Rue Kothari, Fair Director of Downtown Design, writes about the prospect of Dubai becoming a new design hub for the Middle East and explains why design should be seen as the new economic driver.
Dubai is future focused; it’s the energy that fuels the city’s inherent ambition. In emerging regional markets as well as in the developed West, governments are increasingly looking to diversify and invest in the creative economy. Design is the new economic driver.
As the commercial gateway to the Middle East, Dubai is a hospitable business environment, with international expertise, regional opportunities for new business and governmental support. Where East and West converge, it’s perfectly positioned to facilitate a profitable interaction between international brands and regional buyers.
Looking at the UAE alone, we are tripping over new real estate, fresh clusters of hotels and negative space that is making way for new infrastructure and social development. Expat communities are burgeoning, consumer spending is tipped to rise, and with Expo 2020 expected to boost the hospitality sector, retail ultimately has only one way to go.
When you consider that only 20% of demand can be satisfied by local production, the lack of any real manufacturing sector, and a relatively shallow pool of brands distributed in the region, there are significant opportunities for new international furniture manufacturers, for example, to find growth here, against their traditional markets which may be stagnant.
If you like hard data, the numbers are big. The MENA design industry will apparently be valued at $36.7bn by 2019. But stats are just stats – often the anecdotal evidence is more impactful – especially in an industry as tight as ours. Word travels fast; negative opinion even faster. Being in the bubble we often forget that no matter how challenging our industry can be – especially for architects and interior designers being dealt the thin end of the wedge by unscrupulous clients – out there it’s harder. That’s why our little land of opportunity continues to attract substantial interest from the rest of the world.
Every day, at Downtown Design, we receive new enquiries from international brands both big and small, looking for a foothold in the Middle East. Demand for our 2016 edition exceeded the space we had to house them in – and we sold out in April. Our dot on the design map is becoming more prominent.
“Milan, SoHo, Shoreditch, Dubai?” The Financial Times seems to think so. Our mission to create a design hub for the Middle East here in the Emirates shows great potential; and with Downtown Design and the new Dubai Design Week, we are polarising the region’s design community and contributing to raising the profile of our city’s design output, both for brands and buyers.
Events like Downtown Design and Dubai Design Week not only attract demand, but they accelerate sustainable growth. The number of brands we support that go on to establish a base here at the Dubai Design District continues to increase. For us, it’s crucial to take a considered view on our own development, to create a credible model that will do justice to our design scene, far from the ‘satellite’ models of the ‘big’ shows that simply do not reflect the needs and requirement of their locality.
One way is to balance our established and iconic brands with ‘discovery’ brands that allow visitors to engage with innovative new products they won’t find on their annual trip to Milan. The Destination initiative, launched last year, presented six co-curated booths in collaboration with emerging design weeks from around the world. And it worked. Visitors loved this new product, and brands sold. This year, we host Addis Ababa, Barcelona, Beirut, Reykjavík and Taipei – each showcasing young brands that we hope will resonate with the region’s buyers.
But don’t just take my word for it. Dawn Zidonis, director of San Francisco Design Week (which participated last year) said: “Downtown Design opened my eyes to the market opportunities for export but perhaps more importantly opened my eyes to the diversity and forward-thinking approach to design and its role in the region.”
Part of an overall curation of 100 brands from 28 countries, building on the success of last year, we’re continuing to refine the concept in preparation for an even bigger fair next year. If you take the growth of Downtown Design as an indicator, the evidence suggests that we’re on an upward trajectory. It is not without its bumps – it never is – but the fact that we tripled our footprint last year, sold out five months ago, and will double the size of our buyer programme to include a substantial number of buyers from MENASA and the subcontinent – we’re quietly confident that 2017 will be a stellar year not just for Downtown Design and Dubai Design Week – but for the whole industry.