Walking into Cities in the Galleria Shopping Mall on Al Wasl Road in Dubai, there’s a feeling of controlled chaos. It’s an inviting atmosphere with a definite hint of sensory overload. Items are randomly placed around the room – on first glance, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Italian leather tissue boxes sitting adjacent to a giant sculpture of a glittering red Converse shoe is certainly a scene you don’t see every day. Yet stare at it long enough and, strangely, it works. Take a second spin round the room and the method behind this apparent madness begins to reveal itself.
“We wanted the store to be a place where, if you’re bored on the weekend, you can come, browse and see what’s on offer,” explains the founder and owner of Cities, Hazem Aljesr.
The main concept of the store, says Aljesr, is for it to be versatile and ever-changing. The pieces on display now might not necessarily be in the same place a month from now. “Everything is on wheels,” he says, pointing to the bottom of the stands. “So we try to change everything at least every month. You come in and think it’s a different store, but actually we’ve just moved the furniture.”
Aljesr explains that he is looking to create a different “subtext” each time he changes the store around. Customers are meant to see each piece differently every time it is mixed in with new pieces. “Today, for example, you see pieces in the store here,” says Aljesr. “But if you put it with something else, you get a completely different perspective on it. People really notice this.”
In many respects, Aljesr has accomplished his goal of creating a place to come, socialise and browse. It’s easy to lose track of time by simply exploring what’s on offer. And whether intended or not, the store’s ambience very much resembles that of a museum, both with its varied, art-based creations and ever-evolving space.
Walking through the store, it’s obvious that Aljesr has created a carefully curated selection of pieces from a variety of designers. “We cover all price ranges,” he says. “And we cover a lot of Middle East designers who are up-and-coming, as well as a lot of other artists and designers from different parts of the world.”
The pieces around the store range from giant ceramic apples by the Brazilian-German duo Bull & Stein to plush chairs by the Lebanon-based Bokja, which are pieced together using materials hand-picked from the Silk Road.
Aljesr seems very much at ease among his multicoloured, multifaceted treasures. Tracing his interest in design back to an early age, he says that it “was in my blood from the very beginning”. He received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, with a minor in art history, studied graphic design, and eventually went on to get his MBA in marketing. “[Design has] always been a passion and I eventually decided to pursue it on the side with the store in Riyadh.”
Having grown up in Saudi Arabia, it follows that Aljesr chose Riyadh as Cities’ first location. The flagship, which Aljesr admits is “very personal”, opened in 2008. His newest project, the Dubai location, celebrated its official opening earlier this month, but Aljesr isn’t stopping there. “We are planning to open more in Dubai and we’re hoping to potentially expand to London. At least that’s the idea.” Through these stores, he hopes to “share the beauty of things” with his customers.
When asked about the design scene in the UAE, Aljesr is honest but hopeful. “The problem initially was that there wasn’t a lot of support for regional designers,” he admits. “Now the problem for designers coming from the region is that to do these pieces it ends up costing a lot. So you wind up with really nice designs, but the cost isn’t explained.”
Despite this obstacle, Aljesr agrees that, overall, there’s now more exposure for regional designers. “Dubai is really starting to push for more support and we see that through projects and events such as the Dubai Design District and Design Days Dubai. There’s a lot of push to expose these designers – and this is good. There is a lot happening and the region is starting to change.”
While there are a few outlets in the region that stock similar items to Cities, Aljesr feels his store still sets itself apart from the rest. “I think it’s because of the environment. We get a lot of people who come in and tell us that they haven’t experienced an environment like this before.” A lot of the comparable stores focus on a specific vision, he says – some, for example, by offering only modern pieces. “We, on the other hand, try to have everything under one roof,” he explains.
In a store so diverse, it’s difficult not to feel like a kid in a sweet shop. Every item seems to have its own story, and when asked which is his favourite, Aljesr finds it difficult at first to pinpoint one. Eventually, he identifies a sculpture of a pair of very large red trousers by the French artist Richard Orlinski. “They’re quite interesting,” he says, smiling. “They’re art pieces really. And now Orlinski is becoming very big in Japan and in the [United] States. The gallery has stopped sending us large quantities of his work because they’re not being given enough time to create them.” While it’s not entirely clear where one would place a sculpture like this in their home, it’s certainly a conversation starter.
Aljesr ends by pointing out a second item, a wooden table titled Silk on Dust, by the Spanish designer Maximo Riera. “What he really creates is sculpture furniture. But this is the first time [he’s gone] in this direction.” The direction Aljesr refers to is the use of wood that’s hundreds of years old. “It’s from the south of Spain. He didn’t cut down the trees, but rather found the wood. Nothing old was actually damaged.”
The legs of the table consist of haphazardly placed orange geometric shapes, and it seems only appropriate that Aljesr should choose such an offbeat piece. Cities, much like the table, is a mix of the functional and the bizarre – a store that you would do well to keep on your radar.
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