Khalid Shafar’s arish-inspired installation occupies place of pride in London

We speak to the Emirati designer Khalid Shafar about his installation The Nomad, which has been on display at the Shubbak festival in London.

Khalid Shafar's The Nomad installation at 2015 Shubbak Festival in London, UK. Photo by Jamie McGregor Smith
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With the third edition of Shubbak, London's biennial festival of contemporary Arab culture and art, drawing to a close this week, the Emirati designer Khalid Shafar can tick off yet another box on his career to-do list.

The furniture designer, who has already created his own scent and become a regional brand ambassador for Kiehl's this year, participated in the festival with his first public-space installation, The Nomad, which has taken pride of place on the Rootstein Hopkins Parade Ground at the Chelsea College of Arts.

The Nomad takes its inspiration from the most traditional of sources: the arish, or palm frond. In a nod to age-old Emirati architecture, Shafar used the idea of the palm to craft a space dedicated to social interaction. The structure is made from African teak wood and features a sturdy central column in the form of a palm tree. The palm's "fronds" extend out from this central support, then drop down to the ground, creating a semi-­enclosed structure with cushions positioned along its internal perimeter.

“Nothing is attached to the ground,” Shafar explains. “It is a completely self-supporting structure. We had to think ­carefully about how we distributed the weight and maintain tension. It’s an architectural structure that refers back to the majlis or to tribal gathering ­spaces – traditional spaces dedicated to social interaction.”

Beyond this, The Nomad is a comment on how architectural principles that have served this region throughout the ages have been all but forgotten. "There are a lot of architectural principles and methods from the past that are not used by architects today, in terms of function, rather than aesthetics," Shafar explains. "Wind towers, for example. Today, these are used simply as decorative elements, rather than taking the simple but effective construction methods behind them and applying them to today's architecture. The wind tower is an amazing example of engineering – it was the air conditioning of its day. I'm not saying we should use them exactly as is, but they can certainly be reinterpreted for today's style. I'm not saying we should replace all our ACs with wind towers, but maybe we can reduce the amount of energy we use during the cooler seasons by employing such elements."

Shafar cites the ­time-honoured inclusion of central courtyards in local architecture as ­another case in point. "This was a ­standard feature of Emirati homes in the old days. Today, many houses have external terraces and balconies instead, but these are rarely used because of concerns about privacy. So why not go back to building houses around a central courtyard? I wanted to convey a statement with The Nomad. It is less about the style than about the process and construction methods."

The name is symbolic, harking back to the region’s nomadic tribes and their migratory lifestyles. Fitting, then, that a defining feature of this structure is how easily it can be dismantled, put into a box and shipped elsewhere. After its stint in London, which has been extended until August 12, this particular nomad will be making its way to Dubai, where it will grace the grounds of Dubai Design District (D3) until April 2016. It will then move to the capital for the duration of the Abu Dhabi Festival.

The use of wood is also not coincidental – anyone familiar with Shafar’s work will be aware of his predilection for the material. “I love the way it changes in colour,” he says. “It has a completely different character when it is raw to when you have finished working with it. It is alive, almost. And the different grains are the marks of nature.”

The response in London to ­Shafar's latest endeavour was very positive. "This was very new for London. It is typical of a big city that people never stop to talk to one another, or take the time to really connect. The Nomad opened them up to our culture, which is very family-orientated and interconnected. It provided an insight and understanding into how things work here. The Nomad was ­positioned on the grounds of the college and the students were excited that they had a place to gather, to sit and to communicate. I hope it sent out a strong cultural message, just as the whole of ­Shubbak does."

The initial idea behind The ­Nomad was developed for another project. Shafar was invited by the American Hardwood Export Council to create a product out of thermally modified ash that would be suitable for outdoor use. The designer presented a couple of different proposals; in the end, the team settled on the City's Bench, industrial-style wooden seating that's currently to be found on the grounds of D3. The idea for The Nomad was shelved, until it resurfaced in a conversation between Shafar and Shubbak's artistic director, Eckhard Thiemann, who thought the installation was a perfect fit for Shubbak's theme for 2015: Art in the Public Realm.

By his own admission, Shafar had never imagined he would take part in the biennial festival, which showcases all facets of Arab art and culture – from music and film to dance, theatre and all other areas of performance and visual art. “Being a platform for purely Arab work, in a multicultural city such as London, which is at the forefront of design, Shubbak presented a great opportunity for my work to shine,” Shafar says.

The process was not without its challenges. Even though the design part of the process was complete, Shafar had only two months to prototype and manufacture his final product. The fact that this was an outdoor installation brought its own set of issues, particularly in terms of material selection. He needed to work with low-maintenance materials that were resistant to rain, heat and UV rays. Safety was another key consideration. "If it was merely a piece of sculpture, that would be different," Shafar points out. "But with The ­Nomad, we wanted people to look at it and touch it and use it. It was built to be used, so it needed to be comfortable. People had to be able to sit in it, or even lie down if they felt like it, and to really be comfortable. And safe.

“This really pushed me as a designer,” he continues. “It is very different to creating a single product. When you design a product, you have a consumer in mind. You design your object based on that target audience. If you are designing for all segments, you have to consider all their needs – from children to adults to the disabled. Everybody should be able to use it.”

With the benefit of hindsight, would he have done anything differently? Shafar is happy with the end product, although "as a designer, I am never 100 per cent satisfied with anything I create". Because ­The Nomad was designed to be viewed in London during the summer and would only be seen during daylight hours, one thing that Shafar didn't include was lighting. "When we bring it back to the UAE, I might think about how to introduce light sources," he says.

“I would maybe have also liked to look at introducing more functionality into the space, at making it more multipurpose. Now it is a space to gather, to relax and to chat – but there’s no reason why it couldn’t act as a pop-up cafe or shop.”