Is Dubai The Most Powerful Catalyst In The Design World?

Cyril Zammit, Fair Director at Design Days Dubai, weighs on why the city is now being taken seriously by the global design community.

PSFK initially met up with Cyril Zammit in September 2011 while he was in the midst of putting together the Design Days Dubai fair (DDD). Upon attending the fair last month, we got the chance to interview him to chat about his experience and it’s larger meaning for the Middle East. He expresses his faith in Dubai’s cultural power by referencing DDD’s curatorial strategy and key learnings from the fair’s participants.

Tell us about your background and how you got involved with Design Days Dubai.

I did a Masters of Communications and Media and then worked at the French embassy in Prague, then in London, then moved on to Montreux (Switzerland) where I managed the sponsorship of the Montreux Jazz Festival for 2 seasons. Then I worked for UBS bank, where I was in charge of international sponsorship and had the chance to launch Art Basel Miami Beach for the first 2 years. This great commitment by the bank gave me good foundations in contemporary arts. Afterwards, I worked in HSBC Private bank in Switzerland, where I jumped into the design world, where we signed with Design Miami, so from December 2006 – June 2009 I was in charge of sponsorships for Design Miami and Design Miami Basel.

I moved to Abu Dhabi in 2009, helping to create Abu Dhabi Art for the first two years. I brought in the idea of having design studios during Abu Dhabi Art. Last year, I was approach by the people from Art Dubai to launch this fair. They offered me the job and I was really happy and fortunate to take it.

What surprises did the Design Days Dubai experience uncover for participants?

The galleries were actually surprised at the level of knowledge that visitors had; attendees were very knowledgeable coming to see the pieces. They may have had this impression that the UAE didn’t have any people that were serious about design, but they were all surprised by the heightened level of education, research, and conversation they had with the fair’s visitors. It brings to attention the fact that people weren’t simply there to show face, but they were genuinely interested in design.

So for example, when you go to a gallery and ask the name of the artist, the number of pieces made, the materials, and then immediately link it to another piece, those kinds of comparisons are valuable and reflective of the degree of sophistication that a visitor has. When they come with knowledge about your gallery and the artists on display, that also takes the interaction to the next level. Collectors and curators form bonds based on designers that they appreciate.

One of Design Days Dubai’s patrons, Rana Sadik, said that when she goes to a fair, Google is her best friend! Because she really wants people to be curious and search on their own. People have their own ways of finding meaning for themselves and recognizing something as valuable.

Why do you have so much faith in Dubai’s position in the design world? Why do you have these sentiments towards the city?

I believe in the catalytic power of Dubai. This is partially due to the relaxed and sophisticated lifestyle of Dubai. It attracts people from all over the world, and so you expect the city to develop an attitude towards high-end design. I know and I’m very pleased to hear about lots of opportunities here taking shape. You’ve seen Pink Tank and Fikra Designs’s Arab Design Map and the Nuqat conference are all good initiatives. There’s a center for design being prepared in Qatar, there are a handful of galleries opening up in Jeddah. All of this is good.

It brings me to the fact that this year, we’ve had roughly 4 from the Middle East in DDD. Many young designers came up to me asking how they can showcase their work, and I explained to them that the format of the show is based on gallery representation. So you need to be supported by a gallery in order to exhibit at DDD.

I know there’s a lot of talent, but the challenge they are facing is the production and recognition. Because of the very high-end standards of the pieces we were exhibiting and selling, I could not have young designers casually showing a piece just because they’re from the region. I want them to reach a level of sophistication in the production aspect and then eventually come here. I think this is fair. If you saw the work from Beirut’s Carwan Gallery or smogallery, they were amazing. They are limited-edition perfect pieces of design.

What is one way the American market is different than the GCC market?

Well let’s take the example of vintage design. Vintage design was not trending 15 years ago. The US market now is looking at primarily vintage pieces more than contemporary design. People in the Middle East are very much inclined towards contemporary designs because we’re looking forward and looking ahead. But I am sure that within 5-10 years, the vintage pieces here will have a great resonance.

In some of the houses, you already have some classic furniture from the 19th or 18th century. People may still have the impression that a vintage piece is not as valuable as something brand new, because of its history and the scratches it bears. But I believe there’s a community in Kuwait and Lebanon that embrace this already and it’s just going to grow.

How are designers integrating interactivity into their work?

We had four pieces that were interactive design. By Dominique Harris the world premiere of Ice Angel with Wings or the Butterfly with Flutter. We also have the installation by rAndom International with this Swarm light. And you also have the technologic a very poetic lights by Studio Drift. It’s certainly something that will continue to develop because they’re giving another dimension to design.

Designing also means creating a lifestyle, not only creating a chair. These pieces are very valuable and can certainly be even more important in shaping public places, like playgrounds or retail space. And that’s exactly what we need, permanent visibility of design in public space. Not only skyscrapers.

Thanks Cyril!

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