal support infrastructure such as trade fairs, accessible production facilities and design events connecting brands with each other and with the larger business community. It is unfortunate that many designers from the same city met for the first time in Dubai, as Cairo Now curator Mohamed Elshahed noted. But at least that could help local scenes develop organically until policy-oriented approaches are in place to support them.