I’m just now flying home from Dubai, watching sinisterly familiar names passing by on the map— Basra, Mosul, Aleppo, Baghdad. On the way out it was nighttime and I anxiously stared out the window looking for explosions, but I didn’t see any.
It’s been a while- over a year! and that’s not because things have been boring but because everything that’s gone on has been about ME and MY life and writing about that in a public setting doesn’t feel quite right. So I think I’ll update mostly about travel and art and design and things that I would like to read about. One scruffball designer’s day-to-day is really only fascinating to said scruffball designer, or should be.
Scruffball designers also sometimes find themselves in Kellogg's window displays. Don't ask.
So in the past year I have finished my degree of course, and started freelancing and then started a company around my freelance practice. It’s new and exciting and confusing and I fortunately don’t know enough to know what and when I am screwing things up. In any case, my clients seem to like me and I, like Harry (who you are NOT to call a human potato) am doing alright. And a week ago I found myself on a flight the largest graduate design show in the world in a city of superlatives.
I hadn’t been out of the country since England, and even though the UAE was a bit low on my list of places to visit I was excited to see a new bit of the world. And even at 2 AM after 20+ hours of travel time and an unpromising view of skyscrapers and occasional palm trees I still found myself bouncing around in the (pink, women's only) cab from the airport saying OH BOY OH BOY OH BOY! and irritating my travelling companions.
Usually the first thing I do in a new place is dump out my suitcases and rush outside to see what I can see. This time I decorously hung up my professional looking clothing (miraculously unwrinkled after I watched a YouTube video on how to fold) and meekly slept until 8. This must be what it is like to grow old.
When I was finally out the door of the bland hotel I immediately discovered that going out and having a wander does not happen in Dubai. It’s about 95 degrees at all times and humid and relentlessly sunny. I also discovered that the aggressively modest clothing I brought on the advice of the internet was both uncomfortable and unnecessary. While local people do wear lovely cool looking robes, your average foreign lady is exploding out of little bits of fabric that I wouldn’t attempt in a liberal country or a conservative country or any other country either.
I also noticed that things seem to operate in blasts of activity with truly impressive results. For example, that first blazing morning when I went into the convention hall to set up my prototypes it was a mess of plastic and sawdust and armies of workers running around with shiny new power tools. When I came back the next day everything was absolutely immaculate with not a speck of dust to be seen. Someone had even blown the sawdust out of the honeycomb cells of my helmet prototype which I appreciated very much. Over the course of the week I also watched a new canal fill up and a building rise two more stories.
I didn't take many pictures in the hall because everyone else was-- picture courtesy GGS.
It was a great pleasure to see old friends from Keio and RCA, lovely familiar faces which I had not really thought to see again (which in retrospect is silly. There aren’t THAT many industrial designers in the world). It was nice to sit up late and argue design and politics, and pick apart the way everything looked. Its rare to be with such a large and international group who understands each others’ thought processes so easily, even if there is nothing else in common. Even across literally dozens of countries and cultures we do speak a common language, and if that sounds pretentious and sentimental, it is- and it’s also true.
Like all trade shows it was a long and tiring experience, explaining our projects again and again and again till the words blended together. Once a day whispers would go round— The Sheikh is coming! The Sheikh is coming!— and everyone would rush to their places and smooth their hair and wait for His Highness to roll in. He came the last day and I missed him- I had stepped out for lunch- and apparently he walked in with his retinue, looked around, said ‘hrm,’ and walked right out again. I talked to several Dubai residents and was surprised how affectionately they spoke of him. Apparently he is a genuinely cultured, warm hearted man with multiple PhDs and a fondness for animals, which is not what one expects from an absolute ruler. All week other lesser grandees would walk through with their giant retinues and observe the designs through their aviators.
I had a generally warm response, but I don’t think that intentionally inexpensive design for urban commuting makes much sense to someone from a hot country where everyone drives everywhere and everything is about displaying huge fortunes. I did meet a wiry little burnt British guy who informed me that he cycles everywhere all year round, but I sensed he was an outlier.
Speaking of huge fortunes….
A retinue--whose I couldn't say.
Speaking of huge fortunes….
Every building seems to be a fantasy of opulence. The skyscrapers have toppers on them that serve no purpose beyond looks but must cost half as much as the skyscraper itself; there is a massive fountain display every night that is a paragon of unnecessary desalination; there are malls the size of…. several malls? It’s hard to talk about the malls because I avoid malls like the plague normally. These are not just places to shop though; they are meeting places, dining places (fancy and not) and destinations. I suppose if being outside isn’t an option and you are not at home or at work it’s good to have a giant indoor world where everything may be fake but goddamnit the air conditioning works. It makes for a sense of unreality that is not dreamlike, but aggravating. Everything gleams with gold and glass, there are attractions everywhere, waterwalls, aquariums, skating rinks, ski slopes, giant chocolate fountains. Even with the relentless air conditioning I always left feeling sticky.
Light up blue mall dinosaur!
The other option to go in the daytime is the beach, also an experience, but nicer. I’ve never felt such warm water, such soft sand. The latter is imported, the former is so clear because the desalination plants dump excessive salt into it which kills everything. It was delightful to float around though, and with the heaviest sunscreen I could find plus sunglasses I only wound up with a bad sunburn, not a terrible one. Looking out to sea at the huge tankers and inland to the crazy towers I had a sense that Dubai has been thunked down on the desert with no sense of place, time or history and it could easily just float away.
I like to always go to the oldest part of a city because I think that’s where a place’s soul lives, though if Dubai has a soul it’s probably in a mall. Still I went to the gold souk and the spice souk and the fabric souk in search of souvenirs and magic and found almost none of the former (everything can be got in the US, better quality too) and only a little of the latter.
Party dhown, party dhow!*
A friend and I went one evening just as everything was closing and the touristy veneer melted away a little. We had a long talk with an Iranian Persian in a spice shop who told us what was probably a lot of nonsense about smugglers and meth; took a boat up and down a creek (we just flagged down a boatman, jumped a railing and hopped in— it was great) and fetched up in a deserted and deeply unconvincing ‘old city’ that was supposed to look like a crusader era village complete with surveillance cameras and fake torchlight.
Derelict pearler boat
'Historic' Al Bastakiya district
Inexplicably deserted square
Still, it was pleasantly disorienting to wander up and down the empty narrow streets and stop in the carpeted squares, quite lost- and we agreed that it was the best part of the city (later I went back in the daytime and met a British bookseller in an airy rooftop shop who told us all about the area history in a captivating accent and sold me a so far excellent book called ‘The Siege of Mecca).
Every city needs a Philately House.
Cars all around but THAT COLOR.
The package included ‘dune bashing’ which means driving rather quickly up and over and around the soft red dunes while everyone in the land rover shrieks and laughs. There are designated photo stops, where, running barefoot up and down the dunes I had a glimpse, half real and half willed to be real, of a vast emptiness. The long, red view was unlike anything I had seen before, and I can see why deserts have captivated writer after writer. My hair streamed back in the sandy wind and for the first and only time in Dubai I felt like I was on the actual land.
Looking one way...
Looking the other way.
Then there was a deeply unconvincing ‘Beduin camp’ with dancers and 90s hip hop and so many floodlights you couldn’t see the stars. I was thinking about the desert though, and how I would like to go back for longer with less cars and more camels and more stars. I never thought I’d say this, but I’d like to go back to the Middle East one day and see the landscape properly. Maybe in the winter.
I also want to chill with these weirdos more.
One thing I found very encouraging is the graciousness and altruism on display at the Global Grad Show. Nearly everything was meant to solve a real problem or help people or the world at large. I've noticed design shows in general these days have a lot of design for design’s sake— more chairs, more plates, more hubless wheels (designers dearly love removing hubs from things) that might look nice, but doesn’t really DO anything. These projects, however, were almost without exception practical and functional and drew their beauty from that. There were solar ovens, quarantine beds, hand powered clothes washers, improved bee hives. The more abstract designs were done extremely well, like a virtual reality suit from Keio that created a world so beautiful I went back to experience it twice. I was honored to be there.
And now, back in my dear, green, cool country, I can go back to work with the sense that the world is both vast and small and full of clever, curious, ambitious designers who are committed to making it better- or at least a good deal more interesting.
And I am too jet lagged to edit so that’s that.
*Courtesy Bart. I never sink to boat puns.
**I only met a handful of people who identified themselves as being from Dubai. Everyone else is quick to tell you they are from Iran or India or Russia or wherever, and everyone’s English is perfect. It was disorientingly like New York in that way.