The Saudi designer breaking the cycle of seating

We meet Ayah Al Bitar, a Saudi designer who has created an innovative range of floor seats with a social message.

The Wisada collection was designed in orthopaedic consultation with chiropractors and psychiatrists. Courtesy Wisada
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Great design generally falls into two almost contradictory categories. There are pieces so groundbreaking and innovative, you can't fathom how the human brain could have conceived them. At the other end of the spectrum, there are objects and ideas that so obviously fulfil a basic human need, it seems incredible that no one has thought of them sooner. Wisada, a collection of floor seats shaped like oversized bicycle saddles by the young Saudi Arabian designer Ayah Al Bitar, falls very firmly into the second category.

The idea, which essentially reassesses how we sit on the ground, was first conceived while Al ­Bitar was completing her thesis at ­Parsons The New School for ­Design in New York. Born and raised in Riyadh, Al Bitar wanted to create a product that addressed the social issue of female mobility in her native country. This was last year, when the issue was top of mind for many. "The issue keeps coming up and then dying down again but last year, it was intense. There were posters and videos on YouTube that went viral. There was a movie that came out called Wadjda, which was my inspiration, and so I decided to create something 3-D and ­tangible."

Al Bitar cites the pink ribbon used to raise breast-cancer awareness as an example of how objects can be used to capture a cause. “Breast cancer is something that is so intangible, but the fact that you put on that pink ribbon makes you feel like you are supporting the cause. That tangibility creates a greater connection to the message. I wanted to create something that you could have in your home that had a social concept behind it, but at the same time was very subtle. I decided to look into floor seating, and redesign how we sit on the floor.”

The design harks back to Bedouin-style seating and the traditional sadhu cushions used by nomadic tribes. But Al Bitar wanted to create an updated, contemporary version. The shape is an intriguing but subtle reference to transport and mobility – Al Bitar says she was intrigued by the idea of the bicycle seat, because it “initiates movement, but is very stationary, which is an interesting parody”. But it’s also an orthopaedic solution created in consultation with chiropractors and psychiatrists.

“It is the optimum height if you were to lay your head on it and watch a movie without straining your neck. It’s the optimum height if you were to sit next to it and lean on it, in the traditional Bedouin way – it doesn’t strain your neck or your shoulder, because there’s a slope. And it’s also optimum when you sit on it cross-legged. Your ankles will fall on the nose, which is slightly lower than the seat. It was about redesigning what’s on the market for floor seating. There’s nothing available that is really comfortable. Bean bags are useless – the beans just move to the side, and you end up sitting on the floor, which is so painful for your lumbar. This is why Wisada is shaped the way it is.”

The seats are constructed in Dubai using Tempur and memory foam, set on a thin sheet of plywood to keep the seat stable and flat. For her “Classic” version, which is priced at Dh2,500, Al Bitar covered the seat in specially treated leather from England that’s water-, sun- and cigarette-proof, and available in 30 colours. Importantly, it’s light enough to be moved around – whether you’re picnicking in the park, chilling in the desert or simply wanting to shift it from your living room to your bedroom. For added practicality, Al Bitar has created mini versions for children, as well as models fitted with cupholders, which can hold drinks or phones, or even act as ashtrays during floor-level lounging sessions.

This past week, Al Bitar celebrated the launch of her studio, which is in Dubai Design ­District, and unveiled her new winter ­collection, where the seats have been given a snazzy revamp with the use of coloured springbok hide sourced from southern ­Africa. “I choose the pigmentation and they dye it. The pieces are sent here and then everything is assembled in ­Dubai. Each cushion requires three springbok hides. I had to use every part of the hide, because it is so expensive, but also because it is so beautiful.”

Wisada was first unveiled during Saudi Design Week earlier this year, and Al Bitar was pleasantly surprised by the response. She sold all of the 60 Classic pieces she brought with her within four days. And while she had expected the design to strike a chord with people from this part of the world, given its roots in nomadic seating, she was surprised by the diversity of her customers.

“The Danish Embassy decided to buy some for their courtyard – and they looked at it from the point of view that cycling is so huge in their culture, so they approached it from a completely different perspective. And then I had a yoga instructor who bought some for her yoga students to meditate in her studio. So it was really interesting that the market was so diverse, and there was such a need for it that I didn’t really understand.”

This is one of the many valuable lessons that Al Bitar has learnt along the way. “I learnt how sitting on the floor is almost innate – it is one of the first things that children experience. It’s what the body likes to do. It was very interesting to create a product that you interact with on the floor, because the floor is very flat and we are not. I had to learn a lot about how the body moves.

“Sitting on the floor automatically relaxes you; it’s so informal. You are more likely to fall asleep while sitting on the floor than sitting on a couch. Because subconsciously it relaxes you.”

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