It’s hard to pick a favourite from a design fair as densely packed as Dubai Design Week, but I am going to stick my neck out and do just that: It is a pen that detects cancer. Called the MasSpec Pen, it is a fairly nondescript white pen with a blobby purple head, which surgeons can use to identify cancerous tissues in 10 seconds flat, as against the existing process which takes 30 minutes. This ingenious little device, designed by a bunch of graduate students from the University of Austin in Texas, was one of 150 such exhibits at the “Global Grad Show" segment of the fair.

There was plenty of razzle dazzle at the fourth edition of Dubai Design Week (13-17 November)—it had all the major design brands, gasp-inducing installations, and cutting-edge technology creating pieces of mesmerizing beauty. Now, I am an unabashed fan of all this, but what this fair did was allow me to see beyond and recognize design’s potential to solve real-life problems. This ability to bring you face-to-face with example after example of design in this potent problem-solving mode is the unique contribution of the fair. Equally, I found the opportunity to chat with so many recent graduate designers from all over the world—untainted by the world of commerce, the stars still intact in their eyes—both inspiring and deeply moving.

Inspiring too was the robust representation of young Indians at the Global Grad Show, and their mind-boggling variety of creations. There was “Sahayak" (designed by Rishabh Singh from IIT, Mumbai), a backpack-like device to help porters redistribute and reduce the load on their heads by as much as 75%. Or “Tipo" (designed by Ayushman Talwar of Eindhoven University, Netherlands), a tiny Braille keyboard that attaches to the back of a smartphone, and allows the visually impaired to text with ease. “Universal Socket Prosthetic" (designed by Akhilesh Mishra and his team at the University of California Berkeley), a prosthetic arm with a hexagonal socket, into which you can lock a variety of attachments—a cup, a painter’s palette, even a violin bow. It is an open-source project, which means others can design whatever attachments they need, and 3D-print it for less than a dollar.

Downtown Design is the trade show segment of the fair, where all the design brands—175 international and 60 regional—were housed, including famous ones like Artemide and Herman Miller, and also lesser-known ones like the Indian lighting brand, Klove Studio, which I found simply stunning. I spoke with Rue Kothari, the fair director of Downtown Design—if you are wondering, yes, she is of Indian origin, but British. She is a super-charged advocate of growing local design talent, Emirati, yes, but any nationality really, as long as they are based in the UAE. She gave examples of young designers like Sergio Mendes (from Portugal) and Sophia Chraïbi Giorgi (from Morocco)—both of whom exhibited at the fair—who have recently moved to Dubai and set up their studios there. “The ability to realize your ambitions here is limitless," Kothari says. “If you have time, if you have energy, if you have some direction, then you can achieve much more here than in an established design market."

Two contrary themes—“future-looking technology" and “preserving past heritage"—seemed to flow through much of the exhibition, speaking of the unique crossroads that we find ourselves at, both in terms of design and as the human race. So there were rippled marble tables and vases by Layth Mahdi, a US-based architect who has programmed robots to chisel marble, like many hi-tech Michelangelos. At the other end, there were exhibits like The Original Comes From Vitra, which showcased classics like the chairs from Eames and Panton, which hold their magic today as they did in the 1950s and 1960s when they were first created.

Perhaps these opposing themes came together with a bang in the decidedly futuristic Breath Of Light installation by Preciosa Lighting, a company from Bohemia dating back to 1724. Think of being surrounded by hundreds of soap bubbles, except these aren’t soap but hand-blown crystal ones, each roughly the size of a football, some bigger, some smaller, filling up a massive room, floating down to varying heights. At the four corners of the room were sensor-equipped balls. When you blow into these, as if by magic your breath flows through the installation, lighting the crystal bubbles along the way, a gentle whoosh of sound tailing it. And you feel like a child, grinning in wonder, while another part of your brain tries to figure out what kind of technology has gone into converting your breath into a travelling stream of light and sound. This installation, which debuted in Milan, won a Red Dot: Best of the Best award earlier this year. You can buy the “Breath of Light" for $400,000 (around 2.8 crore).

As I left Dubai Design District, a mysteriously beautiful object beckoned me from inside a store. It is the AR Gallery, run by Amrish Patel—he splits his time between Dubai and Ahmedabad—and on display are some of the most exquisite “chairs" and “stools" I have seen, the sort you’d expect to encounter on a renegade spaceship zipping off to some final frontier. These are 3D-printed by Nagami, a Spanish design brand founded just two years ago, and they have collaborated with Zaha Hadid Associates for the chairs (“Rise", which lured me in, costs UAE dirham 117,227, or around 22.8 lakh), and Ross Lovegrove for the stools (“Robotica™" costs AED 13,750). Nagami’s co-founder, the young architect Manuel Jiménez Garcia, was luckily at hand. As he spoke to me about these software-coded, artificially printed, ethereally lovely pieces, it occurred to me that we are like that spaceship entering some final frontier of design.

And we are in for a treat. These young minds will bend science to design a world that I cannot even imagine.

Radha Chadha is a marketing and consumer insight expert. She is the author of The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

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