World’s Largest Design Fair Opens in Dubai, Fed by Optimism About the Region

Modular seating by Jihoon Ha at Space Croft's booth
(Photo by Eric Bryant)

DUBAI — A buoyant mood pervaded the Sunday night opening of Design Days Dubai, now in its second outing and already claiming the title as the world’s largest contemporary design fair with 29 exhibiting galleries. The gathering was in fact merely the first act in the emirate’s Art Week program, to be followed by the emerging art fair Sikka, an evening of coordinated openings celebrating local dealers, the multi-part main event, Art Dubai (opening Wednesday), and the more ruminant Global Art Forum discussion-fest. This early in the week, it remained unclear if the design dealers’ upbeat spirits foretold more success to come or merely reflected an event particularly well calibrated to its locale. While the high-end contemporary design field has struggled to refine its identity and recapture its market in recent, post-recession years, dealers here clearly felt this fair had already established itself as a key to the future, an access point to the growth market of the Middle East.

“Design follows in the progression as people embrace notions of taste,” said Zesty Meyers of New York’s R 20th Century. “First there was the art fair, and then we [Design Days Dubai] came a few years later. And already this is a hub for Middle Eastern collectors and designers.” Favorites at R 20th’s booth included the room hung with 15 hand-blown glass lamps by Jeff Zimmerman, priced at $12,000 each — more than one opening-night VIP stopped in their tracks to pose for pictures — as well as a table-top tableaux of decorative objects by David Weissman


Across the board, dealers at Design Days spoke of the region’s burgeoning audience as less informed about the standards and practices of the field than their European and American counterparts, but eager to learn and free of prejudices that narrow the tastes of buyers in those more established markets. “It is about educating people in the tradition from which this cool-looking furniture stems, about fundamentals like vintage versus contemporary, unique versus commissioned work,” says P.J. Park of Seoul’s Gallery Seomi, which sold just two pieces at the fair last year, but chose to return because of a sense of potential. “It’s like an incubating system.” For 2013, the gallery’s offerings included the mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture of Kung Myung Sun and Kim Sang Hoon’s undulating wood seating.

Exhibitors ranged from all over, representing a truly global selection: from the United States, R 20th and Salon 94 from New York and Industry Gallery of L.A. and Washington, D.C.; Carpenters Workshop and Sarah Myerscough from Europe; Mexico City’s Galeria Mexicano de Diseño and São Paolo’s +Coletivo Amor de Madre, representing Latin America; Southern Guild of South Africa; and Korea’s Seomi, as well as Space Croft, repping Asia. Nearly a third came of the participating galleries from the Middle East.

Three-year-old Carwan gallery is headquartered in Beirut but foregoes a brick-and-mortar store so that the founders, architects Pascale Wakim and Nicolas Bellavance-Lecompte, can concentrate on the fair circuit. They specialize in contemporary designers from the region, and had Marc Baroud on hand to promote his line of limited-edition furnishings in African walnut and black leather. Asked about his business model, Bellavance-Lecompte explains, “You multiply your encounters every time you travel, but Dubai is the best for buying. It’s the reverse of Miami, contemporary is stronger here.” 

To see highlights of Design Days Dubai 2013, click on the slideshow.