Dubai is often seen as a city with more shine than soul – an air-conditioned bubble with lots of commerce but little creativity. Design publisher Slanted believed the same until its founder and creative director, Lars Harmsen, got offered a position as associate professor at the American university of Sharjah and spent six months in The United Arab Emirates.
Most of the time it’s a coincidence that the Slanted team go to a city. Personal relationships have led them to places including New York, Tokyo, Warsaw, Athens and Helsinki. With Lars’ posting in Dubai, however, came a bold discovery that in the past few years something important has happened in the UAE: culture! As Lars wrote in an editorial for the Dubai Slanted issue: “Dubai and its neighbours have come to believe that even seven-star luxury and tax-free sunshine is stale without culture. If underwater hotels and desert ski slopes were how Dubai once sought to grab the world’s attention, design is the new catchphrase among the leadership.”
So, Slanted was back on the road! We took some time with Lars to find out all the design magic he discovered in Dubai and the UAE and delved into Slanted’s latest issue some more.
It’s Nice That: Can you explain a bit about what you found in Dubai?
Lars Harmsen: In public spaces, you only see XXL banners for properties, cars or mobile phones, designed by the big network agencies. They look like crap! At the same time, there is actually an important number of small creative offices, design studios, art spaces and galleries. The scene is growing steadily, from street art to illustration to calligraphy. Architecture obviously plays a big role. There are very few places in the world where building construction is so fast and so excessive. Urban planning related to sustainability and space for civilian life has recently been relatively high on the list. There is not that much old stuff, everything went so fast, so new, that old buildings are almost nonexistent. At least not the European concept of “old”.
INT: What surprised you about design in the region?
LH: People from all over the world live in Dubai. Especially people in the creative industries. Definitely more than in any German city! In some of the companies I visited, Emiratis worked with Europeans, Asians or Americans. It leads to a kind of global design, detached from local colours (Slash, Moloobhoy & Brow). I also visited offices, which are run only by Emiratis. They have a close connection to tradition and culture (Tinkah, Abjad Design, Two-Thirds Design Bureau). However, there is, like everywhere in the country, always a perspective on what is happening out there, in other parts of the world. Curiously, a lot of printing companies are run by folks from India. Almost 50 per cent of the population hails from there. The impact on food and fashion is tremendous. Not on design.
INT: Who and what were your greatest discoveries?
LH: We all drink the same water and breathe the same air. By that, I want to say that I was less surprised by design than things in general. The per capita water consumption in the UAE (around 400 litres per day) is among the highest in the world, probably due to irrigation of parkland. And the fact that there is always congestion, despite all the six-to-eight-lane highways, drove me crazy. It is very hard to find a quiet place in the desert. There’s either light pollution or an aircraft or tourists. The romantic idea of desert, as I had it, got a bit disappointed. What surprised me most was the very positive vibes in the scene. Everyone looks very confidently into the future. Believe it or not, all the designers we met claimed it to be the best moment in their lives, being in the right place at the right moment!
INT: How did you go about fusing together your findings in the issue?
LH: We always ask all the studios and artists we visit to show us their work and to provide us with files. Since we have a very tight budget for printing, we cannot produce everything in 4-colour print. Therefore we have to be smart and split the works into colour and black-and-white, so that one does not notice at the end that the issue is subject to a strict austerity program. The first part of the magazine is always strictly visual. The second part presents essays.
INT: Can you pick a few things from the issue?
LH: The couture by Faissal El Malak is amazing! And I very much like the posters by Abjad Design and Möbius Studio. There are also brilliant reads – I love the essay “Where Desert Dreams Come True” by Ingo Niermann, giving a quite severe introduction to Dubai, as well as the essay “Lateefa bint Maktoum – No Mere Observer of Change” by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi.
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