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How valuable is cultural design in the Middle East?

From craftsmanship to patterning, it is safe to say the Middle East has put some unmatchable design features on the map. With the influence of Islamic traditions, these design features have taken on an even stronger sense of identity. But with the advancement of modernisation and western influence, is incorporating local culture still valuable for regional design?

Commercial Interior Design asked designers in the region for their thoughts and the responses couldn’t have been more diverse. However, most agreed that recognising local culture when designing required consideration.


Founder of Studio Em, Emma Stinson, who was born and raised in Dubai, said local culture has always been within her top three important factors when designing Middle East-based projects.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean giving design an ‘Arabic feel’ or covering it in mashrabiya and Arabic touches of similar ilk,” she clarified. “Our consideration is more about flow, ambiance, customer service, noise, target audience, materials and layout rather than actual decorative features,” explains Stinson.

“It would be incredibly remiss for any designer not to take into consideration the local culture, especially in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan,” she added.

Although from a tremendously multi-cultural background, Lebanese designer Nada Debs stressed on the importance of retaining Middle Eastern design in the region: “I think we are very emotional people who need to identify with our roots,” she said.

For Marcos Cain, director and co-founder of Stickman, design is based primarily on the client brief and the vision of the project, whilst Emirati designer Khalid Shafar believes that using cultural elements in the Middle East displays a sign of cultural understanding.

However, he states: “[I believe that] design should be universal and versatile than tied to a particular culture or ethnic background. It should appeal to a wider audience rather than a single culture and should adapt to different spaces and tastes.”

But with the popularisation of modern design and minimalism, in addition to the growing multicultural society present in the region, how does cultural design keep up with the times?


When contemplating Middle Eastern design, Shafar said elements such as Arabesque patterns, brass, gold, pearl inlay and carved wood come to mind; however, his choice of using such elements depends solely on the project at hand.

“When we think of the Middle Eastern design, the first thing that really leaps out is Islamic patterns that derive from ancient Islamic architecture,” Stinson contributed. “We look at old style wall and floor patterns and how hundreds of years later the same geometric shapes and patterns are still being used in modern cutting-edge projects. It’s a testament to the timeless nature of Islamic design.”

Nevertheless, this “timelessness” has recently been altered by replacing a canonical style with present day lines and forms: one of these alterations being the design of mosques.

“I don’t mind the addition of modernity when it comes to the latest technologies, energy and water conservation solutions or eco-friendly materials, yet I do believe that the religious sanctuary still needs to preserve its Islamic aesthetic for the interiors and most of the exterior elements as well,” noted Shafar.

Stinson on the other hand expressed her immense liking for the more modern mosques of our time: “I absolutely love some of the more modern mosques especially the Abdulrahman Siddik Mosque on the Palm Jumeirah, which I find still stands strong as a wonderful piece of Islamic architecture and design and feels quintessentially Islamic.”

“However, with certain futuristic and modern mosques such as the proposed Avenues Mall Mosque by Zaha Hadid, it could be easy to say that this is too far removed from traditional Islamic design. But I would say that overall modernism in Islamic architecture is a good thing.”

Debs commented on how cultural design in the Middle East reaches the collective needs of the people: “For me, Islamic geometrical patterns go straight to the heart of the people and they relate to it very well.” She went on to add that her design principles for other regions are based more on form and colour.

“I believe the patterns I use bring out the sense of abstraction and it mesmerises you,” she said. “When looking at the patterns, they appear as universal.”

Cain, on the other hand, feels that there is too much going on in the world to stick to a single influence: “Globilisation and Internet access along with extensive global travel have influenced an eclectic array of multicultural design and synergy. There are so many cross cultural references in design today; from European to Asian influences in Middle Eastern design and Middle Eastern cultural elements that are now found in venues across Europe and Asia.”

Cleverly applying the phrase “opposites attract,” Shafar observed that there have been many times western clients had preferred to have stronger Middle Eastern elements. At the same time, clients hailing from the Arab region have commonly requested a more neutral and modern design, one that could be described as western. “I do believe that it works by the opposite,” the Emirati designer concluded.

Both Debs and Cain believe in a unity — one trusts in a balance of the two, while the other advocates a marriage between modern and cultural design.

“We in the Middle East are open to both cultures. It is the mix that we appreciate. Middle East products placed against a contemporary backdrop accentuates both the elements of our region as well as the west,” described Debs.

“Look at the number of hotel operators in the region that feature both contemporary and Middle Eastern design in their portfolios and both concepts are successful businesses,” Cain pointed out.

He continued: “It’s about delivering on the brief and creating an experience that suits the needs of the target audience. Variety is the spice of life.”

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