The Arabic Influence

The Arabic tradition in design is far reaching, stretching not just throughout the Islamic world but into Western cultures too. However, as the Middle East explodes into the multinational, cosmopolitan region that it is today, one question remains: Is the true root of Arabic design being manipulated into a pastiche of what designers want it to be?

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By  Charlotte Butterfield Published  May 7, 2006

|~|Arabic-body-1.jpg|~||~|The Arabic furniture and design tradition has a rich heritage, which spans a vast geographical area encompassing the widespread Islamic world. Arabic design can be traced back to a fusion mainly between the design traditions of Islam and the Persian Empire — as their close proximity to this fallen civilization led many early Islamic architects to inherit and continue its architectural and design traditions.

The four basic components of Islamic design (calligraphy, plant designs, geometric patterns and figural representation) are still prevalent in Arabic design today. Calligraphy was used to transmit text in decorative form. Plant designs adorn a vast number of buildings, manuscripts, objects, and textiles — these patterns and motifs were drawn from traditions of Byzantine culture in the eastern Mediterranean and Sasanian Iran. Geometric ornamentation has reached a pinnacle in the Islamic world. Beautifully complicated patterns are constructed from just four basic shapes — circles and interlaced circles, squares or four-sided polygons; the star pattern, and multisided polygons. Despite being resisted in religious art and architecture (Muslims believe that the creation of living forms is unique to God only) figural representation has also flourished in Islamic cultures. Figural motifs are found on the surface decoration of objects, or architecture, as part of the woven or applied patterns of textiles, and in sculptural form.

Many other Arabic design elements seen today had their origins in the early Islamic world, including courtyards, minarets, and towers (originally used as torch lit watch towers). Interiors of modern buildings often contain alcoves, which derive from the ‘mihrab’ or niche used to indicate the direction to Mecca.

Arabic design can be found all over the world; even after the completion of the Reconquista in Spain (which was under Islamic rule), Arabic heritage had a lasting effect. Medieval Spaniards used the ‘Mudejar’ style, an imitation of Islamic design, such as in the Alcazar of Seville. The Arabic influence has certainly spread westwards — the word ‘sofa’ is actually an Arab derivation of ‘suffah’ meaning “a couch for reclining before the door of Eastern houses.”

Today, however with the powerful infiltration of Western trends into the Arab world, the design style of the region appears to be based on an eclectic fusion, not just of Islamic and Middle Eastern heritage but also of many international influences. Hotel designs reflect this new approach to ‘Arabic’ design. In fact, Wilson & Associates, interior designers of the Royal Mirage Hotel, actually asserted that Dubai “had no real architectural heritage.” As a result of this, the firm integrated Arabesque influences with European styles in its plans for the interior of the hotel.

The lack of design ancestry in Dubai is a point vehemently contested by Tony Williams, designer of Al Maha Desert Resort. He believes that despite the diverse mix of influences that make up ‘Arabic design’ as a whole, there exists in fact a very strong regional design heritage, which designers in the Gulf constantly overlook. Williams is adamant that a level of sincerity must be maintained when creating Arabic interiors in order to conserve the region’s true design roots.
But whether recreated historically intact, or coupled with European ideas of modernity, there is a definite pressure on designers by clients to include Arabesque influences in their designs.
||**||Case Study Burj Al Arab|~|Arabic-Burj.jpg|~||~|Khuan Chew, KCA International, describes how KCA developed the iconic hotel’s ‘modern Arabic’ interior.

CID: The interior design of the Burj Al Arab is renowned as being an over-the-top interpretation of the Arabic style — is this a fair description?
Architecturally we have incorporated many arabesque influences into the design. For example, in the many arches, such as in the colonnade of the Assawan Health Spa and the sculptural wall of the atrium in the middle of the spa on the 18th floor. We have adapted traditional geometric and floral designs and transformed them into more organic forms, which have been applied to soft furnishings and the architectural interior.

CID: What furnishings and materials have you used to provide a traditional touch?
Bearing in mind that we worked on this project in the mid-nineties, we had very few sources locally to come up with high quality products. Therefore we went to specialists world wide to provide finishes and products. They worked with us to produce the final product in combining technology and luxurious materials with some ‘tongue in cheek’ Arabic motifs, such as wood inlays, silk and satin fabrics.

CID: The colours you’ve chosen are not your typical Arabesque hues...
Admittedly we were quite brave in the use of colour. Most designers shy away from colour. We thought we would bring a bit of vibrancy to the lives of guests who were coming to the most luxurious and opulent hotel in the world. In particular in certain areas
such as in the ladies majlis or sitting room in the upper level of the royal suite, which contains an array of bright and shocking pinks.

CID: How would you define your design concept?
What is unique is that this is the first time — when it opened its doors in December 1999 — that a ‘modern Arabic’ interior was shown to the world. The ultra modern space of the Al Mahara Restaurant is quite a dining experience. I have seen hybrids and copies of our wave motif walls in silver cast in several locations, both in Dubai and in other cities. Here we have exotic mother of pearl inlays in our furniture and coral, abalone and other sea motifs applied to fabrics and carpets — a real combination of the traditional and the modern.||**||Case Study Al Maha|~|Arabic-Al-Maha.jpg|~||~|Tony Williams, vice president, Resorts & Projects, Emirates, was the driving force behind the design and construction of the Emirates Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa. He tells CID how a resort based on Bedouin heritage was conceived and created:
“We need to be clear what we are referring to when we talk about ‘Arabic design’. Arabian influences stretch a long way — they could include Moroccan, Bedouin, Fort design, Iranian, even African and Indian. There are very clear distinctions between these different influences, for example between the traditional wind tower architecture found along the coast compared to architecture found inland in developments around Al Ain and Hatta.

We created Al Maha to replicate a traditional desert oasis. The resort is based on inland desert architecture, which consisted of flat roofed buildings made from simple materials, such as barasti (palms fronds). Homes had small windows and large doors, which were opened at night with a smaller door, so cool air did not escape when people went in and out during the day.

At Al Maha we have focused on the detail of traditional architecture — a lot of which was dictated by the materials that were historically available. We have modernised the presentation of the buildings and used contemporary materials, however, our aim was to ensure that we kept to the original forms and proportions of rooms. Traditionally, room dimensions were dictated by the length of wooden posts that could be brought in by dhow, resulting in long, narrow rooms. These wooden posts were laid out on a grid system, which were generally around 2 to 3 metres apart. Our reception design is based entirely on these original desert buildings.

The surrounding tents are designed to replicate the experience of a Bedouin tent, with traditional fabric ceilings and tent poles. We designed the furniture ourselves, contemporising it for a modern experience. For example, traditionally Bedouins only sat on cushions. We replicated Bedouin seating areas using low cushioned seats, low tables, carpets and a chaise longue. We took pieces which were very typically local and modernised them to make them comfortable without losing the visual experience.

Traditionally Bedouin tents were made of goat wool and dyed with plant dye in shades varying from ochre to plum.The colours we chose came from a Bedouin tent made of fabric strips stitched together, from a small town in Syria — this became the palette from which we worked. We have used muted deep reds, and fabrics embroidered with gold.
We wanted to ensure that all the décor in the resort was entirely original. Each room contains an original Bedouin chest. We bought about 3000 antiques from around the region and now own the biggest private collection outside of the Dubai museum; it is all 100-250 years old. These antiques formed the basis of our design for the resort.
We realised that thousands of local antiques were being bought by European visitors, and were witnessing the area’s history walking out of the door. It is almost impossible to find original artifacts here now, only replicas. We made a strong point to purchase everything from camel bags and blankets, weaponry, household implements, jewellery and pots so we could maintain it in Dubai.

The big difference between the way we designed Al Maha and the way in which the general flavour of Arabian design is brought in to interiors here is that most designers tend to take a very pastiche approach. Designers take a bit from here and there and incorporate it almost as an afterthought — it’s not very consistent. They simply provide a flavour of general Arabic heritage without taking the time to establish its origin or its history. Sometimes with the rush of developments in Dubai, in an attempt to inject an ‘Arabic’ feel into buildings, designers take a short cut approach. Al Maha on the other hand has been built to specifically reflect the historical architectural experience of living in the desert and to try to replicate and preserve it.

A lot of work needs to be done to maintain a sincerity level of what constitutes UAE and regional design. I feel that more effort should be made to create a more distinctive sense of place for Dubai. There are two aspects to this. One is the very progressive, modern futuristic city with landmark architecture that Dubai is becoming. However it is important that Dubai should not lose its historic roots. A balance is created by developments like Al Maha which preserve and conserve the real history of Dubai — this must be achieved or we could lose our way in terms of what Dubai is and where its true roots lie.”||**||Case Study Royal Mirage |~|Arabic-Royal-Mirage.jpg|~||~|The Royal Mirage defines its design concept as a blending of ‘fantasy and tradition’ — the implication being that the designers have incorporated an eclectic mix of traditional Arabic style and amalgamated these arabesque influences with some imaginative design visions of their own.

Wilson & Associates was responsible for the interior design of the hotel. “Our design brief was to bring a little more architectural history to Dubai. As Dubai had no real architectural heritage, we researched the architecture and interiors of the Middle East and European influences to design a hotel that would appear to have been built at the beginning of the 20th Century.”

Many features of the resort emit a strong Arabic influence. The hotel architecture is composed of low-rise sandy walls and battlements with serene inner courtyards. Arabesque design features include vast, engraved wooden doors and a 70-foot gilded and painted dome with regional motifs. The hotel floors are composed of intricate marble and mosaic patterns and the lobby lounge and bar contains richly appointed fabrics and furnishings reminiscent of an Arabian palace.

The colour palette used throughout the hotel has a strong Arabesque feel with the designers using vivid colours to echo the warmth of the Arabian Gulf, while the softer tones recall the desert landscape. The hotel has been purposefully patterned after a traditional Arabian home, with clear definitions between the spaces used to greet and entertain guests and the spaces reserved for the household. Lofty ceilings, mosaic flooring, carpets, and lantern and torch-style lighting define the centrally located public spaces.

Areas of the resort, which contain a particularly Arabesque feel include the Health and Beauty Institute with towering domes, carved arches and intricate design detail, reminiscent of the traditional architecture of the region. The bar, Kasbar — with its many alcoves has been designed to incorporate Arabian glamour with low-level seating, plush cushions, mirrors and a striking crystal chandelier. The opulent Samovar Lounge has impressive high ceilings, rich hand crafted furnishings and gold leaf domes and the Arabian Court, features Al Koufa — a typical Arabian fortress.
Tagine restaurant showcases a particularly Moroccan design style. The tobacco coloured walls have been hand polished and wax plastered in the Moroccan tradition of Tadlekt. Subtle Arabic themes run throughout the design including terracotta and ceramic tile floors and curving archways. Lanterns, rugs and artifacts have been sourced from around the region to create an ambience reflective of an old home in Marrakech.

“Everything from the impressive camel sculpture in the grand entrance courtyard to the most intimate detail is set to reflect a sense of place. We strongly believe in providing an element of theatrical drama for our visitors,” says GM, Olivier Louis.||**|||~|Arabic-last-page.jpg|~||~|Khurshid Vakil, executive director, Marina Home Interiors, explains how traditional Arabic design influences contemporary furniture manufacturers:
“Contemporary Arabic furniture design today has developed from a combination of Moorish and Islamic design influences. The style stands out due to its intricacy of workmanship.
The style of Arabic furniture design has not changed greatly over the years, however, it is possible to observe hints of mellowness that appeal to the needs of the present generation and offer increased functionality.
It is hard to pinpoint trends with traditional designs; however there has been an increasing desire for more opulence and grandeur in Arabic furniture design. Presently there has been a movement towards blending the old with the new, a fusion based décor with bold colours and designs.”

Zaher El Fayed, chief designer at Venetian Inter Décor explains how Arabic design influence local European furniture companies?
As the name of the furniture manufacturer suggests, the designers at Venetian Inter Décor take their inspiration from classical European designs, both Italian and French. However, amalgamated with these European designs, is a strong sense of Arabic heritage. Chief designer Zaher El Fayed insists that despite the current popularity of Western trends in the Arab market, Arabic style furniture continues to form a significant part of the company’s overall demand.

Fayed describes the prevailing trend in today’s Arabic furniture market as being a fusion of these various styles. “As designers in a cosmopolitan country we are always asked to develop different styles and schemes. Copying and pasting designs from the past is not VID’s style, we blend it with Classical European style and spice it up with ethnic touches.”

“The outcome of mixing two styles together (whether by wooden finishes or colours, fabric and accessories) can be creative in itself. This is the new trend. The prevalent style in the region today is a fusion of everything — Modern, Classic, Art Deco, Arabic, Islamic, Moroccan, Indian and other ethnic styles, as we are in a multi-culturally rich region.”
He describes how Arabic furniture designs have developed over the years, “What we term as Arabic furniture design was born from Islamic design and architecture. Some people know it as Islamic furniture and others call it Moroccan furniture. This type of Arabic furniture and décor of the past had more of an emphasis on bolder, loud colours, whereas the changing trend is to move towards more monochromatic schemes and soft, pale shades.” ||**||

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