Flower power


Kevin Dean, artist and designer, speaks about his Middle East projects

People often contact me with unusual and intriguing projects. I’ve been asked to paint an almost life size mural of a rainforest for the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, postage stamps for a small island in the Caribbean and to design tableware for a manufacturer in Russia.

But I never imagined I would ever design a marble decoration within one of the largest mosques in the world, a commission that, in many ways has changed the course of my life.


It began with a call from the architect Dr Salma Damuluji in 2003 asking if I might like to produce design proposals for an 18,000m², marble courtyard, (or Sahan). It sounded amazing, if somewhat unreal, but a few weeks later I was standing amongst huge concrete domes, archways and bulldozers – the proposed courtyard was nothing but sand.

Yet, seven years later this iconic construction, The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, opened its doors to the public for the first time.

I was given some sketches of what Sheikh Sultan, (Sheikh Zayed’s son) envisaged for the mosque’s courtyard floor and I understood why I had been chosen for the commission. Rather than using traditional Islamic geometrics, Sheikh Sultan wanted to use a free flowing floral design, similar to many of my textile designs.

After submitting drawings for the courtyard, he asked me work on designs for four archways and the floors in the southern and northern entrances.

Also, the main Prayer Hall entrance floor and walls. In each entrance I used flowers from particular hemispheres, ie plants from the southern hemisphere are depicted in the southern entrance and plants in the northern entrance are from the northern hemisphere – I felt this would emphasise the fact that Islam is an international faith.

The construction of the Grand Mosque was also a very international project, employing engineers, architects and artisans from across the world, I was able to work with the UK consulting engineers, Halcrow, Italian architects Spatium and Fantini Mosaci, also from Italy, who fabricated the whole of the marble courtyard floor.

Since opening in 2010, the mosque receives about 250,000 visitors a month, it’s amazing to think of so many people walking on and looking at my designs. I have been travelling to the UAE regularly ever since, seeing clients, working with galleries and giving arts workshops in schools. I also have my agents in Dubai, Carol and Andrew Prince of RWN Trading.

I like the energy and ambition of the UAE, it is a country that looks to the future rather than at its past. The architecture is simply amazing and I adore Dubai’s new metro system.

People are so friendly, and I admire the way so many nationalities have integrated into UAE society. I gave a talk at a school in Dubai recently and I was told there were children from 84 countries on the school register.

Over the past three years I have been developing my own range of wallcoverings and textiles, I have shown them in New York and Paris and I want to create a collection for the Middle East.

It is an exciting time for art and design in the UAE, it seems to me, that the country has almost everything, a great infrastructure, a skilled workforce and an economy that seems to be growing once more – factors that can only foster a burgeoning cultural sector.

Architects and developers are willing to be creative and bold and there is an impressive range of galleries to be found, often in surprising locations – the industrial sector in Al Quoz in Dubai for example. I’m sure that when The Louvre and Guggenheim open, the country will become one of the cultural capitals of the world.

At the moment I’m busily working on an exhibition at The Majlis Gallery in Dubai, for the end of October. I have been creating large monoprints and watercolours of plants from around the globe, in many ways it all links to my work at The Grand Mosque – and as I said before, The Grand Mosque changed the course of my life.

Kevin Dean, artist & designer, www.kevindean.co.uk

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