Do GCC product designers have to punch above their weight?

Do GCC product designers have to punch above their weight?
Published: 18 June 2019 - 11:38 a.m.

Leading product designers in the Middle East agree that combining culture and commerce is a practice that can often be a challenge to successfully pull off. At Commercial Interior Design’s panel discussion titled ‘Product Design: A Confluence of Culture and Commerce’, a team of experts examined the balance between identity and value.

Held in the Dubai Design District showroom of architectural surfaces business Cosentino, five leading names came together to discuss everything from the balance between craftsmanship and technology, to natural materials, gender, and role of technology in bespoke design.

Emirati product designer Khalid Shafar, one of the five panellists, is one of the most well-known figures in the industry and says “validation” is a challenge local designers from the GCC sometimes face.

Local product designers do not always get the recognition they deserve from the international community and there can be an assumption that design is exported to the region, rather than created locally. Some people do not expect product designers to hail from this part of the world, he explains. And he’s not the only one who believes regional product designers face challenges around validation. Juan Roldán, associate professor of interior design at the College of Architecture, Art and Design, American University of Sharjah, “agrees” with Shafar’s assessment that some designers in the Arab world have to sometimes prove themselves more than other designers from other parts of the world.

Mehry El Mesry, co-founder of Talata design studio, says the challenge product designers face in Egypt is slightly different. “It’s a different kind of struggle and it’s a struggle of working out if you are up to the standard of the rest of the world,” she says. “Yes, you’re producing work, but is it as good as others and are they going to pay the same price for something locally produced as they would pay for something international?”

While some product designers have to punch above their weight to prove their worth, Shafar says it’s exciting to see people combining interior design with product design.

“Most of [the designers starting out] are interior designers and will do projects which have to generate revenue for their product design, so they will integrate their products in these projects, which is a really good balance,” he says.

Shafar is not the only one to see benefits in using interior design as a way to integrate product design. In fact, panellist Mona Ramzy, co-founder of Talata design studio alongside El Mesry, says this is how she started out.

“I graduated with an architecture degree and then started with interior design, which is my main experience in professional life. In one of my interior design projects, I started to think about creating products to service my projects. That was the whole point and I wanted to create some very specific pieces to match what I couldn’t find in the wider market,” she notes.

When it comes to inspiration, El Mesry believes it is important for designers to not only draw inspiration from cultural projects, but to limit their creative process. “By limiting yourself to a time period, to a culture, to even a product itself, you are forcing yourself to be more creative. So by default the item you’re going to make is going to be different to what’s available. You can get inspiration from other designers, but you also look at the past, look at nature, look at whatever you need to look at to create something that stands out or lets you create something different,” she adds.

Roldán believes all designers need to be intelligent in how they draw on cultural heritage. “I think we’re really responsible, intellectually responsible, for how the culture of our elders can be interpreted. And I think that with that exposure – and thanks to a more mature market – we can all build and take inspiration from the regional context and express it in ways that are less cliché.”

Sergio Mendes, founder of the eponymously named Sergio Mendes Design practice, was another panellists at the product design discussion at Cosentino's showroom. He believes that product designers in the GCC must be responsible for how culture is translated through creative mediums.

“It’s very important that designers are aware of what’s happening in the world,” he says. “When we’re designing a product we need to define what the target is, but of course with the awareness that by designing this product we know that we will not interfere with anyone’s freedom or culture,” he adds.

Cultural considerations aside, another challenge designers contend with is materials selection . For Roldán, natural materials such as wood are a strong favourite. “In today’s architectural style and interiors we tend to do a lot of neutral spaces and sometimes wood, for me, gives a bit of warmth to the spaces,” he says.

Ramzy is also drawn towards natural materials “I love all materials but I gravitate to the earthy materials. I think that’s very natural. When I’m designing a product I’ll think about that product – where is it coming from? Where is it being manufactured and how am I going to managing the process of production?”

Mendes is a fan of brass. “One of the materials that I use most is brass; brass is a noble metal. Five or six years ago it was very difficult for me to find the right people to work with brass,” he explains. One of the things Mendes likes about Dubai is the abundance of materials to play with – something he says he was “amazed” by when he relocated to the emirate.

When it comes to technology, Roldán believes advancements are impacting the approach to the creative process. “I already see a lot of designers who are technologically-driven, with a lot of products or gadgets that are related to technology or sport … I don’t believe technology will replace craftsmanship in the future. If you look at art, for example, we believe that the world's big product houses still believe in bespoke craftsmanship.”

While technology is unlikely to replace bespoke, artisanal craftsmanship, Mendes says technology is making the design process faster. “Technology is making things a little bit faster when it comes to creating difficult pieces that would take around two weeks to do. Now you can get the same pieces in around three days. This is really good when you’re in a fast-paced [environment].”

Perceptions of gender imbalance also went under the microscope at the Product Design: Confluence of Culture and Commerce panel discussion. Neither Ramzy nor El Mesry believes a lack of gender diversity in the interior design industry is a major, major issue. When compared to other industries design is well-represented by women – just look at Commercial Interior Design’s Power 50 list.

“I haven’t faced challenges as a women in terms of my recognition has a designer,” says Ramzy. “I might face challenges dealing with my suppliers or in the business world, so maybe this is more of a challenge.”

Al Mesry adds: “I don’t feel that being a women affects how I’m perceived or how the project is perceived – I don’t see it as a problem at all. Women sometimes have more on their plates than men. You’re expected to be the mother, you’re expected to be the wife, you’re expected to be the businesswoman, and you’re expected to do them all perfectly”.

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