Sustainability has long been in the lexicon of Dubai Design Week. This year, it is using its platform to emphasise how design can be the solution to social and environmental changes.
The event, running until Sunday, has transformed the Dubai Design District with large-scale installations, exhibitions and an expanded commercial focus in Downtown Design, a fair that showcases the best ideas.
The matter of sustainability is a major component across several of these presentations, which include a library showcasing materials crafted from recycled resources, flat-packed refugee shelters used by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and a traditional UAE hadeera made from salt-based materials. Hadeera are typically made from palm fronds and protect outdoor areas from winds.
“It was really important to stay authentic to that theme [of sustainability],” says Natasha Carella, programming director of Dubai Design Week.
“On a personal level, I really try to make sure that there's no sort of greenwashing. The reality is that no event at this stage globally is fully sustainable. But what we can do is at least encourage dialogue around that and start to encourage debates, and showing different types of creative community members as well as the general public that there are different ways of doing things.”
That message resonates when examining the materiality of the works. There are teahouses made of recycled paper and food waste, dining tables fashioned from plastics and discarded materials from the marine industry. Seashells, corks, aluminium foils, lenses from eyeglasses and seeds from dates, as the platform shows, can all be reimagined and repurposed into sustainable building materials.
“In curating the type of installations, we looked at exploring innovative materials,” Carella says. “Throughout the fair, you’ll see installations made from bio food waste, like tea and coffee and grapes, and a 3D-printed pavilion made out of fermented sugar.
"We even have a collective from India called Made in Earth and they’ve taken the loofa and transformed that into a material in itself that can be used and considered in design.”
The international spirit of the event is as strong as ever, but the regional focus is particularly sharp. “We have 30 per cent more participants this year,” Carella says. “It was really important for us to continue to grow regional kind of participation because we really see ourselves [responsible for] amplifying voices from this region.”
One of the many eye-catching displays is the winner of this year’s Urban Commissions, an annual competition that invites new takes on outdoor furniture.
Designest reimagines pigeon towers from the peninsula as a structure that serves both humans and birds. The towers are made of styrofoam fixed onto a steel structure, with an exterior treated with concrete and recycled Glass Reinforced Plastic. The pigeon holes utilise 3D-printing technology and are made using plant-based polylactic acid mixed with wood powder.
Bench-like protrusions within the towers, meanwhile, make the towers a comfortable place to sit.
“There were many experiments,” designer Ahmad Alkattan says. “We couldn't print something completely out of [recycled glass-reinforced concrete], which was part of the initial proposal because of weight, time and cost constraints.”
One of the most colossal installations at Dubai Design Week is Abdalla AlMulla’s Of Palm. The installation comes as part of the Abwab initiative, which aims to bolster cultural exchange through design and architecture.
“The entire pavilion – its structure, the interiors and all the products that will be displayed in it – will be made from palm trees,” the Emirati architect told The National last month.
“I wanted to show how a palm tree, easily available locally, can be used to serve the needs of the people in terms of providing food, habitat, products and fuel.”
In Arabi-An, Tokyo's Mitsubishi Jisho Design reimagines a traditional Japanese teahouse using materials that could be easily sourced locally.
With a latticed design that blends recycled paper and tea with a floor made of dried fruits and cork, the installation is part of a project that has travelled to several cities before making its way to the UAE. The teahouse has changed form in its travels, with its joint angles morphing to reflect the latitude of the city where it’s being displayed.
“We wanted the teahouse to be something universal, which can be placed anywhere in the world,” says De Yuan Kang, an architect at Mitsubishi Jisho Design.
“As we move along different countries, we would like it to represent the context. We decided to understand what kind of experience is involved with being in a country and therefore the weather is something that we're very interested in. With a country that is closer to the equator, it gets warmer, it gets hotter, so then the whole facade closes up a little bit more.”
In Singapore, its joint angles were at just over a degree, resulting in a more compact structure. At 25 degrees, the installation in Dubai is more spread out but still more compact than the variations in Tokyo and Venice. Arabi-An also invites visitors to take part in a traditional Japanese tea drinking ceremony, running between 2pm and 6pm throughout Dubai Design Week.
Urban Hadeera by Wael Al Awar and Kazuma Yamao, from the company waiwai, reworks a prominent element in UAE architecture. Instead of using an open ring of palm fronds to provide shelter against the elements, Urban Hadeera is constructed using sustainable, salt-based materials. The installation aims to position the traditional architectural element within present and future contexts, underscoring the simplicity and efficacy of the hadeera.
Among the exhibitions is a library that showcases how recycled resources could lead the way in manufacturing building materials. Colab brands itself as “the first purpose-built material library in the UAE”, housing more than 400 materials made from a variety of items including seashells, date seeds, aluminium and waste paper.
“It's one of the first fully non-commercial, open-source platform materials libraries in the world,” says Richard Wilson, founder of Colab. “We want to showcase some new materials that are extremely pioneering."
Some have been developed in the Middle East, including Desert Board, a wooden board fashioned from palm biomass residue; and Ramel, which uses desert sand to form an alternative to concrete.
The d3 Architecture Exhibition, meanwhile, showcases projects by more than 35 architecture studios, merging heavyweight names like Zaha Hadid Architects and Foster + Partners with home-grown and regional companies. The exhibition is being held under the theme Sustainability – Past, Present and Future and is curated by the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Local designers also have a strong presence in Downtown Design, as do international companies such as Emu, Jaipur Rugs, The Bowery Company and Poltrona Frau.
Next to the section dedicated to the UAE Designer Exhibition, Tashkeel is presenting a handful of projects produced by its Tanween cohort. These include a dining table that makes use of plastic waste as well as those produced by the marine industry. The result is a green-marbled surface that feels as resilient as it is beautiful. The table is part of Chinara Darwish’s The Alchemy Series.
“In the marine industry, the navigational buoys have to be certain colours, pure yellow, pure orange,” Darwish says. The buoys are replaced every few years, and Darwish says she wanted them to be put to use. She also applied her recycling approach to road barriers, which were discarded after being damaged.
“I sourced all of this waste locally,” Darwish says. “I experimented with it to achieve the colour and the pattern.
Doroob by Maryam Elattar and Mohamed Elnaggar, meanwhile, takes its materials from construction sites. Constructed from wood recycled from cable reels as well as the bits of stone, marble and granite that have been reclaimed from infrastructure projects.
“We also added fired clay that was wasted from ceramic studios in the mix,” Elattar says.
The materials were not difficult to source, Elnaggar says. He adds: “I am an engineer. I work in infrastructure and usually we have all this [material] go to waste.” At Tanween by Tashkeel, Elnaggar and Elattar are showcasing a piece that functions as a standing desk and shelving unit. However, they have applied their approach to other furniture pieces including consoles, coffee tables and dining tables.
Now in its 10th year, Downtown Design marks its highest rate of participation, with more than 320 designers, studios and collectives involved.
But Mette Degn-Christensen, fair director of Downtown Design, isn’t concerned about the number, saying she instead focuses on “what we're able to do for the creative community, on the commercial side as well as on emerging designers".
“What I love is seeing people collaborating as a result of having met here or doing projects together,” she says. “Our very core mandate is really emphasis on quality design, which does not necessarily have to mean expensive, but contemporary design.”
The platform, Degn-Christensen says, is also acting as a springboard for large international companies that haven’t yet broken into the regional market to showcase their products.
“They're starting to see that the market can be a flourishing playground for them,” she says. “Living in Dubai, if you go to a coffee shop now or to some new hotels and restaurants, you start seeing this new aesthetics.
"There’s a huge wave of that as well as fresh talent, not only within product design but interiors. People who have gone abroad to study are coming back to open their practices here. I'm super excited about this wave.”