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Sun 3 Jun 2007 12:00 AM

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Experts unsure on Middle East design industry

Some of the world's most renowned designers flocked to Dubai last week for the first International Design Forum (IDF) - an event aimed at raising awareness on the importance of design among the region's businesses.

Some of the world's most renowned designers flocked to Dubai last week for the first International Design Forum (IDF) - an event aimed at raising awareness on the importance of design among the region's businesses.

Held between May 27 and 29, and organised by Moutamarat, a joint venture between Tatweer and Saudi Research and Publishing Company, the IDF put forward topics such as economies of design, bad planning and infrastructure challenges, designing for the masses, and cities of the future. The event was attended by some of the most high-profile designers and key design figures in the world including Karim Rashid, Peter Zec, Oliviero Toscani, Rodney Fitch, Sheikh Majed Al Sabah, Rem Koolhaas, and Zaha Hadid.

The significance of design for economies in the Arab World was the main topic in one of the forum's sessions. While design contributes US$23bn to the UK economy and makes up 1% of its GDP, the same figures for the Arab world have not been measured until this day.

Whether design can really generate figures for businesses was another focus, as surveys revealed that 90% of fast-growing companies said design was one of the key factors for their growth. In countries where design was recognised, great growth was seen in the economy, said one of the speakers at the session. Khalid Al Malik, CEO of giant UAE developer Tatweer and one of the main speakers at the forum, commented: "What Tatweer has done in the last four to five years has shaped industries and economies. I have to emphasize the importance of design. We have to think of design several times before we do anything here in Dubai."

Al Malik stressed that the end-use must benefit and be satisfied and so design plays a vital role, noting that the success or failure of any product is highly dependant on evaluating design.

"What we do as a company is redesign certain industries; healthcare, real estate, leisure, knowledge. Who are we building those industries for? The region, but we are also inviting people to come here. With Dubai healthcare city we've created the platform for companies to come here. It was so difficult for us to make it a success," he said.

The biggest challenge in building a design economy in the region, according to Malik, is people and culture and how design is perceived in this part of the world. The solution is creating something for this part of the world and bringing in the best people in the industry, not only to give advice and recommendation but to also help create ‘platforms' to solve existing problems related to design in the region.

Another solution, as product, interior, fashion, and furniture designer Karim Rashid, stressed is building a "good design school" in the region.

"There's a lack of really contemporary work here and places for youth culture. It's very conservative and it's a big enough city with many different languages so it's time for very highly-designed and contemporary places here," said Rashid. He added that hiring a few good designers would be a good first step but that the developers and people behind projects should be "open-minded enough". Other issues that need addressing include the lack of boutique hotels in Dubai and pedestrian areas in the city.

"On one hand what's happening here is so interesting but on the other there is much more that could be done with that kind of money in the world. There should be tiny little museums, galleries, boutique hotels, areas for pedestrians, very cool global shops. There's more to life than huge chains, brands, shopping malls, big palaces and office towers. That's a kind of artificial life."

Peter Zec, president of design-giant red dot of Germany, told
Arabian Business

he believed things were changing and while design at the moment is not as important for the region as it should be, the challenge must be overcome by developing a regional orientation and not copying the west. In relation to architecture he said: "It's very interesting to combine the traditional architecture of this region, for example the wind towers, with new technologies and architecture and by doing this creating a new approach." He added: "It doesn't make sense that all the houses here use air conditions and this is not sustainable. We pollute the whole world and it's not necessary because you have a wonderful system by nature that would work perfectly."

Zec added that several areas of design can be addressed in the region especially with regard to the construction industry. Designers don't have to always design concrete structures but might also make use of other natural materials. Implementing such ideas into the education system will create a new breed of designers that are more knowledgeable.


Rodney Fitch, chairman and CEO of product design company Fitch in the UK, further stressed Zec's point on the importance of education especially that the vision of Dubai to become a centre of hospitality and tourism in the future is being met by the design process. The problem is, he said, that all important pieces of design in Dubai are all being done by other people.

"Designer architects and consultants flying from around the world to achieve that on behalf of the national economy. That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing; I don't think we should all feel that the place is being somehow raped but going forward is essential as there should be an indigenous design economy and that's where a design school, design museum, design education and local design patronage begins to take hold," said Fitch.

The question whether design has become a privilege to the elite was also another topic of discussion. Expensive products from clothes and cosmetics to fancy high-class restaurants are only some of the products of high design.

Zec, who is convinced that design should make products accessible for all said: "The cradle of design was mass production based on the fact that many people should be able to afford it. A company can't afford to produce only for a group of people unless those things were tremendously expensive. Design is not just related to high-class luxury; it is also related to social and cultural impact. People should like to buy products at a reasonable price, but reasonable not too cheap because if they're too cheap means we have very cheap labour power."

Malik also addressed this issue pointing out that one of the outcomes of fast growth in Dubai was that a percentage of the population was left behind, unable to enjoy the privileges of middle and upper-class lifestyle. This, however, is changing.

"We are bringing them back to the equation in regard to lifestyle and how they live. The whole design of the latest areas announced by Dubai and Abu Dhabi are state-of-the-art communities that they like to see and we all like to see. An investment of US$816m has been dedicated to build three villages in industrial areas."

Oliviero Toscani, founder of Oliviero Toscani Studio in Italy and designer of some of the world's most successful brands and magazines, was very unimpressed with the design industry in the region saying advertising agencies need to be more creative, courageous and take risks to produce something more interesting. He also noted that most of what he saw around him was a copy of the west. With regards to architecture he said it was "too much".

"I'm so disturbed here by too much: this room, the lamp and light, two different wall papers, the chandelier, and the flower. How can you live like that? It doesn't help creativity, it kills it!" he said. The problem, he added, here is that so much of the interior and architectural design is over-designed and everybody is adding more elements: what they should do is take away. "Everybody is adding and that is not design. What you need here is more discipline and less money."

Al Manakh: presenting the Arab heritage to the world

Coinciding with the launch of the International Design Forum was the publication of the first ever comprehensive analysis of the development of the gulf region. Al Manakh: "A guide, an Atlas, an Agenda" is published by Moutamarat, and offers a detailed insight into the history, culture, and architecture in the region. It also covers the repercussions of the rapid development in the region on the rest of the world.

The book is seen as the first documentation of the unique urban condition experienced in the Gulf region from different points of view. This includes the voices of architects, intellectuals and developers contributing to the development of the region in the form of essays and interviews, as well as through a series of illustrations. Some of the contributors include famous designers such as Rem Koolhas, Ole Bouman, and Thomas Krens, giving not only their view on the current situation but their predictions for the future of the region as well.

Al Manakh is divided into three sections. The first, The Dubai Guide, is edited by Moutamarat and ponders with current projects, productions, plans and ideas ongoing in Dubai.

The second section, Gulf Survey, offers a thorough research on the Gulf region conducted by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) including new and detailed statistics related to architecture and urban ambitions of the Gulf as well as the social, economic and cultural consequences these new urban conditions can have on society.

Finally, The Global Agenda section presents concepts and strategies for design to provide shelter, security, sustainability, fairness and dialogue. A number of authors in this chapter talk about what the mission of design could to be in our current day.

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