Arab Designers Crafting their Own Narrative: Design Doha 2024 Explores Identity and Innovation

Arab Designers Crafting their Own Narrative: Design Doha 2024 Explores Identity and Innovation

Arab Designers Crafting their Own Narrative: Design Doha 2024 Explores Identity and Innovation

Establishing a platform in the Arab world, Design Doha 2024 debuted its inaugural edition in Doha, Qatar. Facilitating dialogues between designers, the event challenges the misconception that the Arab world is composed of a singular culture. It highlights, therefore, the diversity of populations, landscapes, and histories it encompasses.

Centered on “Arab Design Now,” a regional survey showcasing the works of over 70 Arab designers, featuring 38 commissioned pieces, Design Doha is running from February 24 to August 5, 2024. ArchDaily had the opportunity to talk to Rana Beiruti, curator of the main exhibition, during the event’s opening, to grasp the significance of the biennial and delve into some of the key installations, exploring the stories behind these interventions, learning about the designers involved, and gaining insights into their creative processes.

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Rana Beiruti is an independent curator based in Amman, Jordan, co-founder and former director of Amman Design Week. Drawing from her architectural background, Beiruti directs her attention to land-based and social practices within the region, emphasizing themes such as land, materials, craftsmanship, and the built environment. She has curated and designed numerous contemporary design and art projects, exhibitions, residencies, educational programs, and publications throughout the Middle East.


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Christele Harrouk (ArchDaily): In your opinion, what is the significance of having a biennial that focuses primarily on design in the Arab world?  

Rana Beiruti: I think biennials like this are important moments for designers and creatives to come together and have a conversation differently. It’s a conversation through their work in the exhibition. So what they present is what they want to say about the condition of Arab design.

I think it’s very important to have a platform in the Arab world made by Arabs, targeted at having a conversation with each other rather than having someone else write the story about what Arab design is.

Doha is now really focused on building a creative capital in the country. They are known for their museums and they have great collections. I think there’s an emerging scene of designers in Qatar that is now looking for this kind of exposure and platform. So it’s a great time for that in Doha.

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Christele Harrouk (ArchDaily): What can you tell us about the main themes of your exhibition? What was the main brief that you initially shared with designers?

Rana Beiruti: The exhibition was truly built on dialogues with the designers. As a survey exhibition, I aimed to learn about their practices and observe their work. I started by mapping certain commonalities between practices across the region, from Morocco to the Levant to the Gulf.

I discovered that the conversation about design invariably starts with the land.

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The Arab world boasts a unique geography, climate, and challenges, which designers have responded to in various ways. They are inspired by it, harvesting materials from it, and are very conscious of the land’s significance.

The exhibition begins with the land, progresses to discuss materials, and then explores the different crafts that arise from this understanding of the land and its resources. Additionally, there’s a strong revival of tradition and ancient cultural practices, alongside modern cultural practices. The exhibition also delves into this rich diversity inherent in the Arab world.

Often, we are perceived as one people and one culture, but in reality, the Arab world is incredibly diverse, with different populations, geographies, and backgrounds. I aimed to showcase this diversity within the exhibition space.

On the second floor, there’s a significant conversation about designers who embrace technology and innovative methods of creation, rethinking the city, and considering how we build and what cultural objects are used in contemporary settings in the Arab world. Towards the end of the exhibition, there’s a moment that celebrates the Arabic language, Arabic culture, and specific values inherent to Arab identity, such as community, family, and hospitality. The ending of the exhibition aims to evoke that feeling of being at home.

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Christele Harrouk (ArchDaily): It’s a reflection on our different backgrounds and what makes us similar, while also thinking about the upcoming future. The contributors to the show come from various professional backgrounds. Can you tell us about the architects who have contributed to this Biennial and highlight their key interventions?

Rana Beiruti: My interest in design stems from an interest in craft.

I believe craft is the core of many different disciplines, including art, design, and architecture. Ultimately, it involves the manipulation of materials to form objects. 

This highly multidisciplinary exhibition begins with a beautiful shifting landscape created by Studio Anne Holtrop, based in Bahrain. It’s made of resin directly cast into the landscape, resulting in large imprints of the terrain that are movable on mobiles, allowing for interactive engagement. This installation provides a beautiful backdrop for the exhibition, constantly evolving.

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We also feature AAU Anastas, a practice dedicated to researching and creating pieces from structural stone for the past decade. While contemporary construction often relies on reinforced concrete with stone used merely as cladding, AAU Anastas seeks to revive the use of stone as a structural material. They blend traditional stone masonry techniques with advanced computational and digital fabrication methods to produce unique structures. Their studio serves as a research hub, and the pieces they create are particularly distinctive, especially within the context of Palestine, where the dialogue about the land holds significant importance.

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Bricklab operates as a highly research-based studio, focusing on reviving not ancient traditions, but rather modernist design, particularly industrial glassmaking. They collaborated with 6 a.m. Glass, based in Italy, explores industrial glass panels that were once prevalent in the Gulf. Their result was a beautiful glass column, recreating the glass panels of the past.

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Civil Architecture’s contribution featured a massive roof structure in the space. Originally proposed for a guardian majlis, a project that was never realized, they decided to showcase a 1-to-1 model of the building for the exhibition. It’s precisely as it would have been if it had been built. The displayed furniture underneath mimics the interior layout of the proposed house, including a bed, salon, and bathroom. This piece raises intriguing questions about architecture. It’s an architecture without walls. However, when you’re underneath it, you do feel like you’re somehow in a space within the space, within the larger exhibition area.

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Salima Naji, an anthropologist, has dedicated her life and practice to preserving, revitalizing, and rehabilitating rural architecture in Morocco. In the context of a contemporary design biennial, it was crucial to highlight contemporary design within rural settings. Salima’s unique contribution involved flying to Qatar with her team of master builders and artisans to construct the entire pavilion using Adobe. This marked her first experience working with the soil, and collaborating with Qatari Adobe makers. The project exemplifies the shared heritage across the region, sourcing all materials locally to build the piece on-site.

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Hiba Shahzada is a Jordanian architect and artist, also known as a painter. Her contribution is a fountain pavilion, showcasing a unique water feature. What’s interesting is that the roof appears disjointed from the columns, creating an illusion. While it seems like the columns support the roof, they’re separated. For me, this piece is particularly striking because the element of water creates a moment of tranquility and reflection within the exhibition space. Water holds significant symbolism in Islamic culture, often associated with knowledge. The typology of water fountains in the Arab world is deeply rooted, and Hiba incorporates beautiful Islamic geometry in the roof design, which is reflected in the pool. There’s a captivating harmony to it.

Christele Harrouk (ArchDaily): Finally, what does it mean to create in the region today?

Rana Beiruti: I believe the exhibition provides an answer to that question. However, what I find most enriching is the designers’ deep connection to the land and materials. They are thinking about their identity, and cultural heritage, and are rooted in the past, yet they are also forward-thinking and embrace the future. They are all engaged in building a better world, distinct from consumerism and mainstream international design trends.

Fascinatingly, they are writing their narrative.

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Alongside Arab Design Now, commissioned public artworks, events, and panel presentations, this new Qatar Museums’ biennial is hosting five additional exhibitions: Colors of the City: A Century of Architecture in Doha, Weaving Poems, 100/100 HUNDRED BEST ARABIC POSTERS Round 04, and Cultural Kinship. The 2024 edition also selected winners for the Design Doha Prize, in 4 different categories. Established to provide support for exceptional designers, the prize recognized the works of Fabraca Studios (Lebanon) in Product Design, Fadaa (Jordan) in Interior Design, Sayar & Garibeh (Lebanon) in Furniture Design, and Abeer Seikaly (Jordan) in Craft.

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