UAE’s thriving creative scene catapults Dubai Design Week onto a global stage

A light brown detail of a building, with flat columns that let in light.
Circadian Light Synthesis by Anarchitect in the Dubai Design District offers unique frames of the Dubai skyline. Courtesy Anarchitect
(Image credit: Courtesy Anarchitect)

In 2015, Dubai Design Week launched with the aim to make a mark on the design world. Four years on and it appears to have ignited an exciting cultural movement in the region, described by Rawan Kashkoush, head of programming at Dubai Design Week, as an ‘Arab design renaissance’. By its second edition, Dubai Design Week doubled in size and last year the city felt well and truly anointed as a new creative capital as locals celebrated the opening of the Jean Nouvel-designed Louvre Abu Dhabi and OMA’s first Dubai project on the hip Alserkal Avenue, Concrete art space.

It hasn’t stopped there. During this year’s event, the first contemporary art institution – Jameel Arts Centre – opens in Dubai, plus the Middle East gains a graphic design biennale inaugurating in the neighbouring Sharjah, and the D3 design district – just a developing project four years ago – now has 85 per cent occupancy. We scoured the 230-plus events at the fourth edition of Dubai Design Week to bring you the unmissable highlights...

Fikra Graphic Design Biennial

Some graphic design artworks are showcased inside the building. We see a sign hanging from the wall that says 'Things won't improve after Brexit'. There are many, what looks like, newspaper pages hung on a black platform.

(Image credit: press)

More than 20 countries have been invited for this inaugural graphic design event. The brainchild of Fikra, a graphic design studio and education platform, it is an opportunity for Middle Eastern practices to make an impact on the global graphic design scene through the exhibitions, performances, workshops and more. The old Bank of Sharjah is the location for the showcase, a 1970s modernist unused block that is transformed into a fictional and temporary ‘Ministry of Graphic Design’ by T. ZED Architects for the event.

‘I would like to think of it as un-defining graphic design – challenging preconceived ideas of the discipline but providing an unexpectedly broad array of graphic design works, concepts and initiatives,’ says Salem Al-Qassimi, founder of Fikra. The exhibition is divided into creative sections that reflect the hierarchal structures of a government including The Department of Mapping Margins and The Department of Dematerialising Language. Pictured: Brexit: Why Did It Happen? by Paula Minelgaite, 2017. Read more here. Courtesy of Obaid Al Budoor

9-30 November; Bank of Sharjah/eLseed Building, Heart of Sharjah, UAE

Circadian Light Synthesis by Anarchitect 

Two clay pavilions, with tilted tops and flat columns that let in light.

(Image credit: press)

Offering a reflective moment at one of the entrances of D3 is Anarchitect’s clay pavilions, inspired by the human circadian rhythm. The Dubai and London-based practice is investigating the effect of sunlight and temperatures on our body clock with two structures: one is aligned with the sunlight with rotating fixtures and another is dictated by artificial lighting. During sundown, the pavilions also provides a unique photographic frame of Dubai’s ever-changing skyline, including its most powerful architectural monument; the Burj Khalifa.

Dubai Design District D3

Global Grad Show

A white and green box of dish detergent capsules, with a pink capsule standing next to it.

(Image credit: press)

The Brendan McGetrick-curated show includes 150 inventions that ‘accelerate change and improve lives’, by graduates from 100 different universities on show. Chile, Hungary, Jordan and Pakistan are represented for the first time this year and projects are picked based on innovation in technology, equality (with no hierarchal difference between universities), universal design and impact on the world. The show is bought together in an installation by New York-based SO-IL who have created painted fabric 'mountains' that visitors can walk around to discover the works.

‘Graduates today are faced with daunting truths such as climate change, automation, and mass migration,’ explains McGetrick. ‘Each of these projects offers a restorative solution; an idea of how to make human-scale changes with the hope of bettering humankind as a whole.’ Pictured: creams and cleaning agents by Mirjam De Bruijn from Design Academy Eindhoven that arrive concentrated to be mixed with water at home, an alternative to the usual 80 per cent water that can be found in these products.

Art Dubai Group, Building 6, Dubai Design District

Jameel Arts Centre

Front look at the contemporary art space building. A modern building, with multiple levels, columns that support the terrace above the entrance, and floor-to-ceiling windows.

(Image credit: press)

The 10,000 sq m space by UK-based Serie Architects is the first contemporary arts space of its kind in the country. Combining ten gallery spaces, an arts library and resource centre, seven desert gardens, event spaces, a restaurant and shop, the cultural spot is a multidisciplinary addition to the Jaddaf waterfront, overlooking the Dubai Creek. ‘We are excited to launch our first dedicated space, here in the United Arab Emirates,’ says Antonia Carver, director of Art Jameel. ‘Jameel Arts Centre is set to not only expand the public's engagement with our extensive collection and library but also present museum quality exhibitions in partnership with local, regional and global collaborators.’ The centre opens with multiple shows including Crude, an exhibition curated by Murtaza Vali that explores the history of oil in the Middle East. Read more here. Photography: Mohamed Somji

Jameel Arts Centre, Jaddaf Waterfront

Abwab by Architecture + Other Things

Rendering of five different shaped pavilions that are connected to each other.

(Image credit: press)

Five pavilions by interdisciplinary platform Architecture + Other Things rise up for the the fourth edition of Abwab – the Arabic word for doors. The structures that pepper a centre space in D3 are realised in natural materials including timber coated in recycled newspaper pulp and fallen twigs and house works dedicated to regional practices from Kuwait, Beirut, host country Dubai and Amman.

Dubai Design District D3

Downtown Design

Columns inside of the building are painted white, with many different and colorful designs on them, in geometrical shapes.

(Image credit: press)

The trade section of Dubai Design Week had a new addition this year; Downtown Editions, an area of the fair dedicated to UAE makers that formed as part of a merging of the Design Days Dubai that used to take place every March. Highlights include snippets of designs from Casablanca Design Week and Amman Design Week, plus a selection of work by emerging talents who have taken part in a year-long residency with Dubai-based Tashkeel producing the collection Taween. Elsewhere, interior design studio Roar (previously known as Pallavi Dean Interiors) realised a graphic and vibrant installation for Sharjah-based Oasis Paints, capturing the essence of its factory with pillars that mimic large paint drums.

Dubai Design District D3


Dubai Design Week is on view 12-17 November. For more information, visit the website

Sujata Burman is a writer and editor based in London, specialising in design and culture. She was Digital Design Editor at Wallpaper* before moving to her current role of Head of Content at London Design Festival and London Design Biennale where she is expanding the content offering of the showcases. Over the past decade, Sujata has written for global design and culture publications, and has been a speaker, moderator and judge for institutions and brands including RIBA, D&AD, Design Museum and Design Miami/. In 2019, she co-authored her first book, An Opinionated Guide to London Architecture, published by Hoxton Mini Press, which was driven by her aim to make the fields of design and architecture accessible to wider audiences.