German Hannes Grebin wants to create fresh design identity for the Middle East

The German creative Hannes Grebin is championing a fresh design identity for the Middle East.

Hannes Grebin. Courtesy Hannes Grebin
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Hannes Grebin has always been more interested in the “bigger, more meaningful” projects. At school, he was largely unenthused by day-to-day learning, but jumped at the opportunity to take over the school magazine. And when he was studying design at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany, he admits to feeling “underchallenged by common design projects, which, from a current point of view, were lacking both meaning, proper feedback and interdisciplinary collaboration”. So he tended to pursue other projects, which included, among other things, organising a strike against student fees and rallying his peers to help transform an old defence tower into a party venue.

For his final project at college, Grebin, who was born in 1980 in Rostock in the north-east of Germany to architect parents, came up with the Cozy Furniture collection, which he describes as “a weird-looking redesign of a German living room from the 70s”. The collection revisited five stalwarts of the German living room: a couch, an armchair, a carpet, a wall unit and a ceiling lamp, in an attempt to dissect and question traditional definitions of “cosiness”.

The resultant forms were, Grebin explains, so “puzzling to the brain” that they were noticed – and lauded – by a number of major design magazines and blogs.

So, like many an aspiring creative, Grebin began presenting these pieces at design fairs. He spent a small fortune and received plenty of positive feedback, but struggled to find anyone to produce the collection, something that he says is “a dilemma quite common to young design graduates, having never been told how the business really works”.

During one of these affairs – the 10 Graduates of the Year show at London Design Week – Grebin had a chance encounter with Rami Farook, the founder of the Dubai-based art and design gallery Traffic. Farook invited Grebin to visit Dubai to discuss his Cozy project. While the meeting didn’t see the collection come to fruition, it did give Grebin his first introduction to the UAE.

The driving culture took a while to get used to, he admits, but he was immediately struck by “the general mindset and enthusiasm of the Emirati people to get things accomplished quickly”, particularly when it came to larger-scale projects.

During his week-long trip to the emirate, Grebin visited an array of impressive restaurants, “mind-blowing” shopping malls and “architectonic novelties”, met with local manufacturers and craftsmen, and took a road trip to Oman – but what he didn’t see was much in the way of traditional design. Instead, he noted the prevalence of “western-imported” architecture, interiors and furniture.

“To be honest, when looking for implementation of the rich traditional Arabic cultural heritage, I actually found it only in bazaars or in the historical part of Dubai,” he recalls. “This made me really think of the relevance of a contemporary Arabic design language and therefore an education transfer with design strategies for a mature country like the UAE.”

The seeds for a new project were sown. Grebin started working on The New Arabic – A Design Language for the Middle East, an exploration of new ideas and strategies for a contemporary and authentic Arabic design identity.

The project currently consists of three prongs – The New Arabic and Bidoun collections of furniture, which include tables, ceiling lamps, sofas, stools and a shelving unit, and a reimagining of the national emblem of the UAE. The collection draws heavily on the geometric patterning and typography that is so prevalent in this part of the world, but uses clean, distilled lines, colours and materials to create a more streamlined aesthetic.

Inspiration was not hard to come by, says Grebin. “If you analyse original Arabic life concepts, such as nomadism, and you dig deeper and deeper, from ceremonies to sitting culture to furniture to ornaments and textures, there is a big field to get your inspiration from, and plenty of details to redesign or minimalise.

“I was simply astonished when doing research on the extensive world of Arabic patterns to discover how few are being implemented in contemporary design. These could easily and successfully be applied to design markets across the western world.”

But, as one might expect, Grebin’s idea extends far beyond the creation of a few pieces of furniture. He’s all about the bigger and more meaningful projects, after all. What he hopes to do is kick-start a wide-reaching and holistic conversation about what contemporary Arabic design is – and could be.

Getting young and emerging local talent on board would be key to the success of this project, Grebin explains. “I believe that the best people for implementing this rich cultural heritage in areas like design, art and architecture should be from the local population. From what I know, there are some art, design and architecture colleges across the Middle East, which is superb as a start.”

But, based on his own experiences in college, Grebin believes that more can be done to provide emerging talent with necessary background knowledge and skills. “In my honest opinion, colleges may be outdated, and therefore it could be very beneficial to establish interdisciplinary project teams to consider brand new educational strategies for a proud and design-aware Arabic future.

“I could imagine myself and many other young and highly motivated people from all over the world – including graphic designers, architects, typographers, product designers, people from the media, artists and even people from totally different professional backgrounds – joining the discussion to rethink strategies for a contemporary Arabic design language, based on its rich cultural heritage, providing their unique and profound expertise, and resulting in extraordinary ideas.

“Everybody who understands the relevance of rethinking this whole topic is welcome to join forces, contributing with what they are good at, whether they are a thinker, designer, finance guy, executor or just good at connecting people.”

The result, says Grebin, could be “something magical”.