Insider: Boom, bust and Barrel

The world's most famous female architect, Zaha Hadid, continues to rise and Crate & Barrel set to open stores in just a matter of days from now at Dubai's Mall of the Emirates.

Zaha Hadid's designs range from Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed bridge to stage sets for dance companies and rock bands.
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The world's most famous female architect may have seen her studio's profits shrink by two thirds for the year to March 2009, to £1.6 million (Dh9m) - but Zaha Hadid's turnover actually increased, thanks to several prized job wins including Cairo Expo City. Significantly, Hadid's office has been one of the only architectural firms to continue recruiting (the number of employees rose by nearly 20 per cent to 262) - a sure sign of confidence in its future workload. This is down to many people still wanting a Zaha building, and UK-based architects and designers in general being highly regarded around the world, thanks to the likes of Hadid and Norman Foster.

We consume design at an extraordinary rate. So it's somewhat perplexing that, despite the increasingly prominent role that highly designed commodities - from iPhones to cars - play in our everyday lives and govern how we define ourselves, how little space is given to critiquing the subject. In an era of gadget obsession and "designer label" consciousness, perhaps design's ubiquity has enabled it to become everyday currency without the need for review. Design is critical to playing a part in creating a mixed economy, and a vital component for boosting sales and consumption. Thus, a culture and an economy focused on production and consumerism, coping with an economic downturn and looming environmental disaster, is both in serious need of design - and the attention - in the form of critique, perception and stimulation, that goes with it.

Apparently several local property developers and business investors has been busily courting Crate & Barrel, the Chicago-based housewares store. So hats off to Al-Tayer Group, which sealed the deal, and is set to open stores in just a matter of days from now at Dubai's Mall of the Emirates and the new Mirdiff City Centre. Who's next, one wonders? Well, let's see... Pottery Barn has signed up with MH Alshaya to open stores in Dubai and Kuwait this year, and Macy's department store is partnering with Al-Tayer.

According to analysts, cultural differences will provide the biggest test for Crate & Barrel. However, the store's co-founder and former CEO, Gordon Segal, reckons Middle Eastern and American consumers are more alike than people think, which is why the company chose to open in the UAE and not in another Western country. "We did not go into Europe because the European market is different. Their furniture is smaller, they eat with different utensils - We would have had to go through a lot of product change," he told Chicago's Medill Reports. "People in the Emirates use furniture that is very similar to what Americans use." Different utensils? What ever does he mean?

Crate & Barrel has a 50-year history of producing high quality products and good, honest design for the American home. So will it be able to sell fondue sets and traditional, cottage-style furniture in the Middle East? Time will tell, but at least its presence might wean some of us off Ikea - so that we don't keep recognising each other's crockery and cushions.

Yvonne Courtney is the co-founder of the design/publishing consultancy and online magazine