Interview: Ayah Al Bitar on creating designs that address issues in Saudi Arabia

Hailed as a young talent to watch out for in the Middle East, Ayah Al Bitar tells Commercial Interior Design that she is determined to start a dialogue through design to make a difference in the society.

All eyes are on Saudi Arabia, as the gulf nation embarks on a drive to transform itself through a series of economical, political and cultural reformative measures. Its youth are taking the latest developments in their stride and show a strong inclination to become part of this watershed moment. One among them is Ayah Al Bitar, 26, a product designer currently based in Dubai.

Operating out of her studio in Dubai Design District, Al Bitar is upbeat about the transition taking place in her country. The ongoing shift has also inspired her own approach to design. Her bicycle seat-shaped floor seating piece is a case in point. “It was the social issue of transportation for women in Saudi Arabia that triggered the idea,” says Al Bitar, adding that it was a cumulative effect of all that was going on in her native country.

The Ytable integrated with tray.

She recalls that the thought first occured to her in the year 2013 while she was still at university in New York at the prestigious The New School’s Parsons School of Design. “I was doing my thesis when some protests took place in Saudi over the issue of women’s right to drive,” says Al Bitar. “Such resistance happens once every 10-12 years but generally, such activities send out a more counteractive message as most of these women do not know how to drive and still end of getting behind the wheels, and ultimately end up getting hurt.”

To Al Bitar, such dissentient acts only highlight rebellion without a positive message, and strongly disagrees with this approach. “It got me thinking about how we can talk about social issues without being rebellious and aggressive, yet without feeling restricted to express our thoughts,” she says, adding that it provided the impetus for her exploratory work on designing for social change. “I was keen to communicate and penetrate the minds of people through dialogue.”

Undoubtedly, the creative industries are being a positive catalyst in the reform measures being launched in Saudi Arabia. Al Bitar agrees.  Last month, women were officially allowed to drive in the country, marking a historical moment which will herald social, political and economical changes. The designer also opines that such significant changes are beginning to focus on gender equality and progression. “A lot of Saudi youth are part of this movement, and we are all excited to see what will come up next and what kind of opportunities will it provide for both genders,” she says.

Wisada seat and The Sanctuary prayer mat stand.

Despite having lived overseas for many years, Al Bitar continues to be proud of her Saudi Arabian heritage. “I love Saudi Arabia. It has been a haven for me while growing up, the restrictions notwithstanding,” she notes.  “Many people who have never visited there may not understand what I love about it. Even a lot of expatriates who live in Saudi Arabia find it a place to call home, and find a connection with it and stay much longer.”

Due to conservative cultural practices, Al Bitar says that young people like her have learnt to appreciate their privileged life a lot more. “For example, whenever we went on holidays overseas, we appreciated the new experiences and perspectives,” she comments, adding that women learnt to embrace the restrictions, which also meant that they now had very high expectations of every product and service.

How different is life in Saudi Arabia now than, say, five years ago? “It’s not very different, but subtle nuances are there for us to see internally within the community,” observes Al Bitar. “Simple tasks such as having a male salesperson in stores, and women walking down the street are subtle manifestations of the cultural changes.”

Ayah Al Bitar has designed a swing version of the Wisada seat.

Al Bitar moved to Dubai with her parents – her father has business interests in the emirate. She shares that her family has kept a home in Dubai for a long time. “We would always visit Dubai, but when I was in university, my parents decided to shift base here,” she says. “I still have a lot of work, and family back in Saudi. But now that I’m primarily based in Dubai, I can say that I get the best of both worlds.”

The two diverse environments have given Al Bitar a lot to communicate through design, the underlying ideology of her work. “I have some pieces that are breaking cultural boundaries, such as Wisada, a reinterpretation of the bicycle seat, which are thought-provoking and problem solving,” she says. “It all pertains to how we function in our day to day life. I like to facilitate people’s lives, whether through a social message or a daily action. There are multiple messages in my work.”

Narrating how her now popular Wisada seat is symbolic of what’s happening in Saudi, she says that to reflect the changes in the industry, there was a lot of 2D materials, such as books and movies, but there was nothing tactile. Al Bitar stresses that these 3D items don’t have to be massive, but they can convey a powerful message. “For example, the pink breast cancer ribbon, or the Sheikh Zayed emblem pin – once you’ve put it on, you do not have to explain anything; you’re already part of the movement,” she says. “For me, when I was thinking about what I could create that relates to the culture and is something that can be kept inside homes, and not just be out in the streets. I realised it had to be done through an item which people already use, albeit in a more refined and understated form.”

Apart from the message, the Wisada seat also imbibes humour – a tongue in cheek reference to how the seat came about. “In the year 2013, the ban on women to ride bikes was lifted. However, the law also stated that it had to be done in the presence of a male authority. How could two people sit on the bike, let alone ride it? Other reasons such as high temperatures and the availability of chauffeur-driven cars made the freedom sort of redundant. Still, a lot of people didn’t take it well and attempted to ride bikes, only to get into accidents. I wanted to react to it in a more positive manner,” explains Al Bitar.

While people talk about the materials and the comfort, they also discuss the interpretation. The comfortable floor seating is meant to evoke a more relaxed environment, “where you feel like you’re not being watched”.

“A lot of men started talking about how comfortable it was, and some of them even use it as seating while playing video games as well as in majlises in their farmhouses,” says Al Bitar, about her conversation starting piece. She also shares that 80% of Wisada users are men who appreciate the concept.

Since designing the popular seating, Al Bitar has gone on to design other pieces such as a bookstand for the Holy Quran, a prayer mat stand and a swing iteration of Wisada, and other seating, which is among her still developing works.

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