As I drive deep into the belly of Ras Al Khor industrial area, and pass through the dusty lanes dotted with automobile garages, fabrication plants and furniture workshops, hidden behind the big container trucks plying the narrow roads, it occurs to me that this area is exactly the kind of support system that businesses in Dubai Design District need.
But someone else has already realised this potential a long time ago. Emirati designer, Khalid Shafar, who runs his gallery and studio space in the heart of this industrial neighbourhood is convinced that in time to come, Ras Al Khor could become a production centre for designers, and some may even set up their ateliers here, for convenient access.
“People often ask me why am I here in Ras Al Khor? My family has owned land in this part of the city for many years, and I wanted to open a gallery here. I always tell people that this area has great potential to become the hub for design, like Al Quoz is for arts. I can see that the design ecosystem is almost complete here; the only missing components are the designers and a community to come and visit,” he shares.
The 38-year-old designer has established his gallery and studio here to be a reference point for Emirati design. He reckons that although first time visitors often get lost in the unmarked streets of this rugged neighbourhood, he wants them to see the prospect and potential of the area. “You’ll see the signage on shopfronts and the materials they’re using, and you’ll realise that there’s lots of production going on here,” says Shafar.
While he would like to see Ras Al Khor become a hotbed of creativity, Shafar is currently busy with an even bigger mission – to curate and present an exhibition showcasing especially-created pieces by 11 emerging Emirati designers [and made its international debut during Milan Design Week in April]. Titled UAE Design Stories, it focuses on the works of designers from various disciplines. The travelling exhibition will then move to London Design Festival in September, before coming back to home turf in November during Dubai Design Week.
CHAMPIONING EMIRATI DESIGN
His curatorial role aside, Shafar is, in fact, often considered the poster boy for Emirati design. As a pioneer, he embarked on his design journey back in 2010, after having worked in the corporate world for eight years. Despite his achievements, he remains unassuming towards the fact that he’s widely regarded as the first Emirati product designer to have pursued a career in the industry, as well as having collaborated with international brands. “Dubai is a very fast-paced city, things are constantly evolving, so it will take time for people to properly define ‘an established designer’,” he says. “Even if they call me a leader among the local designers, I’m a very young leader, and there is a lot to be learnt.”
Coming back to the exhibition, the theme is anchored by the Emirati landscape — the ecosystem, flora, fauna and soil of the UAE. “These pieces will respond to the subject through inspiration in certain plants, flowers, insects, animals, and the landscape,” says Shafar, adding that the showcase will present different stories in each host city. “For example, one sub-topic will cover the soil, sand formation, and its different forms.”
With a strong Emirati heritage and identity at its core, how challenging is it to create something new while preserving the culture? To Shafar, the answer lies in contemporising indigenous crafts. “I think the challenge here goes in how designers can showcase their culture in their designs, and not shun it or be shy of it,” he says. “With rapid growth in the country and within the region, we tend to see things as our past or as history. We tend to escape that zone and go to modernity, be more stylish and have a modern lifestyle, but we don’t need to think of our heritage and history in the same way as the past.”
Shafar stresses on that fact that while the populace has embraced a more modern lifestyle in terms of habitats, travelling and choice of automobiles, it doesn’t mean that their identities have been altered. “With design, we’re trying to create a balance between the past, the present and the future by integrating some elements from the heritage of the UAE — tradition and crafts — into our contemporary pieces,” he says. “We’ve a cosmopolitan market here and we need to cater to different tastes, and not impose our traditions on everyone. It could be done through crafts, but interpreted in a contemporary form, or by designing old things using new materials.”
Emphasising that the native craft industry has worked with simple products and not ventured into heavy production, the designer says that craft in the past wasn’t only created for decoration, or aesthetic appeal. “It was mainly used to design daily functional objects, used in everyday lives, such as woven mats (as placemats) or baskets to store things,” he says. “At the same time, artisans, who used to work on these products, wanted to bring their instinct via colours and shapes. These crafts were created by people who had no idea about design or education, but they had an instinct.” He points out to a colourful woven mat on the table in his reception area and highlights its symmetry, use of colours and pattern.
Shafar is also quick to add that the growing interest in design among the homegrown creative community can be attributed to the establishment of organisations like Dubai Design District (d3), and their initiative to propel Middle East design to greater heights. “Three years ago, d3, through their partnership with international platforms, launched the Middle East Revealed exhibition, which focused on contemporary Middle East design, including photography, art and fashion,” he says. “The exhibitor profile was a mix of Emiratis and Arab designers from the region, which was followed up with Middle East Now exhibition, which again presented 18 designers from across the region at the 2017 London Design Festival. This time, we are focusing on the roots of Emirati design, imagined by the Emirati designers.”
In the past three years, there has been a noticeable excitement about local design not just in the UAE, but also on foreign shores. Shafar says that these developments have led to the idea about taking the Emirati designers to the European capitals of design, such as Milan and London. “The selected designers will explore contemporary Emirati design on an international platform like Milan Design Week,” he says.
Speaking about international design industry, Shafar is no stranger to it himself. He has collaborated with Czech lighting company Lasvit for two years in a row. “My association with Lasvit started with a visit to its factory in Prague. I got to understand glass, the making of glass and the history of the firm itself,” he says. During Dubai Design Week 2017, Shafar presented his Silent Call installation which was inspired by the domes of iconic mosques from around the world. He commends the company for its progressive approach. “Although I had mixed feedback from people, who either saw it from a religious point of view or purely as an artistic vision,” he says. “Lasvit is the incubator of avant-garde ideas, and I’m now working on a second commission, which is a functional glass sculpture. It’s a humorous piece with great craftsmanship, driven by the ethos of the company.”
Without giving much away, Shafar, who is preparing for his trip to Milan (at the time of this interview) with a stopover in Istanbul where he owns a house, points to the packed boxes of materials and prototypes lying neatly stacked in a corner of his office. The large boxes share the space with floor to ceiling bookshelves, filled with a curated collection of art and design books. His office, located in a converted part of the studio, overlooks the production area through contemporary glass frames. “I’m still renovating my gallery, which sits just a block away,” he shares.
As the photographer captures him within his natural environment, Shafar reveals that he doesn’t like staying put in any one place during the day. A change of scenery inspires him. “I start my day early at 5am with a 10k run along Jumeirah Beach, before going for a cup of coffee somewhere, and finally arriving in the studio at around 9:30am. Our studio, too, is open from 7am to 3pm, so all our staff can also leave early and enjoy quality time with their families.”
CREATIVE ECONOMY AND ECOSYSTEM
Even as he is single-handedly trying to change people’s general perception about the scope of design in Ras Al Khor, Shafar has already mapped out the way forward. Along with two other well-known creative personalities from the UAE, fashion designer Khulood Thani, founder of Bint Thani brand and jewellery designer Nadine Kanso of Bil Arabi fame, he has established DRAK, short for Design Ras Al Khor. The collective aims to encourage up-and-coming designers — both locally-based and visiting creatives — to present innovative ideas to a wider audience. “DRAK will help Ras Al Khor become a creative hub along the lines of Al Quoz and d3,” he says.
Highlighting the importance of collaboration in creative sectors, Shafar says that he has been been visiting Milan Design Week regularly for the past six years, along with Thani and Kanso. “I’ve exhibited there once or twice, but even if I don’t have any showcase, I still go,” he says. “What I see there, feeds me for the whole year, because people make a lot of effort to present their stuff.” These visits have provided the impetus for setting up DRAK. While each of the trio create and present their work individually, this collective endeavour is meant to contribute to the design community. “We usually shortlist four to five designers, give them a theme, and highlight three elements — research, design innovation and material,” says Shafar. “Although we focus on one of the elements every year, it is still integrated with the other two. We curate an exhibition, and support with promotion, talks and events around it.”
Such independent initiatives not only help the designers reach out to a bigger audience, but also connect them with companies and brands. “Last year, as a token of appreciation, we offered the finalists an opportunity to attend a course on luxury design at Laussane University of Art and Design, Switzerland,” he says.
Comparing the evolution of design in the UAE with that of the art industry, Shafar contextualises the current scenario. “I think we’ve seen how art developed in the past 12 years of Art Dubai, and the expansion of Al Serkal Avenue,” he says. “On the design front, we’ve already had it since 1990, when Index piqued the interest, though it may have been limited to interior design and decoration, or services and materials. But companies were attracted to showcase their products to the local community. Other factors also contributed, such as the evolution of the real estate market, building of landmark structures, which have a lot of hospitality projects, food and beverage and tourism activities, which attracted different nationalities, tastes and styles.”
Shafar reckons that one of the best ways to showcase local design in its purest form is through product design. “Through [product design], you can show your identity, style and philosophy,” he says. “Governments, institutions and companies have started to realise the effects of design on the economy as well. As art has helped boost the economy in its own capacity, design is doing the same now. It’s an ecosystem, and filling the gaps will create a productive chain in the country. It could be localised, which will feed and spawn other industries.”
In this creative undertaking, the role of organisations and independent ventures, such as d3 and Al Serkal Avenue can’t be underestimated, and Shafar couldn’t agree more. “If we operate as solo entities, we can’t create a community, which makes d3’s role as the provider of spaces, where people connect to instil the spirit of collaboration, even more significant,” he says. “Today, if I’ve a designer working next door, even if he or she’s from the fashion industry, and I’m a product designer, we will most likely catch up over coffee and eventually end up collaborating on a project.”
Citing the example of Al Serkal Avenue in Al Quoz, Shafar argues that the complex houses around 40 galleries, and that there are many more outside of it within the neighbourhood. But Al Serkal helped put the spotlight on the area. “Both these venues — d3 and Al Serkal Avenue — are building interest and attention among outside companies and brands to work with the talent here.
Dubai’s reputation as a global trading hub until fairly recently meant that most Emirati entrepreneurs had been connected with design ventures only from a business perspective. However, with a growing focus on creative industries, many of them are now assuming the role of producers. “With the younger generation travelling and attending different events around the world, it is leading to more creative start-ups being launched by Emiratis,” says Shafar. “The government has also noticed this phenomenon and that’s how the new councils, such as the youth affairs ministry, came to be established.”
He puts the shift in perspective. “It’s no longer about investing in a business and reviewing the books at the end of the year to reap investment benefits. The new generation is more involved and hands-on. You see them behind the counters, in the kitchens, working alongside their tailors or craftsmen. We’ve moved on from being just importers of products and services to creating them ourselves. Hopefully we will be able to export them in the future.”
Going back in time, Shafar recalls that historically, the UAE had a strong emphasis on skill-oriented education. But these technical institutes began to be seen as schools for academically non-performing students, following which they were all but shut down.
“With the advent of Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, these schools are coming back in vogue as vocational skills are gaining more relevance,” he opines. “These technical courses can be integrated into school curriculum and encourage students to take up design skills at a much earlier stage, rather than wait until they’re in college.”