Design and crafts support programme by Expo 2020

UPDATED A newly launched Expo 2020 Design and Crafts Programme will offer “creative, technical and economic support” to “local brands and emerging talents” in the UAE.

According to the press statement released during Dubai Design Week, “the UAE’s creative scene is set for a boost with the launch of an extensive programme to promote, support and elevate design and crafts across the nation and help position the sector globally”.

As ever, the details as sketchy: it’s not clear how the ‘creative, technical and economic support’ will actually be delivered and in what quantities, which ‘local brands and emerging talents’ will qualify for support, just how ‘extensive’ the programme will be …

But at least its goals are explicit: Expo 2020 says it aims to foster business opportunities for UAE-based creatives, from handmade to high-tech design, traditional to contemporary crafts, and pieces that appeal to both a local and global market.

We approached Expo 2020 to see if they could fill in some of the gaps. Many remain, but it’s clear that the Design and Crafts Programme will involve only invited participants; there’s no question of an open call or an application process.

The favoured few (“UAE-based designers and craftspeople in both the public and private sectors”) will then be invited to collaborate with “creatives from across the planet … experimenting with different techniques and materials”. That sounds very much like the Irthi / Creative Dialogue project set up last year in Sharjah; more about this below, but Creative Dialogue and the Irthi project were set up by Samer Yamani, Expo 2020’s Director of Design and Craft.

The Design and Crafts Programme is the responsibility of Dr Hayat Shamsuddin, Senior VP for Arts and Culture at Expo 2020 (right) with the strategy and delivery down to Samer Yamani, Director of Design and Craft (left)

Initially the Design and Crafts Programme will see homewares and furniture collections created for Expo 2020 under the tags ‘Designed in the Emirates’ (made by locally-based designers) and ‘Designed for the Emirates’ (produced by international designers inspired by traditional UAE crafts).

There will also be an exhibition and accompanying publication dedicated to local crafts and highlighting raw materials and processes used.

The focus is on five specific craft areas – safeefa (palm frond weaving), talli (hand-woven braiding), sadu (embroidery), traditional pottery, and goldsmithing.

Samer Yamani looks after strategy and delivery for the Design and Craft Programme, which suggests that it will largely be his creation.

And his track record is excellent: he set up the very successful Barcelona-based creative consultancy Creative Dialogue, which has a wide portfolio of projects from curating exhibitions, running conferences, developing products and generally providing cultural management for local design or creative industries and a special focus on crafts, heritage and innovation.

A collection of clay stools and tables that can be stacked to look like a totem pole, designed by Pepa Reverter and Abdallah Al Mulla for the Irthi Creative Dialogue programme. Safeefah palm fronds are featured as decorative belts and elements

Among those projects is the Craft Dialogue set up last year with Sharjah’s Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council. That aims at producing limited-edition homeware collections which marry local designers and traditional Emirati crafts – pottery, talli braiding, safeefa palm-frond weaves – with materials and designers from other places (specifically Italy and Spain). The goal: “each collection represents a cultural and artistic dialogue aiming to introduce these crafts in an innovative context and standards”.

This Creative Dialogue collection by Matteo Silverio and Fatima Al Zaabi explores analogies between different materials, crafts, cultures and heritages. Digital fabrication tools were used to create moulds into which artisans manipulated the glass and clay directly

This sounds not dissimilar to the Expo 2020 programme of finding contemporary applications for traditional crafts. If this is the type of thinking that Yamani is bringing to Expo 2020, the prospects look good.

Yamani’s boss, Hayat Shamsuddin, Senior VP for Arts and Culture at Expo 2020, says the Design and Crafts Programme is part of Expo 2020’s legacy ambitions and supports the plans to make the creative economy a major contributor in the UAE’s economic diversification. “This initiative will strengthen the presence of creative sectors and will be an unprecedented opportunity for the UAE creative industries community to present itself to the world,” said Dr Shamsuddin. “It will help local talents reach a global audience and strengthen their presence in the UAE.”

Certainly the footfall should be impressive: 25 million visits are projected during the six months of Expo 2020, with 70 percent of visitors expected to come from outside the UAE.

Another (possibly the only other) arm of the Design and Crafts Programme is a UAE Designer Fund that Expo 2020 is setting up. All proceeds from sales of the ‘Designed in/from the Emirates’ pieces at the Expo will go into this fund, which aims “to support local designers and small and medium-sized design businesses”.

It’s not at all clear how this support will be delivered or what criteria will be applied to selection. “Potential future collaborations are yet to be decided,” we were told; “the fund will be run by Expo 2020 Dubai, with its legacy plans revealed before the end of the six-month event”.


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