Ghassan Salameh is a multi-disciplinary designer, educator, researcher, and creative consultant. In 2018, he was creative director of Beirut Design Week and last year Salameh curated Madar, a Dubai Design Week exhibition dedicated to design innovation and sustainability in the region. As creative director of this year’s Dubai Design Week, Salameh aims to highlight the impact of the recent pandemic on the MENASA region’s design scene and the way designers are responding to the crisis and rethinking the future. Here, he shares with Interior Design what made Dubai Design Week (which ran from November 9-14) different this year, some event highlights, and how we can support designers in his native Lebanon deeply affected by the recent blast.
Interior Design: In what ways did this year's Dubai Design Week differ from previous editions?
Ghassan Salameh: This year we knew there wouldn’t be as much sponsorship or as much of an international presence, so we decided to try and support the smaller businesses based here to help them overcome this crisis. We produced a lot of the activities ourselves through workshops, open calls, or commissions in order to give a chance to creatives to participate without having to pay a lot of money. Another thing that was new this year was the UAE Designer exhibition, which features younger generation or emerging designers born or based in the UAE. The idea was to try and be as inclusive and diverse as possible, to represent different communities and types of makers, and provide a platform for students and new designers to test their work without being too judgmental on how polished they are as products. We also had a lot of really beautifully conceived design pieces by established designers in this same exhibition, so it created a really nice contrast in the space.
ID: There was also a lot more outdoor content this year. What can you tell me about that?
GS: We decided to take advantage of the fact that the weather is good at this time of the year and do more outdoor exhibitions and installations to encourage people to visit without having to gather in indoor spaces. The outdoor installations all explored the relationship between people and public space and how it has changed during the pandemic, how this has affected people’s general well-being and how it has impacted the city. The idea was also to move beyond decorative art or big commercial pieces in public spaces that have no real function and move to a more purposeful and functional type of installation that can hopefully be repurposed after Design Week. There were no big logo brands in the outdoor spaces, which made the experience feel more authentic.
ID: What were some of the participating projects that visitors got most excited about?
GS: The Abwab pavilion is one of the projects I was really excited about. This year the jury selected Hozan Zangana, an Iraqi designer who moved to the Netherlands when he was 15 to study and has established his practice there. It’s interesting for me to see how someone who had to leave their home and go and settle somewhere else develops their practice but still has a sense of relationship to this region. What are their memories? His piece Fata Morgana reminds him of moving from city to city in the back of a truck and how he used to see these mirages in the desert. The installation featured a lot of material innovation and uses ancient adobe and rammed earth building techniques. It got a lot of interest from local architects who are now trying to schedule business meetings with him and the teams who produced the installation.
ID: What’s another contribution that people were drawn to and that you would like to highlight?
GS: The work of Christopher Benton, a Dubai designer and artist. He presented a collection of chairs that were all made, assembled and retrofitted by different businesses—in old Dubai neighborhoods such as Al Satwa, Mina Zayed, and Khor Fakkan—out of disused and found materials and objects. It explores the notion of informal design and design done by people rather than only by designers. People loved them because they brought up memories of the city and the markets and areas they know. These areas are part of their local culture and history.
ID: There was also an online talks program. What did you try to focus on with that?
GS: There were several different series of talks organized by different partners. I curated a series of five talks that focused on themes such as speculative design approaches or equal representation in design and moving away from the dominant narrative of how design should be and trying to decolonize it. We also had a talk about how crisis is an organizing agent with a focus on the experiences of a couple of Lebanese designers and cultural organizers who really suffered in the past few years, not to mention since the blast in August. These are still available on our YouTube.
ID: It has been a very tough time for designers around the world and the situation in the UAE and wider MENASA region has been no different. How do you hope this event highlighted the predicament of struggling designers and offered practical help?
GS: It has definitely been hard on creatives and the creative industry in general with a lot of struggle due to financial issues. I hope that this Design Week put these designers on a platform where people could see their work and that it will lead to collaboration opportunities for them. By asking them to design to a deadline and a theme under difficult conditions I also saw the event as a way of encouraging them to keep producing work and experimenting and challenging themselves.
ID: You are from Lebanon and based there most of the time. How is the situation for creatives in Beirut given the very precarious economic situation and the August port blast?
GS: It’s really another level of crisis that the country is facing. Designers have not only suffered from lack of funds for the past few years but also physically and materially since the explosion. A lot of them have decided to stop doing design, or to relocate to another country; others have decided to change businesses. Some are still trying to be resilient. But a lot of them are tired and exhausted and are still trying to pick up the pieces. The past two years have been catastrophic for them.
ID: Did any Lebanon-based designers take part in Dubai Design Week?
GS: We had plans to create a program for Lebanese designers but after speaking to organizers, galleries and designers there, and trying to organize something together, it became apparent that it was not doable. People are just not ready, they are still suffering and trying to understand what happened to them, and they are not in the right mindset. Physically it is impossible to do most things; shipping is complicated, producing is difficult, there is no money to invest in their work. Even if we offered them the spaces and shipping for free, it is hard for them to even produce work at the moment. It was honestly very disappointing because I wanted to use my position here in Dubai to try and help but it was just impossible.
ID: What can people do to support the creative community in Lebanon?
GS: What is needed is definitely financial support; projects being commissioned from outside of Lebanon. If people can create awareness around Lebanese design and designers that would be very helpful. There are some fundraising initiatives happening to rebuild some of the design studios but there are a lot of under-represented designers in Lebanon who don’t belong to a specific network and have few people to support them. I would say: Try to look for grassroots organizations or try to support designers on an individual basis or through personal recommendations by commissioning projects and advertising and promoting their work.
ID: In the research and work you did to put together this year's event did you find cause and reasons for optimism or hope?
GS: A lot of designers in the region, not only the emerging or young ones, increasingly understand the importance of adopting timely themes and being engaged in solving some of the issues we are facing. There is also a palpable drive to innovate in terms of materials and rethink the way we do production. I am not saying everyone is doing super sustainable products and that there is no material waste, but there is a readiness among designers to engage with other issues. Even a couple of years ago design weeks all over the world were more product-oriented but now we are starting to see more social responsibility and more design for social innovation, and this makes me very happy.