Visual Culture

8 Women Who Are Redefining Design in the Middle East

Artsy Editorial
Mar 16, 2015 8:40PM


Nada Debs, Modern Arabesque, courtesy the artist.

Now in its fourth edition, Design Days Dubai celebrates the significant strides made by women designers in the Middle East, which are dramatically altering the landscape of contemporary design. This year’s event features designs that transcend the limitations of material to socially conscious and philanthropic initiatives that establish pioneering connections between the world of design and female empowerment in war-torn or developing areas. Of the 44 exhibitors from 20 countries showing at the anticipated five-day-long affair, approximately half are native to the Middle East, and among them are designers that aren’t just pushing the envelope as much as redefining its very contours. By marrying a design aesthetic that is contemporary yet rooted in tradition—and with a sophisticated engagement with the specificities of their respective cultural heritages and upbringings—these women offer a promising glimpse into the future of design in the region.

Nada Debs

Carving Time - Carved Half Way, 2014
Carwan Gallery
The Fragmented Clock, 2012
Carwan Gallery

In the span of a decade, Nada Debs has emerged as one of the leading designers in the Middle East. Born in Beirut, Debs studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and set up her own design company in the UK to produce customized furniture. A student of interior architecture, Debs found that furniture design in the Middle East was lacking a modern edge and developed an aesthetic that appropriated the intricate, ornate sensibility that has always been a feature of Arabic craftsmanship, and infusing it with a minimalist elegance she observed during her upbringing in Japan. In 2000, Debs launched her own company, East and East, which features her collections of furniture and home décor and has retail spaces across Beirut. At Design Days Dubai 2015, Debs will mount a mini retrospective to mark her 10 illustrious years in the industry.

Nermeen, Shireen, and Nisreen Abu-Dail

Image courtesy Naqsh Design House.

Tray by Naqsh Design House, courtesy the artists.

The Arabic word naqsh translates to “engraving,” a detail that Jordanian sisters Nermeen, Shireen, and Nisreen Abu-Dail adopted when they founded Naqsh Design House in 2010 in Amman. Their work is frequently political, evidenced by one set of tables listing the names of Palestinian towns, and another ornate series inlaid with a map of Jerusalem—some of which were auctioned off to raise money for victims in war-torn Gaza. The design house is also closely involved with the women of Amman’s Palestinian refugee camps, specifically through its “Thawrat Turath” collection, which will be shown at this year’s fair, alongside work created by Nisreen and Nermeen.

Najla El Zein

Work by Najla El Zein courtesy House of Today and the artist.

Two years ago, French-Lebanese designer Najla El Zein (who is currently based in Beirut) sealed her reputation as a designer with The Wind Portal (2013), a phenomenal eight-meter-high gateway constructed from 5,000 suspended hand-folded paper windmills, at the London Design Festival at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This year at Design Days Dubai, she will show “Sensorial Brushes,” her sculptural series of “marble-sculpted pleasure tools” made with fake eyelashes, gold fingernails, dried grass, and feathers—all materials that would arouse or provoke the skin when tickled, stroked, or scratched across its texture. These objects will be displayed at the fair courtesy of House of Today, the young Lebanon-based non-profit organization that liaises between emerging local designers and design experts to nurture new talent.

Rand Abdul Jabbar

Work by Rand Abdul Jabbar courtesy Tashkeel and the artist.

Work by Rand Abdul Jabbar courtesy Tashkeel and the artist.

Rand Abdul Jabbar is among four artists chosen by experts in the field to participate in the Tashkeel Design Programme at Design Days 2015. She has proposed a project titled “Forma” which aims to educate on the rare practice of traditional dhow building by using its principles to conceive and construct furniture. Her concept is based on a solid partnership between the designer and maker, wherein Jabbar determines the overall design of the pieces, based on the “forma,” the dhow builder’s templates, while the builder’s technical acuity and craftsmanship are showcased. 

Aljoud Lootah

Chair and cabinet by Aljoud Lootah courtesy the artist.

Multi-disciplinary Emirati designer Aljoud Lootah’s edgy work combines classic forms and ideas with contemporary shapes and patterns. Her recent “The Oru Series” is a collection of geometric furniture and decorative objects inspired by origami. Oru comes from the word meaning “to fold” in Japanese, and Lootah’s designs exemplify how the folding of a flat, two-dimensional sheet can create 3D forms that seem to push the limits of her material.

Zaha Hadid

The pioneering David Gill Galleries will celebrate its debut at Design Days Dubai’s 2015 edition with Zaha Hadid’s Liquid Glacial dining and coffee tables (2013 and 2012 respectively) which have been shown in museums around the world and were nominated for the “Design of the Year 2013” award by London’s Design Museum. Hadid is among a slew of now-prominent designers whose practices Gill (a celebrated designer himself), has promoted and featured at his space in St. James’s, London, along with Barnaby Barford, Gaetano Pesce, Fredrikson Stallard, and Mattia Bonetti.

India Mahdavi

Landscapes vase#2 S1 and vase#3 S1 on table#2, 2013
Carwan Gallery
Bishop stool/side table, 2004
Carwan Gallery
VASES series 3 (S3) MONOCHROME, SET OF 6 in limited edition of 40 - celadon, red, rose, turquoise, chartreuse, canard blue., 2013
Carwan Gallery

Originally a student of architecture at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, India Mahdavi went on to pursue graphic design in New York, scoring a position with Christian Liaigre, which she held for seven years before opening her own studio in 1999. A native of Tehran with an Iranian father and Egyptian-British mother, Mahdavi is influenced by this mixed cultural lineage and her time spent growing up in the U.S., Germany, and France, and regularly visiting her grandmother in Egypt. Her work embodies a contemporary simplicity, represented in the interiors she has designed for hotels like Condesa DF in Mexico City, Monte Carlo Beach hotel, and more recently, L’Apogée in Courchevel, as well as private residences, and the furniture and other objects she creates under her own brand. Her work is regularly shown by Beirut-based exhibitor Carwan Gallery.

Fatima Bint Mohamed Initiative (FBMI)

Image of Afghani women weavers courtesy Fatima Bint Mohammed Initiative.

Deriving its name from its founder, Her Highness Sheikha Fatima Bint Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, FBMI is pioneering women’s empowerment in the Afghanistan by employing women within the weaving industry—while also offering them education, health services, and career training. The core of the initiative is their carpet company located in Afghanistan, which incorporates traditional crafting techniques and employs over 4,000 Afghani women. At Design Days Dubai, FBMI will display a selection of carpets designed by Norma Kamali, as well as the initiative’s new “Stone Wash” collection that uses a contemporary wash process with natural vegetable dyes used in the knotting of each carpet. Live demonstrations are on offer for visitors to the fair.

Artsy Editorial