Dubai Design Week: lights made of fish scales, kombucha and palm fronds

Tanween by Tashkeel presents five luxury furniture designs crafted with sustainability in mind

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Indoor living is at its cutting edge at Downtown Design, the commercial focus of Dubai Design Week.

The trade fair gives artists and designers the platform to present and sell their work. It showcases everything from mind-bending kitchen appliances to bespoke pieces of furniture, and the Tanween collection is some of the most innovative on display.

Comprising works by six designers living in the UAE, the collection is based on a 12-month professional development programme run by Tashkeel, which make the most of local materials and production processes. This year, the designers from the Tanween cohort are presenting a series of luxury furniture pieces that were designed with sustainability in mind and by using materials that often end up in landfill.

A lamp made out of fish scales

'Tibrah' by Reema Al Mheiri, is a floor lamp with three shades made from fish scales. Antonie Robertson / The National

First up is Tibrah by Reema Al Mheiri. The design of the floor lamp, composed of three lightning elements, is striking even from a distance. However, you need to get up close to appreciate its more nuanced elements, namely the crystalline texture of the oval lampshades.

“They’re made using fish scales,” Al Mheiri says. “It’s a biodegradable material, as is the seaweed extract binder used for the materials.”

The design for Tibrah, which draws its name from an Emirati term used to refer to the location of oyster beds, was inspired by the layered relationship between the Emirati community and the sea.

“The idea came about when I was looking at waste streams in the UAE to find something to recycle,” says Al Mheiri. “A lot of raw materials were being thrown out. I was shocked to find out almost 40 per cent of the fish mass is discarded before consumption, including the head, bones and skin. The scales sparked an interest.”

Al Mheiri visited the fish market in Ajman, where she is from, approaching the fishermen in the hope of sourcing enough fish scales for the project. She ended up with much more than she had bargained for.

“I thought I was going to get two or three bags,” she says. “The first day, they dropped off nearly 10 kilos. By the fifth day, I had more than enough to work on for the next nine months.”

A console made of crushed dates

'Datecrete' by Sara Abu Farha and Khaled Shalkha was developed using crushed date seeds. Antonie Robertson / The National

Sara Abu Farha and Khaled Shalkha explored vernacular building methods across the region before finding a way to develop Datecrete, a cementitious design material using raw date seeds.

“A cementitious material behaves like concrete, but it's not concrete,” Abu Farha says. “It has no traces of cement or resin in it. It's a chemical mix that we developed, which utilises crushed dates.”

The husband-and-wife duo developed the material in their laboratory at home. Shalkha’s background as a chemical engineer, along with Abu Farha’s interest in material science, helped the couple develop Datecrete, which they hope will serve as a local alternative to portland cement.

“Date seeds have a similar constituency to wood,” Abu Farha says. “The material is even better than wood in some areas, like in the way it absorbs moisture. Date seeds are discarded by the tonne every day, but this is trash that has a lot of potential.”

The duo fashioned the material into a vanity console, complete with a full-sized mirror. The most intuitive connection people in the region make with date seeds is hospitality, Abu Farha says, but “they also have medical, cosmetic and ornamental uses.

“Dates have a very rich culture and legacy,” she says. “We thought the best way to nod to that legacy is through a vanity console.”

A palm-woven pendant light

'Anamil' by Huda Al Aithan celebrates the regional craft of palm frond weaving. Antonie Robertson / The National

Huda Al Aithan’s Anamil is a suspended pendant light that celebrates "safeefah", the regional craft of palm weaving. Al Aithan collaborated with Emirati craftswomen to produce the mesmerising light fixture.

“The metal frame is wrapped with 12 metres of handwoven safeefah,” Al Aithan says. “The metal morphing with khoos [palm fronds] acts as a timeline. It takes you from the past, which is basket weaving, to the future, which is this metallic aluminium wheel.”

Al Aithan was inspired by a weaver she met at a National Day fair last year. “She was trying to sell her baskets for cheap and it broke my heart because I know it’s a precious craft and she worked hard to make them," she says. "I thought why we can’t take the same craft and put it in the luxury market. People will start to look at it differently. They will appreciate its worth.”

Over the next year, she began learning how to weave herself, working with craftswomen from across the UAE and Saudi Arabia before collaborating with them to produce Anamil.

A bench made of cork

The 'Kaseeriya' bench by Ebrahim Assur incorporates design elements inspired by Islamic architecture and palm trees. Antonie Robertson / The National

At the centre of the Downtown Design space is a bench that puts a modern spin on the arched entrances found in Islamic architecture, while also paying homage to one of the region’s most resilient and valuable plants: the palm tree.

Kaseeriya by Ebrahim Assur is made out of recycled cork, camel leather and palm pellets from Palmade, the company behind the biodegradable cutlery featured at Expo 2020 Dubai.

“The palm pellets are essentially broken-down palm fronds, leaves and branches,” Assur says. “It’s ground into a powder and mixed with a sustainable material called PLA.”

Assur fashioned the palm pellets into long crystalline shapes, with which he adorned the cork that made up the bench’s body. The idea to use cork came after he noticed a truck in Abu Dhabi collecting the material to dispose in landfill.

“Cork is a beautiful material. It’s sustainable, a natural fire retardant and it can float,” he says. “I offered to purchase the cork from them, but they said I didn’t have to pay. Then they delivered a few trucks of cork to a cleansing plant in Al Quoz and that’s where I started the material research and development. Once I found the cork, I knew it was going to form the base of my design, though I wasn’t sure what it was going to be yet.”

The idea to make a bench came as Assur was reflecting upon the social changes that the Covid-19 pandemic brought about. Having worked in product design and interior architecture for more than a decade, Assur says he had plenty of experience developing light fixtures and yearned to try something new.

“I've never made a 2.5-metre bench out of cork before,” he says. “Because we were just coming out of the Covid era and people were still very distant, I wanted to create something that brought people together.”

A light inspired by kombucha fermentation

'Skin' by Shaza Khalil is a light fixture inspired by the fermentation process. Antonie Robertson / The National

Shaza Khalil also found material inspiration in an unlikely place for her design. An organic light fixture inspired by the patterns found on leaves, Skin makes use of the natural material grown by bacteria during the fermentation process of kombucha, a probiotic drink made of fermented tea and honey.

“I wanted to develop a material that I don’t have to recycle and is in itself sustainable," Khalil says. "When you brew kombucha and leave it aside, bacteria start to weave the cellulose into a biofilm that lays on top. It exists to protect the culture from external microorganisms, so it’s very much like skin.”

“I did some material research to understand its properties, fire retardancy, water resistance and tolerance, then harvested the material and turned it into a paste. This is embedded into a metal structure inspired by the structure of leaves."

Tanween by Tashkeel will be on display at Downtown Design until Saturday

Updated: November 12, 2022, 8:47 AM