Dubai architect awarded design prize by Van Cleef & Arpels for 'floating' chair

Aezad Muzaffar Alam faced many challenges while creating the one-off objet d'art during a global pandemic

Aezad Muzaffar Alam sits in his winning floating chair. Courtesy Van Cleef & Arpels
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Storied French jewellery house Van Cleef & Arpels unveiled the 2020 recipient of its Middle East Emergent Designer Prize on Tuesday, naming Pakistani architect Aezad Muzaffar Alam as winner.

Now in its seventh year, the annual competition, held in conjunction with the UAE's visual art and design organisation Tashkeel, asks regional creatives to submit proposals around a central theme, actively encouraging submissions across a range of disciplines. Alam, who runs a studio in Dubai, scooped the top accolade for his design of a "floating" chair.

Working under the theme of "flora", applicants across the GCC submitted proposals in March, ahead of what is normally a lengthy and detailed judging process. However, 2020 is no normal year, and the process was heavily truncated, so when Alam learnt he had won in June, he was caught off guard.

‘I forgot about the prize’

“I wasn’t expecting them to announce it so quickly,” Alam says. “Shortlisted designers had a Zoom interview and then a week later, they announced I was the winner. It was overwhelming.”

The winning design of the Van Cleef & Arpels Middle East Emergent Designer Prize 2020. Courtesy Van Cleef & Arpels

Amid the pandemic, he admits the prize was the last thing on his mind. "I kind of forgot about it, because my brain was focused on figuring out sustaining life."

And then he got the call, after which the designer found himself trying to execute a design that, by his own admission, was “out of my comfort zone” – just as specialists and workshops were shuttering their doors.

Competitions and awards create a positive trajectory in the career of a designer. It gives us the freedom to create whatever we want, and puts the work we do in the mainstream

Alam was given only three months to execute his concept. "The first thought that went through my mind was: 'Wow, thank you so much,' and then: 'Oh, no, I have to build this thing.' Everyone is closed, shops are not working, people are out of business, so all of that was going through my mind while I was being told: 'Congratulations, you won.'

"In architecture, you come up with an idea, you sit on it, debate it and talk to other people. There is so much expertise with engineers and fabricators, so you feed off that knowledge, and you keep honing, polishing and improving the idea. But this went from a sketch to OK, now this needs to be built very quickly. So there wasn’t time to rethink and see if it would even work.”

‘An object people didn’t expect’

Based on the symmetrical elegance of a flower, his design is a circular chair with "petals" that fan out from the centre. Made as two layers that seem to float on one another, instead of legs, the chair is balanced on a single point, like a child’s spinning top, meaning it is free to turn and rock.

Woven panels in each petal echo the precise geometry of Arabian architecture, while allowing light to spill through, casting shifting shadows on the floor. True to the spirit of Van Cleef & Arpels, it is a piece infused with whimsy and play. “I wanted to submit an object that people didn’t expect, it had to have a duality. It’s not a chair, it’s an object that has three or four functions,” Alam explains.

‘A lot of trial and error’

While the sketch and rationale were impressive enough for Van Cleef, building the piece was another matter. Almost immediately, the project hit its first hiccup, in terms of the wicker mesh needed for the petals. “I found there are very few places in the region that do it to the standard I needed, so I had to improvise,” he says.

Alam working on one of the many prototypes for his 2020 winning design. Courtesy Van Cleef & Arpels

Tracking down a suitable replacement meant turning to Spain, and the makers of a lightweight synthetic mesh normally used for hammocks. Because of the pandemic, however, it would not arrive until just weeks before the deadline.

In the meantime, Alam began searching for a team to construct the wooden frame. That, too, was not without its difficulties. “I spent the first month going to woodwork shops and seeing their capabilities. It was hard to explain [what I wanted] as I didn’t have a physical prototype, just sketches.”

Having found a workshop, he turned his thoughts to making the piece itself, but because of the unique design, there were multiple hurdles to overcome. For one, what material to use? “I had imagined this chair to be outdoors, but only one wood in this region works outdoors and that is teak. But that has a tremendous cost – just the materials would be more than the budget.”

Watches are my fascination – they are machines, but you wear them on your wrist

Eventually settling on oak that was already in the country, and with a third of the time already gone, the team hit the next problem: how to make the structure hold up under the huge forces at play. With the weight all focused on a single point, trying to keep the chair together became an adventure.

“There was a lot of trial and error. The original design had long, thin petals but they got in the way of the legs of the sitter, so I had to rework it. Then some pieces broke, as they couldn’t take the weight, so we had to change the structure.”

‘A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’

Despite the multiple challenges of the project and not having time to enjoy his win (“I started celebrating the day I gave the piece over,” he says with a laugh), Alam is grateful for the opportunity to be able to express his creativity and be seen by a wider audience.

“Competitions and awards create a positive trajectory in the career of a designer. It gives us the freedom to create whatever we want, and puts the work we do in the mainstream. There are very few awards in the Middle East offering this exposure, so this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

In addition to being able to create his design and see it displayed outside the Van Cleef & Arpels boutique next to Dubai Opera, Alam will also be able to visit the Van Cleef school in Paris, to learn the art of watch and jewellery-making first-hand. With an architect’s creative yet disciplined mind, his delight is palpable. "Watches are my fascination – they are machines, but you wear them on your wrist,” he exclaims.

Most of all, he is grateful the competition went ahead and was not cancelled. “So much bad news has been culminating this year, so it’s something positive to end 2020 on.”