Titters broke out during the opening-day press conference for Design Days Dubai - the fourth edition of the annual fair billed as the Middle East's largest - when a representative from automaker Audi, one of the event's chief underwriters, mistakenly referred to his company as the sole sponsor of 'Audi Design Days.' Catching the gaffe, fair director Cyril Zammit smiled from his seat near the podium. 'Maybe if you added another zero,' he said.
One hopes they don't. Among Design Days Dubai's charms is that it remains, for all its mainstream appeal, very much an evolving and un-co-opted entity. The city where it takes place is a Wild West of real estate development and cultural and economic ferment, and the fair reflects that, combining a cosmopolitan air with a sense of experiment that's harder to find at larger, more staid fairs in other cities. There's unquestionably a big-time corporate presence in and around Dubai, but at least so far, it isn't setting the tone for Dubai Design Days.
Of the 44 exhibitors presenting at this year's fair, fully 19 of them were based in the region, an impressive showing from a still-emerging design market. Khalid Mezaina, Project Coordinator at Dubai art-and-design incubator Tashkeel, explained how the offerings at his booth drew on the culture and traditions of the Arabian Peninsula. 'All the pieces have stories,' he said, pointing to the wooden chairs and tables of Rand Abdul Jabbar, based on ancient local boat-making techniques. Not far off, Italian designer Massimo Faion stood at the stall for Beirut-based Carwan Gallery beside his latest creation-a beechwood-and-bronze falcon perch, complete with demonstration falcon and attending falconer. Though common in the Middle East, it is not necessary to practice bird-on-bird hunting to enjoy the piece. 'I tried to make it so beautiful and well-designed that it can also work simply for display,' said Faion.
Even exhibitors representing more familiar territory tended, on the whole, towards the new and unconventional. New York design gallery Chamber, which opened only last fall, decided to make its first appearance on the global fair circuit in Dubai. Director Michael Vince Snyder, flanked by whimsical pieces from Studio Job and Jakob Smits, explained that part of the reason was just how easy and straightforward the fair's staff had made the process: 'They're just a wonderful organization to work,' he said. And at least tentatively, they appear to be a good organization to sell with, too: two days into the fair, Zammit said that sales thus far have been brisk, 'from the very low end to the very high.'