Design Days Dubai fair director Cyril Zammit at a press conference signalling the opening of the fair. Photo by Design Days Dubai/Munsif Molu

Ambitious cities get ahead in the world of design by nurturing and building relationships between industry professionals, educators, and young designers. Building on our previous article on Design Days Dubai, we interviewed Cyril Zammit, Fair Director of Design Days Dubai.

In our conversation, he sheds light on the region’s creative industry, the need to develop production skills locally, and why Design Days will continue to shape how design is showcased and valued in the Gulf.

Plus Aziz: How has the region’s design world evolved over time?

Cyril Zammit: Five years ago, when Art Dubai started, there were only 5 galleries. Today we have two galleries that will be showing at Art Basel, which is the most important art fair in the world. In less than five years, that’s an amazing achievement. In the past, being an artist in the Middle East was like being an actor in Europe in the Middle Ages. It was a shameful thing. It’s not a job, you can’t be an artist. Now it’s taken seriously. There’s a lot of power in the graphic design community here that is recognized globally.

PA: Design’s future is intermingled with what happens in the art world. Describe how these two worlds interact.

CZ: There’s a very thin line between art and design these days. You have galleries saying “we do art design”. This is what Phillips de Pury was trying to initiate as a title a couple of years ago. You have people saying, ‘oh no, I only do design’ and turn themselves away completely from the art world.

To me it’s complicated because when you do a piece or only a limited run, it is a new form of art. But I understand that the practicality of the design puts you in a different approach, it also appeals to a larger group of people than contemporary art for example. But you also have the same pillars of creativity, research, concept, and process.

A learning curve from Design Days Dubai was that many people came thinking it’s another furniture show and then when they saw the pieces, they realized that in many cases, they were looking at art. It gave us immediate credibility and a level of desired seriousness that people were not expecting.

Kwangho Lee talks to a visitor at Design Days Dubai

PA: How are people's buying trends? What can you say about the pieces that sold at Design Days?

CZ: When you look at the pieces that sold, they are actually very practical. Stools, benches, tables…etc. People at the end of the day are looking for things to use potentially in their house. In terms of trends, there seems to be a return to the classic route, classic material. Perhaps it’s due to the economic backdrop that people just want something comfortable. This is why wood is so popular at the moment. It gives a feeling of security and warmth. We feel good in the presence of wood. It’s interesting to look at the country where the pieces are being produced.

Ecal Luxury & Design / Nidecker & Swarovski snowboards. Photo by Klara Urbanova

For a Brazilian gallery, the main goal was to reuse. As a joke they say, we’re taking from the waste of the rich to re-purpose them back to the rich. I found this very funny and true. Working with recycled material and sell a chair for $75,000, it’s really funny and ironic. So we can look at that as a form that people buy into. This is another thing I like about this market, that there is this room to play. You can’t do this with a painting. It’s hard to recycle a painting. You can remove one or two layers, but a piece of design you can reuse and change it to infinity.

Gradient Mashrabiya Sideboard from Carwan Gallery

There’s a certain amount of pride people have in owning a limited edition piece of furniture, something that no one else has. It matches with the natural propensity to be proud of what you own because I think it’s important here to display that. It’s not in the negative “show off” aspect, but it’s really got to do with the private space here, because houses are extremely private and intimate here. It’s not the same way that you will display a big car in the street. People here are satisfied at knowing that they own a table that is an artisanal edition for example. I like this because it’s something for your friends and family, and not something you will show the whole world. Showing off is a counterbalance to the design sensibility I am highlighting.

PA: What is the role of Design Days towards young, regional talent?

CZ: Our role when it comes to young designers is to facilitate conversation, putting these rising designers in touch with galleries and letting them work out those introductions and relationships. Next year, we can do a non-commercial platform where we can try to find the best in the region and display them in order to be seen but also to eventually be taken by a gallery or two. It needs a bit of time. I am conscious that the Middle East had low representation, but it is something that will develop like Art Dubai was when they created the show 5 years ago. When they started, there were 5 galleries, and now there are over 50 in Dubai only.

Kwangho Lee's workshop, Camel Leather Weaving, at Design Days Dubai

For the first time ever at American University of Sharjah (AUS), you have the first 14 undergraduate product design students. Until now, product design was just a part of an interior design course, with a couple of hours weekly and a short introduction to production. So you can’t really make your own way because you don’t know how to produce and how to work with the industry.

The other point I’d love to develop next year is a dialogue between the industry, students, and some institutions. Without this, you can’t work properly. When you look at Italy or The Netherlands, they’re strong in design because they work very closely with the industry. Without this dialogue, no one can help you develop your idea, even if it is the best idea in the world.

If you want to do something that is a limited edition, you need to understand the process and production criteria. Look how sophisticated the new modern pieces are from Korea, but they’re all being made with a deep understanding of the basics.

You are facing the pragmatic aspect of design, which is ‘provide an answer to a problem’. The chair is supposed to have someone sitting on it, so it needs to be practical. Because of this practicality you need a grounded understanding. Another amazing aspect is the fact that the resources are all here; there are many hidden jewels, like AUS’s 3D printer. They are preparing a whole new generation of young kids who are very knowledgeable about the technique and technology. For me, production and process are the two keys in terms of design.

+Coletivo de Amor Madre Gallery / Brazil at Design Days Dubai

PA: What can we expect from upcoming Design Days Dubai fairs?

CZ: Well, a lot of things we wanted to do for this year. But there are initiatives that take longer than 9 months to complete. We’ve been talking with different institutions about building bridges between the GCC and some international institutions. We have programs to send Emirati students abroad. I want to find underrepresented galleries in other design fairs. This year we had galleries from Brazil, Korea and South Africa that had never been outside their country. So once again, the catalyst power of Dubai.

I want to find a way to include Pakistan and India. They were completely absent this year because I couldn’t make it. So I’m speaking to a couple of very good friends of mine in those countries. They’ve very inventive and new in the market. All they need is some visibility, and also to be featured in ways where they’re treated equally as the established players. It will be a good opportunity to give new regions a voice.

People from AUS are going to Milan in Satellite (Salone del Mobile); they will be the first school to showcase something at the World Fair of Design in Milan. Two years ago Rami Farook, with Traffic, was also present with Local (that was the name of his exhibition during the Salone). Now it’s a school and there’s many ways that we will continue to see more work from the region shown internationally.

– Plus Aziz

Images courtesy of Cyril Zammit/Design Days Dubai

Cyril Zammit discusses an art installation with a guest at the special preview night of Design Days Dubai
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