Dubai-based design consultant and author, Esra Lemmens, discusses the paradigm shift in the industry with education and work experience being viewed upon in tandem with each other
How did your involvement in the advisory board of American University of Dubai (AUD) come about?
As someone who pursued a master’s degree in product design, I am consistently championing advanced education and democratising learning; something I manage to do by standing on the shoulders of giants.
In the words of Sir Isaac Newton, it means that we should choose to surround ourselves with people we respect and look up to. As a member of the Associate Board for the AUD, I bridge the communication gaps between the design department and industry.
Currently, the AUD is in the process of Council for Interior Design Accreditation, which is why the university’s design faculty is revising its programme learning outcomes, so as to align with the latest standards.
What kind of mentorship will you be providing to the design students at AUD?
After graduating, the next transition to learning involves taking up mentors and adapting to their creative process. Previously, mentors would take up a few apprentices, who could only learn from a few experts at a time. In the age of social media and instant information, it’s more convenient to cherry pick mentors and what lessons we want to learn from them.
My mentoring style is an amalgamation of two traits; a challenger and connector. As a challenging mentor, I asks the hard questions, play the devil's advocate, and make sure the mentee is really focused on their end goal. I push them to focus on the details, so the mentee will realise the importance of their particular goal. I am rather disciplined myself, so I can definitely be a drill sergeant sometimes, but I am always supportive.
At the same time, I connect my mentees with the skills they need to complete their journey towards growth – acting as a connector. My approach snaps them back to reality; I don’t slow down so they learn to keep up and observe what they feel is something they should internalize.
Do you reckon the standard of education in design faculties in the UAE has improved in the past few years? What has influenced this progress?
We’ve been reviewing trends and reports, and found that degrees in the creative fields will be highly sought after in the coming years. With higher levels of human-machine interactions, we’re reforming what education means to the students of today.
According to the World Economic Forum, professionals will need 10 critical skills by 2020; it includes problem-solving, critical thinking, and coordinating with others. The UAE is shaping its design faculties to incorporate these skills in soon-to-be professionals, considering how design is one of the main fields to require all of these skills.
Which other design initiatives in the region are you involved in?
I’m involved in a series of large scale projects in Saudi Arabia, such as Neom and a masterplan in Riyadh, which will be the size of the island of Manhattan. I get to make a significant contribution to the future of the Kingdom’s build environment, the creative industries and tourism, all in line with H.R.H. Vision for 2030. To be part of the transformation the Kingdom is undergoing right now on all levels, is personally dear to me.
In the middle of last year, I was appointed one of the Association of Professional Interior Designers (APID) ambassadors. It is a non-profit organisation, which is dedicated to promoting the development of the architecture and design community. It’ll host the 13th installment of the biannual IFI Congress set to take place in Dubai this year. Together with this team of ambassadors, we aim to contribute with their knowledge and expertise to this international platform that overlooks the exchange of information, advancement through research, and education in the field of architecture and interior design. My main role is to incorporate the objectives of both the IFI and APID in the international event.
How do you see the aspiring designers contributing to the design industry?
Designers have adopted a multi-faceted approach to creating; they no longer just design something, they consult, collaborate, and communicate with other professionals to understand how their creations impact different dimensions.
In an age of digitlisation, interiors and products require tactile designs since the increased use of screens and computers make us crave a sense of touch. I’ve observed how designers place great significance to take part in the production process. As I said before, they’re looking past the design phase and learning more about the services and systems that go into the making of a product or a space.
In addition, I’m intrigued by the implementation of software simulations that enhance manufacturing. Now, designers have access to limitless possibilities to try new concepts and ideas. There possibilities for designers to try new and revolutionary ideas in design practice are limitless. Thus, we can safely say that we are going to witness the same progress from entrepreneurial revolution that the 19th century world witnessed after the advent of industries. In addition, with the internet connecting consumers to producers instantly, the reach of the consumer has grown.
I am keen on empowering the new entrepreneurial designer, who does not only influence the ways in which new designs are created, but also how they treat consumers as ‘prosumers’ and know exactly what to expect in the design outcome and impact of its product and its quality. These designers are willing to metamorphose from being primary producers or distributors to aggregators. They have tremendous potential to create and manage huge networks that can make a real difference in various trade markets.
What kind of role are you playing in the inaugural edition of Edit Napoli?
Together with David Alhadeff, Giulio Cappellini and Alessandro Valenti, I help compile the panel of experts for the new design fair’s inaugural edition. Edit Napoli focuses on the designer/maker, with a goal to provide visibility to artisan designers, while establishing a distinct production system that integrates futuristic dynamics to current values.
A number of designers have expressed the importance of doing things with our own hands. This is, in part, a kind of ethos (similar to the slow food movement), as well as a necessity. The rise of the designer/maker has much to do with the fact that, while design has become an increasingly popular career choice, the opportunities to work with producers don’t grow at the same rate. While furniture designers once aspired to have their pieces produced serially, many now seem to have given up on the idea. Before the recession, it seemed like a path was opened for just a few select designers to sell their work in galleries. Once the bubble was popped, the market substituted this notion of the designer as an artist with a more humble interpretation: the designer as an artisan.
The fair strongly emphasises on a continuous flow of the process and evaluation of the ‘quantity vs. quality’ balance.
How will it shine a light on regional design?
I’ll be representing the eclectic design sphere of the Middle East, and bring together the region’s buyers and designers to explore new avenues in the field.
We’re working to reintroduce and highlight rich Middle Eastern craftsmanship and its potential to contribute to contemporary design. Fairs such as Edit Napoli play a crucial role in preserving and rejuvenating traditions.