The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree is not just an idiom in the case of Omar Nakkash. He is the son of Wajih Nakkash, a formidable name in the regional design industry, who started the eponymously named Nakkash Gallery to sell global furniture brands in the UAE 35 years ago. More than three decades later, his son is not just following in on his footsteps, but also carving a new identity away from the shadow of the reputed family business.
Nakkash, 28, may have only recently launched his own interior design firm, Nakkash Design Studio, but he has lived in a creative environment since he was born.
“My father is a trained architect and interior designer, and my mother was involved in the fashion world. So growing up, I was immersed in a functional and beautiful environment at home,” says Nakkash, who is based in Dubai Design District.
With both parents in the creative industry, being surrounded by design was a norm for him and his sister, Aya Nakkash, who oversees the company’s marketing department. “I’ve seen and experienced the growth of Dubai and its design industry during my growing up years here,” says Nakkash who was born and raised in the emirate.
While other children his age may have been more familiar with Marvel Comics characters, Nakkash shares that he was surrounded by iconic furniture pieces, but that he had no idea it was “design”. “It was embedded in me. As time went by, we would discuss design — anything that had a cultural value in arts and literature — at the dinner table,” he says.
By his own admission, Nakkash says that he didn’t consider any other career, and that any deviation from design was never an option. “From the age of seven, I knew that what I was surrounded by was very important,” he says. “I feel blessed to be following my passion. The difference between career and passion is what you do after your work hours. I found myself reading more about design and asking more questions. I wanted to know about the history of design and the future of the discipline. I would sketch, paint and arts was my favourite subject in school. Simply said, it wasn’t a choice, but a pursuit.”
Nakkash’s strong leaning towards his pursuit led him to first move to New York, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in design and management from the famed Parsons School of Design, followed by a graduate degree in interior design from Milan’s Scuola Polytechnica di Design, Italy’s first school of design founded in 1954.
What are the major differences he finds between Dubai and Milan? Nakkash feels that Dubai has a long way to go but that it wouldn’t be appropriate to hold the city accountable to its inexperience. He also stresses the fact that there is nothing new to invent. “Everything has been thought of already; you can only reinvent,” he says, adding that it’s the level of quickness and innovation in design, materials and furniture in Milan that is unbelievable. “Every year, they reinvent the wheel which was originally created by them, and it is years ahead in terms of innovation and creativity. It can be a simple thing which you wonder why you didn’t think about it yourself.”
It’s evident that the Italian culture of innovation has influenced Nakkash’s thought process, especially the strong emphasis on mixing materials and creating prototypes. “In Italy, it’s totally concept-based,” he says about the critical thinking approach to design, which is increasingly becoming a crucial part of learning about design. “Everything stems from the concept. I remember when I was doing my master’s in Milan, our projects would last six months of which the first three months would only be spent thinking. We couldn’t even pick up the pen.” He describes that the actual thought process involves writing down several sentences to describe the concept and distilling its essence into one single word at the end. “This would be the core of the whole project,” he says.
On the other hand, Nakkash reckons that while things are changing for the better, there are many designers who come up with designs that are feasible, saleable and Instagrammable, and that the story becomes an afterthought. “To develop the continuation in retrospect is not an innovative way,” he says, reiterating that the regional industry is still evolving and will eventually develop its own ideology in time to come. “It’s very important to know what works for us in this country, culture and region, then take what’s best for us and develop our own narrative,” says Nakkash.
He feels that events such as Design Days and Downtown Design have started a more in-depth discourse. “You can gauge from the type of questions even the visiting members of the public ask now that things are moving in the right direction,” says Nakkash, who associates it with the phenomenal growth, especially in the case of Dubai. “It has had a positive impact in the entire MENA region, and set a benchmark to show other countries what an Arab, muslim country can achieve in terms of progress.”
However, he points out that despite the UAE’s progressive stance, it retains its strong cultural identity. “The oil is gone, but the cultural essence is all that they have, and it’s becoming stronger by the day,” says Nakkash, citing the recent exhibition of products by Emirati designers, which was concept driven.
“It is being led by prominent Emirati product designer Khalid Shafar, who is a mentor to these young, emerging designers. The exhibition was on par with all the other international exhibitions seen in Milan where it made its debut, alongside other showcases,” says Nakkash.
But what is the objective of his newly launched design studio? “It happened more naturally. I wanted to focus more on the creation of spaces and develop experiential concepts from the start to finish. We’ve a very strong foundation in furniture, in terms of retail and residential business. Previously, when people approached us, the interior architecture was already defined, and we were only doing interior decoration. It wasn’t giving me the platform or the opportunity to create something that I had envisioned. Nakkash Design Studio gives me that opportunity to create something from scratch with the help of detailed drawings, the music and the vibe.”
The competition is already heating up in a market which, some designers feel, is already saturated. How will his practice differentiate itself? “My ethos in design is to create human-centric experiences to engage all five senses. One thing I have always underlined is timeless elegance. We don’t follow trends, which can be very subjective worldwide. Every culture and region has its own values, practices and tendencies. I want to focus on timeless design and adopt a holistic approach,” says Nakkash.
Citing the example of Parlour, a French Bistro project in One Central district designed by him, Nakkash says that he even developed the playlist of the music played in the restaurant, the signature scent and even other intangible elements such as comfort, touch and feel.
“Essentially, it’s French food without the French attitude. Everything from colour palette and music was derived from that direction. We’ve also designed Nourish in Wasl, which serves healthy organic food using local produce, and no GMO. Then there is a fashion boutique called Mochi and two residential projects, all completed since we launched the firm less than two years ago,” he says.
Dubai’s cosmopolitan environment also influences Nakkash’s work, albeit the designer is of the opinion that good design is universal.
“A well-designed product or space should speak to everyone. I prefer not to do something that is cliched, but if the diversity challenges me to create something better, then, of course, that is a good thing,” he says. “We design for a specific emotion and time, which changes depending on the nature of the project – retail, commercial, food and beverage or residential.”
Despite being completely focused on the concept, Nakkash says that there is no set formula which works for all projects in the same way. “At the end of the day, as an interior designer, you’re selling your own taste. People are paying you because they like your aesthetics which they want in their space,” he says, adding that while balancing your own vision with that of the client’s may be challenging, but ultimately, the spatial experience has to be enhanced through design.
Among his favourite designers, Nakkash puts his father on the top of the list. “He has taught me a lot. Apart from my father, I admire, Gio Ponti, Rem Koolhaas, Nada Debs and Dubai-based practice, T.ZED Architects, founded by Tarik Al Zaharna.
What is on the cards for his relatively new firm? Nakkash says that he is participating in some design fairs including Downtown Editions in Dubai, which will take place in November this year, and Beirut Design Fair in Lebanon in September.
“I’ve also recently designed a bookcase and table collection, and I’m hoping to expand that. We’re also working on more food and beverage concepts in the UAE, as well as being in talks with a real estate developer for an unnamed project,” he shares without further revealing more details.