It is five years since Cyril Zammit launched the inaugural Design Days Dubai, shining a light on high-end, and often homegrown, design talent for the first time. We caught up with the Parisian-born fair director to see what’s in store for design lovers at this year’s edition, and how the region’s design scene is evolving.
What makes Design Days Dubai unique from other fairs held around the world?
We’re the only ones showcasing a majority of contemporary design, whereas other fairs have a majority of vintage or modern design from the 1950s and 1960s. So it gives us a very strong, fresh line-up of international and regional exhibitors. Nearly half of our exhibitors are from the Middle East so it’s an amazing opportunity for visitors to discover fresh new talent. I’m always joking that the Middle East was a sleeping beauty in terms of design, but there’s no reason to think we’re backwards considering the legacy of what the region has given to the Western world in terms of patterns, Arabesque or Mashrabiya, for example. The sleeping beauty is waking up and I’m very happy to be part of it.
You’ve been director of the fair since its inception in 2012. How it has evolved?
It has grown a lot but we want it to remain a boutique fair. We have kept it at around 40 exhibitors and developed the number of countries represented – we have exhibitors from 20 countries this year. We also use Design Days Dubai as a platform for a lot of young international, regional and local talent. For example, people like Kwangho Lee from Korea almost started their careers at Design Days Dubai five years ago and now they’re on the international stage. I’m very proud of that because we always wanted to be positioned as a fair of discovery.
How do you think design feeds into the larger development of Dubai?
We were very fortunate to get the support of the government from the very beginning. Dubai Culture has helped us a lot and we’ve developed a lot of initiatives to support local designers. The creation of the Dubai Design District d3 also demonstrates how serious the authorities regard design. The Dubai Design and Fashion Council, also created last year, commissioned a research paper by Deloitte called the MENA Design Outlook and there you can see the enormous potential this region has to offer. Specifically in the UAE, there is an immense potential for the industry here to grow.
How are you helping to nurture young talent from the region?
Van Cleef & Arpels has sponsored the Middle East Emergent Designer Award since 2013, and Urban Commissions is the new initiative launched last year. The first edition was a huge success, with the Boomerang Bench by UAE-based Hungarian designer Anna Szonyi. The brief this year was to design a shelter so it was a bit more complex. Both of the pieces – last year’s and the winning design this year – will have a permanent base at Dubai Design District d3. The Boomerang Bench has started to be produced on a larger scale so that’s an amazing opportunity for the designer too.
What are some of the highlights of this year’s fair?
Dutch designer Marcel Wanders is presenting his Personal Editions collection featuring some of his most iconic pieces. And as a five-year celebration, we have a retrospective on the UAE-based designers called Wasl, which is the original name of Dubai meaning ‘connections’ or ‘crossroads’. We have over 25 pieces from designers, both UAE nationals and expats, so it’s a great opportunity for us to showcase how strong and vibrant the scene is here now and how fast it has grown.
What designers or galleries should visitors look out for?
You’re asking me a very difficult question! In terms of classic contemporary designers, Campana Brothers and Frederik Molenschot at the Carpenters Workshop Gallery are absolutely amazing. There’s young original talent like Marc Dibeh from Art Factum Gallery in Beirut, and rising designers like Vick Vanlian. Wiener Silber Manufactur are bringing an absolutely stunning silver drinks cooler made by French designer Alexandre Echasseriau. In the region, there’s Loulwa Al Radwan from Kuwait and Aljoud Lootah from the UAE. Last year, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne bought two pieces from her first collection, so she’s the first Emirati designer in a national museum abroad.
What has the public response to Design Days Dubai been like?
When we opened the doors in 2012, people were kind of curious – ‘what is this? It’s an expensive furniture show’. But the galleries who returned for the second year immediately felt there was an instant maturity from visitors. And the galleries go back home and say, ‘OK, what’s happening in Dubai is serious’. So I think it remains a fantastic Instagram opportunity for everyone [laughs]. But on a more serious note we can see that it is breaking down barriers. People were kind of afraid at the beginning to be called collectors because they thought it was part of an exclusive old club but then they realised you get hooked buying one piece the first year and want to buy another piece the next year.
What are your ambitions for future fairs?
The inaugural Dubai Design Week, held last October, was my new baby. It is a much larger celebration of design throughout the city, so it really helped me redefine the mission of Design Days Dubai as a high-end, limited edition market, whereas Dubai Design Week is more of a platform for local designers and less commercially driven. I’m excited about Design Days Dubai 2017 because we’ll see a strong change in what we’re going to offer as a line-up. We’ll start preparations as soon as this edition is finished – that’s what gives me the motivation to carry on.
Design Days Dubai runs from March 14th to 18th at The Venue.