The purpose of the majlis has survived the frenetic post-oil redevelopment of Arabia to remain essentially unchanged over centuries. More than a sitting room or a parlour, it is a unique cultural cornerstone of Emirati life – a space within a home, where guests are received and entertained – that is inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage for ‘playing an important role in the transmission of oral heritage’.
In today’s society, where human interactions are becoming increasingly extinct, replaced by digital connections through texts and email, the majlis remains a place where people can gather to discuss literature and politics, to nurture friendships, close a business deal or listen to Nabati poetry over a cup (or five) of gahwa. Reflective of legendary Arabic hospitality, the majlis has evolved through the years from the simply furnished Bedouin tent with cushions and carpets and a stove to prepare coffee, to more lavish spaces with chandeliers and ornate furniture, usually sourced from Europe.
Unfortunately for modern families wanting to integrate majlis seating into their homes, there are few international products that do justice to the cultural significance of this unique piece of living heritage. Alserkal Avenue-based design studio SVENM is seeking to reverse this oversight from the mainstream design industry. The idea of the Arabian majlis and the complexities of keeping cherished regional traditions alive in a contemporary syntax are explored in their exhibition Made for Dubai, which takes place from November 8 to 18 at the SVENM atelier in Alserkal Avenue.
SVENM co-founder Sven Müller has designed a minimalist and modern majlis. The space is envisioned to be “vibrant, bold, inspiring and enabling visitors to reflect and share conversations about local culture and design throughout Design Week's busy schedule”. The SVENM design team, keen to explore colours as well as local practices in their design, found willing collaborators in Danish textile creators Kvadrat Maharam, who had never collaborated with a local team before. “They liked the idea that we were trying to modernise the majlis,” shares Sonia Brewin, SVENM co-founder. “A majlis tends to have a limited colour palette, but most people don't really live with that palette anymore.” German paint company Caparol’s award-winnning Icons range of 120 colours became the perfect complement for the ‘rainbow palette’ of the majlis seating.
The seating design that plays with elemental shapes, such as the circle and square, itself went through several iterations, inspired by the Memphis design movement and early minimalist sculpture. Its saturated and bold colours were inspired by Kandinsky. The end result is a contemporary majlis that speaks to the SVENM aesthetic, while also belonging to the region. As Müller says, “By exploring the design of domestic objects through which regional cultural identities have been shaped, Made for Dubai contributes to a better understanding of the evolving relationships between Western design brands and Arab culture today.” Depending on the response to Made for Dubai, the design of the modern majlis may get prototyped for real homes.
At last year’s edition of Dubai Design Week, SVENM exhibited the Arrangements lights designed by Michael Anasstassiades for Flos, which re-examine the form of the traditional chandelier. Visitors were drawn to the idea of cultural progress through design. “Dubai Design Week is in its fourth year and we feel in-depth local design-thinking is key to its sustainability,” says Müller. “Last year’s experience inspired us. We started asking ourselves, can, for example, Western principles of modernist design innovate the shapes, colours and materials of an Arabian majlis'? The exhibition Made for Dubai is our answer.”
The exhibition is also a response to a real problem the studio faces in their day-to-day practice. As an architecture and design firm working with several Emirati clients, SVENM found a dearth of modern and minimal designs for majlis installations. “The international market is waking up to audiences beyond European markets, but that hasn't quite percolated into design,” explains Brewin. “The day-to-day aesthetic of the region isn't really reflected in the products manufactured by the big brands.”
“Similarly to last year, we are sharing ideas and philosophies that we believe in,” she adds . “We would like our guests to explore the exhibition. It's not a didactic space; we simply want to share things that have fascinated us and are a part of what we are. In the absence of an architectural design museum or library, it made sense that if we were to take a space like this public, then the content should resonate with practitioners all the while being approachable for the public.”
Made for Dubai
10AM - 7PM daily
Warehouse 79 Alserkal Avenue
Follow @svenm_h79 #svenmdubaidesignweek