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Thu 11 Mar 2010 04:00 AM

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House of Zain

Getting up close and personal with design maverick Zain Mustafa.

House of Zain
Zain Mustafa (Photos by Christopher Purslove)
House of Zain
A bedroom derived from a Japanese artist’s painting.
House of Zain
A contemporary restoration, inspired by old homes and cafés in Damascus.
House of Zain
A contemporary, functional yet dramatic apartment building lobby concept, created for Presotto, Dubai.
House of Zain
The Jamjar studio, café and art gallery in Al Quoz, Dubai.
House of Zain
British public school and cigar lounge-inspired Signature Clubs offices, located at DIFC in Dubai.
House of Zain
Detail of a chandelier sitting a few centimetres above the dining table.

Getting up close and personal with design maverick Zain Mustafa.

Multi-coloured, mismatched cushions jostled for space, a striking reinterpretation of traditional, nomadic-style seating. Bold geometric patterning wove its way from the floor plan onto decorative wall motifs, before taking on the form of an irregularly-shaped mirror-topped table in the centre of the space. Wooden floors worked with gently-glowing light boxes to exude a sense of warmth; and state-of-the art speakers towered overhead.

This was Zain Mustafa's entry for the first ever Index Contemporary Majlis Competition - and he was convinced that he had got it all wrong. Made almost entirely out of recycled materials, he had aimed to create an honest, fresh, sleek, sustainable interpretation of a highly traditional space.

Mustafa's majlis was revolutionary in its simplicity, in its sensitivity, and in its ability to retain a sense of authenticity whilst catapulting itself into a contemporary context. And, in spite of Mustafa's misgivings, it won. More importantly, it acts as a telling example of what Zain Mustafa - and the interior design company he has founded - stand for.

At the age of 39, Karachi-born Mustafa has already enjoyed a career that spans academia, fashion, interiors, art, and web design. A public school education in the UK led to further education at New York's Parsons School of Design, Boston University and Columbia University. Returning to Pakistan to undertake some research for his PHD, Mustafa fell into the world of fashion design. Much like the contemporary majlis, Mustafa's designs went back to basics, embracing organic, natural fibres and mueslins, in unbleached whites and ivories.

Five years later, Mustafa returned to New York, finding himself in the midst of the dot-com boom. He started designing websites, exploring the art of transporting people from A to B in a digital space. Until 9/11, when he watched as the Twin Towers fell, and decided that it was time to move on. A stint in Santa Fe saw Mustafa's focus shift to art, which led to an invitation to take part in the 6th Sharjah International Biennial in 2003. By his own account, that's when he "fell in love" with Dubai, and he has called the emirate home ever since.

While his main focus now falls predominantly on interiors, Mustafa continues to dabble in a range of design disciplines. Adding a brand new string to his already bursting bow, he was recently selected to present a 16-episode television show for Dubai One. CID caught up with Mustafa to find out more about his colourful career path.

What were the highlights of 2009?

The design award for the contemporary majlis at Index has definitely got to be the biggest achievement of last year for us. It was great to have been sharing a design platform with people that I have looked up to all these years, like Hirsch Bedner Associates.

We were wondering, financially, where we should go, what direction we should take, whether we should veer back to more residential rather than commercial, whether we should go more into educational programmes or not, and then the Index thing suddenly happened.

When it came down to it, I really thought I had made the worst decision. I was looking at our piece and I remember thinking: This is obviously out of place, I've misread the brief, something has gone terribly wrong. We were very shocked when we won.

Tell us about the design of your entry.

What we did - and I think this is one of the reasons that we might still be here - is we were honest. We were not trying to mimic anything. For whatever it's worth, our work comes from our hearts. There are a million magazines floating around in our office. We look at what's out there, but we don't just open up a magazine and say that's it, let's bring it in. I know some people do that and each to their own. I know there's a market for it. They do variations of what's trendy.

I think our work, especially the contemporary majlis piece, is extremely unfashionable and untrendy. I kept saying we need to go back to essentials, make it more basic. I looked at the mathematics of the mashrabiya; it was important to understand the mathematics, the tradition of movement and transition. We looked at how we could make it flexible, and how we could make it green, but still contemporary.

It had to be cool and contemporary, so it had to have a chic-ness to it and a slickness to it. Just because something is traditional, it doesn't mean that it has to be heavy and clunky.

I also decided that we were going to look at recycled products. I wanted to put something together just from leftovers. So, for example, the fabrics came from a company that we work with. It was just throw-away fabric that would have gone to some charity, but it came to this charity instead! There was a list of people that supported us and that, for me, was also a big achievement.

There was a group of people that said we believe in this young team's movement forward in the design world. I couldn't have done it without Mohanned Sweid of Depa, for example. I wouldn't be sitting here having this conversation if it wasn't for people like him.

The result is a strong statement on contemporary Middle Eastern design. Do you see effective examples of this in Dubai?

I think it's a matter of evolution. There are a lot of ‘Madinat Jumeirah' type exteriors and interiors going up all over town. And then there's the ‘uber-clean, crisp, chrome and white leather' happening at the other end.

A lot of it is either coming from replicating traditional architecture or from replicating western architecture. There's the Mediterranean ‘Knowledge Village' style that is now broad-brushed all over town. Or the Emaar look, which is very stoic. It's beautiful but it sits back and is far too reserved.

I don't think anybody's getting it right, necessarily. But I think it's really fun to look at the design discussion that is happening in Dubai right now. We are not far from coming up with our very own design language. Should the design industry be driving the sustainability debate?

I definitely think we should be driving it. I say this all the time but it doesn't seem to be hitting home: We need to be driving this. We are educators. If it becomes something that's easy to talk about then the clients will want it too.

Maybe that's why I was a little bit nervous about our piece at Index. It wasn't reactive to what people might have wanted. It wasn't reactive to a market, or an economic requirement. It was reactive to a brief. I thought that's what competitions were for, that was the whole idea. You spit out a bunch of ideas and whether it gets built or not is irrelevant. You open up the dialogue.

You have worked across a range of design disciplines. Do you think that if you are truly creative, you can work across the whole spectrum of design?

One thing will inform another. It is a little bit like if you are on the treadmill. If you are just running at the same pace for twenty minutes, your body will stop responding. But if you go fast, slow, fast slow, up, down, up, down, then you'll get results. That, for me, is a good work analogy.

I'd like to think that our designs are fresh, bordering on interesting, but mostly honest. It's inspired by anything, from the beggar on the street, to the decoration on a camel, to the sweat coming off an endurance horse, to false eyelashes - everything and anything.

And I think that's how it should be. Why would you want to put a limit on what you are inspired by? The world out there offers so much. Who knows what will act as a trigger?

You say that you moved to this region because you ‘fell in love with Dubai'. Do you still love it - and is it the same place that you fell in love with?

It's not at all the same place. I've just started shooting a 16-episode television series that is all about Dubai and I think one of the reasons that they picked me is that I've lived here a fair amount of years, and I see it as home. When I first came here it was a really sexy city. It was just right, growing at exactly the right pace... and then suddenly it hired itself a personal trainer and got onto steroids and it just inflated. What's happened now is it has had some sense beaten into it.

I think now is a very charming time to be in Dubai. It's enigmatic - we have no idea what's going to happen. Its big brother has said: ‘I've got muscles too, which I can also flex', and that sibling rivalry is going to be extremely healthy.

I think it's a great place to be. As much as I picked Dubai over New York seven years ago, I would be even more likely to pick it now. I think New York has died. Giuliani cleaned it up but what made New York cool in the 1980s was its grunge, its edginess, its street art and fashion, and that's all gone. It's now extremely safe, clinical and civilised, but it lost its art base.

Does Dubai offer you the opportunities that you need as a creative?

It's carte blanche, as far as I'm concerned. For people like me that are poking their fingers into every pie possible and living life to the fullest, this is the place that has the least boundaries. It's a really democratic and laissez faire environment, even if its infrastructure doesn't state that.

You can walk into any government office, pitch a proposal to anybody, and they will look at it. And if they think it works, contrary to their existing mandate, they will fit it in. This is a place where they are open to new ideas and new people coming in.

When it comes to the region's design industry, what are the key issues that need to be addressed, in your opinion?

There's got to be a way of doing projects that creates a signature language for us. I'm really keen on having Gulf-based design that can be imported from here. It's time to start creating a cool, contemporary, forward-thinking Middle Eastern design language. Let's create our own vocabulary.

Also, the interior design industry needs to come together. There should be a design think-tank at governmental level. Dubai Municipality approves what can be built and what can't be built, but are they approving on the basis of aesthetics? Have they decided that this is going to be the look for this region? That's a place that I'd like to be involved in. I live here and I love it, so why can't I contribute to what it looks like?

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