A Change in Register


20 November 2017

It is the day before the official opening of Dubai Design Week (DXBDW) 2017 when Disegno sits down with William Knight, the new head of design at the Art Dubai Group, the organisation that runs the annual eponymous Art Dubai contemporary art fair and – now in its third year – Dubai Design Week.

It's Knight's first DXBDW, and he is giving interviews in a lounge in the Dubai Design District (d3), a conglomeration of retail, office, and studio buildings just across the creek from downtown Dubai and the Dubai Mall. When viewed aerially, d3 currently looks like a slice of pizza laid out on the sand, its nine buildings' arranged in tapering form and surrounded by vast desert car parks. It has mushroomed up in the past few years.

Expansion is underway, however, with further retail spaces planned, as well as the campus for the MIT and Parsons School of Design-backed design school, the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI). We pass a model of the complete masterplan, including the Foster + Partners-designed 100,000sqft DIDI campus, before we sit down to speak.

As seems the case wherever one turns in this Emirati city, d3 is under construction. And indeed, the pace of construction ties into a wider challenge faced by the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries: DIDI is part of the response to a 2016 study published by the Dubai Design and Fashion Council (DDFC) which suggested that the region need at least 30,000 design graduates by 2019 to keep up.

DXBDW currently consists of Downtown Design, an international trade fair located in a tent near d3, which has been running since 2012; the Global Grad Show, hosted next door to Downtown Design, an exhibition which highlights innovative graduate projects from design students all around the world; various installations and exhibitions in d3; an extensive events programme; and exhibitions and shows around Dubai with partnering institutions such as the contemporary arts foundation Tashkeel.

Below, Disegno speaks to Knight about his vision for DXBDW, the unique challenges facing the region, and a subtle shift towards emphasising local making and manufacture.

How did your move from 100% Design to Dubai Design Week come about?
I was in London, working on 100% Design, which was a show that really needed a bit of help getting back on its feet. I said to myself I'd do three shows, and ended up doing five. I didn't what to stay in the pure exhibitions world. Although I enjoyed it, I wanted to keep working on the design promotion side of things. So quite frankly from a personal perspective, I was looking for the next thing to do. So I was talking to Ben Floyd who set up Art Dubai many years ago, and he was looking for someone to come in and do the design side of the of Art Dubai, which would be very much focused on Dubai Design Week. So we began to talk and he flew me out here.

Up until then, what had your impressions of Dubai Design Week been?
They had been formed only from arm's length: online write-ups and reviews. The thing that I'd always been aware of was the connection with the Dubai Design District, or d3. There are a lot of "Ds" in this business, but Dubai Design Week and Dubai Design District are two distinct things. However, they do sit closely together, not least because we have a huge concentration of activity that's here. So I suppose I'd always been aware that there's been a thumping heart at the centre of the week in an almost physical sense. Of course Dubai Design District itself hasn't been around for that long so there's a newness here. I suppose in a way there's a perception of Dubai as being superficial. It's risen so quickly that in some ways it's not that surprising. Obviously, the whole notion of wealth, relative wealth, extreme wealth and oil revenue is another part of the mix. But design really has its moment now, so I felt that right now was a good time to get involved.

It must be an enormous shift in register for you, going from reviving a trade show in London, which had been around for a while, to this, which is almost entirely new and open to being taken in all sorts of directions. How have you approached that and what direction would you like to steer it in?
I can only speak from experience once I've got some experience. I have to do one design week to understand it. There is a shift in register here. But I'm not doing this entirely from scratch. Downtown Design is going into its fifth year, and this is the third year of Dubai Design Week. The team that's been set up is incredibly hard-working and very talented. And some of the challenges haven't necessarily been to do with the organisation, but more to do with working with different stakeholders and things like the protocol, working with patronage and the royal visitors we'll have this week. It's the layer of cultural dynamics that needs to be blended in as well.

Two government papers commissioned by the Dubai Design and Fashion Council [DDFC] were published recently. They identified two chief challenges for the local design industry: the lack of higher education opportunities in the field of design, and a lack of local fabrication and manufacturing facilities. How do you think these challenges can be met and what role do you see Dubai Design Week playing?
The easier of the two, certainly in terms of what we're doing this year, is to work with the infrastructure for design education. There are a number of well-established design courses at places like the American University in Sharjah, Heriot-Watt University, and American University of Dubai. Importantly, there's also a new design institution, which is the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI), whose campus is going to be here in d3. That's going to be a rather spectacular component of the whole finished Dubai Design District. They're going into the recruitment phase for their courses, which will start September 2018. The dean there, [the sustainable fashion expert] Sass Brown, is a really intriguing person with lots of international experience. The curriculum has been developed by the design practitioner, thinker and communicator Hani Asfour.

It's also done in collaboration with MIT and Parsons, who have had some input, right?
Yes. Obviously when setting up a new design school, it needs to be benchmarked and so on. It's been collaborative, but it's also very distinctively going to be a Dubai design school, which I think is very interesting.

And what about the manufacturing side?
That's much more difficult. Manufacturing isn't one thing or another. There's actually a bit more manufacturing in this region than you'd think – a bit like the UK. Engaging them with design products and R&D is something we try to make part of Dubai Design Week. In real terms, however, we have to accept that business decisions are made internally. If we can demonstrate and provide access to information and inspiration about how design changes and improves businesses, then we will see that change. But it's gradual. The best example I have of a pure manufacturer in this region is a company called RAK Ceramics. I understand that they are one of the UAE's foremost manufacturing exporters. RAK is short for Ras-Al-Khaimah, which is one of the Emirates, and they have a factory there and export ceramics around the world. This is not my story to tell, but they took a decision about four years ago to totally rebrand, to review their design approach, update their product range, and put themselves in a different market. This was off the back of a fairly substantial history of producing high-quality ceramics. They are the best example I have of a very local company, with an existing heritage, that has embraced design to update its position on the market. So I think they're a real flag-waver for potential manufacturers. It's about matching the design talent here with that manufacturing as well, to set up projects, and Dubai Design Week is the platform on which those projects can hopefully sit.

For the past years, the Design Week has positioned itself at a "global crossroads", a place where practitioners who might not have the means or the support in their home countries can come and showcase work. Do you think that with the DDFC papers and the efforts to breathe life into local design and manufacturing, there will be less of an emphasis on crossroads, and more of an emphasis on local identity?
I don't know. I think it's difficult for me to comment on its positioning in the past. It's a combination of things. Dubai is well-located: it's super accessible so by its nature it has a very international dynamic. But there also needs to be a desirability to be based here as a designer. That might be because there's an opportunity to work with a particular manufacturer; it might be because there's a lot of design territory that hasn't been cast yet. To some extent, those opportunities may exist already. Or they may be opportunities that present themselves in the near future as there is a kind of ballooning of understanding around design as a strategic asset.