Designing an object relevant to a contemporary domestic context while maintaining its link to Emirati history being one of my objectives, I decided to visit the studio of Dubai-based product and furniture designer Khalid Shafar and look into his approaches and creative processes. Khalid was born and raised in Dubai, and believes in the relevance of re-appropriating elements of Emirati heritage in contemporary material culture.
. This often comes across in the formal elements he selects for composing his objects, as well as the materials he employs, such as camel leather, palm leaves and textiles that appear alongside imported teak wood, marble and stainless steel in his work. Khalid calls his creations ‘Telltale Objects’ because each one is meant to tell a story and often unveil a part of Emirati history, like the tradition of net fishing (eg. the Trap bookshelf), or traveling salesmen (eg. the Auction table), or the practice of serving food on the ground, using Sarrood mats (eg. the Palm coffee-table).
The selection of objects that I happened to catch on display when I visited Khalid’s gallery in the industrial Ras Al Khor, was part of his collection called ‘Decohaus’. Through this set of products and furniture items, the designer explored the coming together of two international design movements - Art Deco and Bauhaus - both of which took place concurrently during the 1920s, and both of which originated in Europe. Nevertheless, references to the designer’s roots as an Emirati were evident in many nuances. For instance, Khalid has chosen to use camel leather for elements like storage pockets, seat upholstery and belts strapping pieces of marble to one another - quite an unusual juxtaposition of the two materials (hard and soft, cold and warm, smooth and textured). He has also selected the octagon as a primary shape to base this entire collection on, drawing a reference to Islamic geometric patterns that often appeared on traditional objects, architectural surfaces, and ornamental pages of the Qur’an. According to Khalid, an octagon, although a regular geometric shape, was used sparingly in Islamic patterns, as compared for example to a hexagon. This is because it is much more difficult to tile, and there is always a second shape (a square) that is introduced when you try to position several octagons in close proximity to one another. This posed both challenges and opportunities during the design process.
“Not all objects go on to production”, says Khalid. After sketching out the design, a prototype of every element is produced, and the designer begins working on areas that need improvement. Some prototypes do not pass the selection process, and that is why it is important to test everything out before taking it to fabrication Khalid says. This encourages me to think of my project on a more practical level - how do I create a product that is visually attractive, yet fully functional? How does one go about combining beauty of form with utilitarian purpose? During this visit I have also recognized how striking a small, yet well-crafted detail within an object can be. And also how many connotations relating to heritage and history can be contained within a tiny detail, or within a choice of material. The most unpretentious of elements can conjure up memories and associations to a place, a culture, or a historical context.
What I also have learnt throughout this process and through meeting people with different outlooks on a shared subject of domesticity is that one of the most exciting (and scary) things about conducting research is that you almost never know where you will end up. By its nature, research opens up more opportunities for a course of thought or action, draws one’s attention to different perspectives, and offers access to more ways in which your findings can eventually manifest themselves. This can often lead to periods of uncertainty, confusion and struggle within the creative process. As I was exposed to more information, saw more objects that existed in the region before the 1970s, and learnt of their uses, my initial ideas began to morph and my project took a somewhat different course than I had originally planned. But it was also through research and learning new things from different people that I have been drawn towards specific items, inspired to develop a more focused approach towards my project, and given clues on what to explore next.