Many years ago, while on a long stopover at Dubai Airport, I kept wondering whether the large date trees in the departure lounge were original plants or replicas forged in plastic.
It is indeed a measure of man’s intelligence to have produced objects that match the elements of nature. Human history is also about creating things derived from nature but having independent format and function.
In general discourse, these items are called works of design because of their obvious utilitarian aspects but there is a major difference within their functional aspects. Earnest Elmo Calkins, father of modern advertising, observes: “Goods fall into two classes: those which we use, such as motor cars, and safety razors, and those which we use up, such as toothpaste, or soda biscuits” (‘Consumer Engineering: A New Technique for Prosperity’, 1932).
However, recent times have witnessed another dimension of design which has liberated it from its conventional role — of providing a service or utility. Now, like a work of art, different design pieces are exercises in aesthetics. One recalls the famous exchange between Henry Moore and a gardener where the latter asked the celebrated sculptor what use his huge sculptures served, to which Moore replied these had the same function as flowers growing in his backyard.
At the first Dubai Design Week held from Oct 26-31, 2015 at the Dubai Design District and other venues, one was able to see all these approaches towards design or object-making. It included a display of leading designers of the world, country pavilions, installations and young students’ works, representing the diversity existing in the world of design today.
The most exciting part of the event was the ‘Global Grad Show’, in which works of graduating design students from 10 different design schools around the world were displayed. More Sky by Aldana Ferrer Garcia from Pratt Institute and Heart Bloom by Bin Yu from Eindhoven University of Technology stood out for their simple and unique design solutions. The former proposed to extend the architectural space by expanding the window structure of a small flat, whereas the latter designed a device to collect the heart-beat data and visualise it with a pen plotter, converting it into interesting shapes to be sent to your loved ones (instead of the typical heart cut-outs!).
Among the installations, one could not detect the difference between a work of design and an art piece, because these invited one to inquire the essence of space, material, history and forms. In this group, two Brazilian projects (A Place to Departure and Deconstruction Zone displayed at Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood) were based upon exploring geometrical possibilities. In the first installation, designed by D3, a feeling of Other was incorporated through simple lines in wood and mirror intersecting these. The work kept changing its appearance and dimensions as soon as the viewer moves from one point to the other.
Next to this, the project of Henrique Stabile indicated limitless options to compose and construct furniture, using basic units of plywood-like material. Hence, the work existed between the threshold of utilitarian product and formal sculpture, depending on the viewer who could eventually end up as a maker himself.
In a separate space the video projection of Cuppetelli and Mendoza appeared an exercise in the sensibility of sublime. Lines projected on a surface, constructed with vertical metal bars, transformed the reality in a fluctuating substance. It was not possible to grasp the distance between virtual and physical; hence the title of the project ‘Nervous Structure’.
The major exhibition of design was located at a space called Downtown Design. Apart from numerous examples of bathroom fittings, kitchen products, living room furniture, all interesting new versions and visions of comfortable living, there were many exhibits that were unusual in their concept, execution and worth. These included a new interpretation of lamps under the label of Lumio that were designed by Max Gunawan. The lamps, built like books, started to glow once these were opened. The connection between reading a book under a light could be deciphered along with historical references of books being sources of religious light in these works of design.
Another impressive body of work was that of large-scale carpets fabricated with modern sensibilities. Kuwait-based Samovar displayed a range of rugs with multiple visuals. In this group, the work of Arman J Vartian was prominent due to his attempt to convert the Eastern tradition of carpets into surfaces of abstract canvases that are normally associated with the West.
The ‘Abwab’ project had designers from six countries create spaces around the theme of Play. The concept of traditional game was explored and extended in the pavilions of UAE, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but the same idea was treated in a more creative and subtle scheme in the pavilions of Tunisia and Jordan. Tunisia’s space, curated by Chacha Atallah, had a huge construction made of 999 pieces, which could be taken out and fitted into infinite combinations, echoing the Brazilian installation Deconstruction Zone.
Jordanian pavilion, curated by Arini, had several swings which when moved produced different sounds. The space surrounding these white swings was covered with mirrors on the two walls and white strips of fabric hanging on the top. A person sitting in the swing, moving and hearing a symphony of sound created with other swings, lost all sense of space through the interplay of infinite reflections.
Both the Tunisian and Jordanian pavilions, in a way, reminded one of the innumerable variations of narratives from The Thousand and One Nights. Like in a game, one became oblivious of passing time or the beginning and the end. These projects were aptly titled ‘Abwab’ (door in Arabic) because, like doors, these opened up new vistas and affirmed that it is the freedom of thought that determines the freedom of one’s action.