For Mahdi – whose first collection, Ripple, consists of parametrically-designed, robotically-milled marble furniture and vases – the fair proved both supportive and enabling: “Its unique approach to supporting local start-up made it possible for a young designer like myself to complete against international, well-established firms.”
The largest design event in the Middle East, Downtown Design is hosted every November in Dubai Design District (d3). First held in 2013, the fair has grown dramatically over the course of its lifespan: in 2018, the event encompassed 175 exhibitors, providing a space for designers from across the region to exhibit alongside major international brands such as Arper, Aremide, Cassina and Moroso. “Downtown Design,” says Moroso’s Giada Martellato, “is the only regional trade fair that fits our profile.”
When the fair launched, it was designed to meet a growing appetite for design in the Middle East. “Brands had started asking for a qualitative fair for the region, so Downtown Design was launched as a response to that,” explains Rue Kothari, fair director of Downtown Design since 2015. This focus on providing a platform for the region is something of which she and her team remain proud. “Last year, we had about 65 regional designers, with about 40 from the UAE,” she explains. “A few years back, I don’t think people knew there were 40 designers in the UAE. Downtown Design is an opportunity to push forward good quality design, and to provide a platform for young designers.”
Downtown Design’s mushrooming is both a symptom and a cause of the shifting design scene in the UAE and wider Middle Eastern region. When Kothari began working in the area 15 years ago, the situation was very different. “I arrived with lofty ideas about finding designers working in studios across the country,” she explains. “But I found this didn’t really exist.”
One of the causes for this lack of opportunity at the time was a paucity of infrastructure to help would-be designers train, practice and enter the market. There was also little public consciousness of the value of design. “People didn’t understand that being a designer was a viable career path,” notes Kothari, citing the case study of Iranian-Israeli fashion designer Elie Tahari. “When he told his mother that he wanted to make garments, she was disgusted,” she says. “She didn’t understand why he would choose something so lowly.”
Today, attitudes are markedly different. Downtown Design is the centrepiece of the wider Dubai Design Week, which has played an essential role in communicating the value of the discipline to a wide public. Last year alone, 75,000 guests visited its various exhibitions, events and installations, emphasising the burgeoning interest in the field across the region.
One driver for this change has been the vastly expanded set of opportunities for design education within the UAE. The American University of Sharjah, established in 1997, offers courses in architecture, interior design and design management. Since 2016, the government-sponsored Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation has provided the first region’s first Bachelor of Design degree.
The 2013 inauguration of d3, the home of Downtown Design, represented another step forward, providing workshops, studios and showrooms for the area’s growing design community. Several of the region’s most prominent practitioners, such as the product designer Aljoud Lootah and architect and designer Fadi Sarieddine, have based their studios in this development and, in 2017, UNESCO declared Dubai a Creative City of Design – testament to just how much things have transformed within such a short span of time.
Downtown Design is a locus for these shifts. For Melkan Gürsel, a partner in the Istanbul-based architecture practice Tabanlioglu Architects and a two-time winner of the Big Project Middle East Awards’ Architect of the Year Prize, the fair is a driver of innovation. “I found Downtown Design to be very fruitful,” Gürsel recalls, “in terms of meeting people and exploring fresh ideas.” The Canadian lighting designer Matthew McCormick concurs. “Downtown Dubai,” he says, “is one of the few international platforms I’ve seen that is really working towards a positive change in the design profession.”
With the growth of design practice in the UAE, there has been a corresponding diversification in the interests of the local market, and it is this plurality that Downtown Design now serves. “Ten years ago people would have never bought bought minimal furniture for their homes,” explains Kothari. “But now, for instance, there is a real taste for Scandinavian design.”
At Downtown Design, these interests are reflected with an increasing degree of international participation, which is set to expand in 2019. The 2020 fair, which will coincide with Expo 2020, will expand this further. In doing so, Downtown Design presents a city, a country and a region whose design horizons are continuing to broaden.
With the UAE’s economic growth, a new demographic – younger, well-educated, well-travelled – has ushered in more diverse tastes, with a heightened awareness of the global industry. That industry, in turn, has begun to demonstrate a heightened awareness of the financial and cultural clout of the region. “Companies over the world have come braver,” says Kothari. “They’ve come to see the Middle East as somewhere where they can grow.”