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Sun 21 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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Best of British

A showcase of British design highlighted the high end of the industry.

A showcase of British design highlighted the high end of the industry.

The UK boasts a design culture that is diverse, wide-ranging, innovative - and very often overlooked. "Britain has a record of ingenuity and creativity," said Jeff Wilson, deputy consul general and head of the trade and investment section of the British Embassy in Dubai.

According to Wilson, British design is characterised by flexibility, openness and expertise, which makes it synonymous with innovation and enables it to guide and shape consumer trends. But, characteristically unassuming, it could be accused of failing to draw attention to its standing at the forefront of the industry.

"The British design industry is large and diverse, spanning disciplines from branding and graphics, packaging and commercial interiors, to product design, fashion, architecture, multimedia and crafts," he said.

"Its diversity of talent and expertise, and its willingness to adopt new ideas ensure that it will always have a leading role to play in guiding consumer tastes, as well as predicting and reflecting consumer trends," he added.

And as design becomes a key differentiator in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, the UK is well positioned to further strengthen its standing, he continued.

"Using design helps businesses compete on value rather than price - and helps them set the pace in crowded markets. British designers are renowned throughout the world for their ability to deliver effective design solutions. They also have a unique ability to produce design for the international marketplace," he said.

In an attempt to further highlight this international appeal, the British Embassy in Dubai organised an exclusive showcase of British design in November, giving a select group of high-end, highly specialised designers the opportunity to make initial moves into the UAE market.

"British designers are showing a continued and unrelenting interest in the UAE and Middle East market in general," said Pat Steel, senior international trade advisor, who was leading the UK contingent.

"British companies appreciate that the UAE market is looking for high quality, design-led products with the ‘wow' factor, at a fair price. This fact is upheld by trade statistics, which show that imports into the UAE of UK interior lifestyle product increased by 52% from 2006 to 2007," she noted. Wilson highlighted Alomi Real Wood Floors, a manufacturer of wood flooring, among the British companies that have already made their mark in the UAE.

"Alomi products can be seen in almost every five-star hotel in the UAE," he noted.

Brilliant Adventures was also mentioned for having created a storm of interest in the region, with its infinity candles and Kaleidasphere range, while The Specialist Washing Co is also making significant inroads, he said.

"The Wuduseat is a single, purpose-built appliance in which visitors to prayer room can undertake ritual washing in a safe, comfortable and digified manner," Wilson explained.

On show

Growing awareness of the scope of opportunity available in this market guaranteed strong participation from British stakeholders at this year's Exclusive Showcase of British Design.

"Interiors and design companies in the UK are fully aware of the construction boom and the opportunities that exist in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the other emirates, due to the amount of publicity in the British media in recent years.

"Many British interior designers are moving in and offering their services. In addition, several of them have opened up regional offices in order to better make themselves available to opportunities in the Gulf region, especially the UAE," Wilson maintained.

Past editions of the annual showcase, now in its third year, have yielded good business opportunities, with at least 20% of attendees having formed business partnerships in the UAE or successfully sold their product into the market, as a result. With the effectiveness of the event measured not in footfall but in the quality of visitors, this year's showcase was deemed a definite success by Steel.

"The footfall at our events is never designed to be large; we are seeking to attract visitors of a high calibre and to give both the visitor and the delegate time at the event to begin developing their relationships. At this year's event we achieved this significantly better than in the previous two years and most of our delegates have already begun to progress the valuable contacts they made during the day." Showcasing his work outside of the UK for the first time was Jaz Asbury of Jaz Asbury Metal Design, who promoted his one-of-a-kind, bespoke staircases, furniture, sculpture, lighting, and general and architectural fittings.

"I work 95% with steel because it is what I was trained with. The way that I use it is unique; I have techniques that are totally original to me. I use these 100-tonne presses and big power hammers, which require a lot of technical expertise," Asbury explained.

With a client base that is split between private clients and professional interior designers, Asbury is equally happy creating one-off pieces for a living room or a hotel foyer, he explained.

"It would be quite interesting to break into this market because there is a lot of creativity going on here. With all this development going on, people need these buildings to look good on the inside as well as to look good on the outside. To be honest, a lot of what I've seen is very opulent and very well done but not necessarily tasteful."

After a successful introduction to the region, Asbury is now planning to attend Interiors UAE in Abu Dhabi in March.

"Fortunately most, and I mean over 50%, of the people who came to the showcase were very interested in my work, which is most encouraging. There were several interior designers and architects among them who expressed an interest in doing business," he said.

Also present promoting his range of bespoke furnishings was Martin Howard. "I use metal and glass and create one-off interior stuff. I handmake each piece to order. This is new territory for me, so I thought I would come and explore the market and see what was happening," Howard commented.

Art attack

Intrigued by the potential of the UAE market, Kevin Blackham Contemporary Art was another newcomer to the region. "This was our first time in Dubai and I made some interesting contacts. I think certainly as far as the art industry goes, Dubai, and maybe the wider Middle East, is just at the point where it is beginning to wake up to wall art, particularly in corporate spaces," said Phillipa Blackham. As one of the UK's leading architectural artists, Kevin Blackham is known for taking iconic buildings and making them the subject of artwork. "We can do a one-off bespoke piece where you take a photo of a hotel or whatever and turn it into a line drawing and then into a finished picture. The process is very repeatable but it is all hand produced and painted," Blackham explained.

"In some hotels here, I'm surprised to see that they include such detail in the finishing touches and then they put a print on the wall. They think a lot about the fabrics and the rugs and the tabletop objects, which are all quite transportable - but a painting on the wall is quite a permanent thing. And you shouldn't discount original art on price because it can be produced for a reasonable cost," Blackham noted.

With traditional markets proving increasingly unstable, British companies have more reason than ever to look further afield. "Wrongly maybe, we look at the US as a very easy place to do business. And while the US market hasn't faltered for us, the UK and Europe have," said Gary Barnes of Martin Furniture and Interior Fittings.

"We've been a little bit cushioned in the US, I suppose, with the dollar getting so much stronger against the pound. It's got a lot cheaper to buy our products - it's gone down by about 25% in the last six months, which obviously makes a difference. And there is also the price differential in this market - we are finding it easy to export," he added.

Strong historical ties and tangible goodwill between the UK and the UAE are also encouraging British designers to head UAE-wards.

"There seems to be a nice sympathetic feeling between the UK and Dubai. It's a nice match and it would be nice to foster those trade relationships. I think what the UK does so well is it has a lot of innovation and creativity and quality, whereas over here people appreciate the quality but may not have the same creative experience," said Blackham.

By all accounts, a steady stream of British designers and products onto the UAE market will continue unabated. As Barnes maintained, exploring new markets is the only way to survive in an increasingly global arena.

"It is a global economy. You can't insulate yourself from the world - it is just too small. You have to do business in Dubai and in the US and anywhere else where you get the opportunity."

"Gone are the days when we had this attitude of ‘we are English, the world will beat a path to our door'. And we're a nation of traders, after all."

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