Saudi creative initiatives showcased at Milan Design Week 2024

Saudi creative initiatives showcased at Milan Design Week 2024

We spoke to designers and creatives showcasing at Milan Design Week, under Saudi-based cultural initiatives Design Space AlUla and Ithra
25 April 24
Design Space AlUla at Milan Design Week Image source: Design Space AlUla

The world’s biggest and most significant annual design gathering, Salone del Mobile and Milan Design Week returned for its 62nd edition this April to veritably inspire.

Milan is often referred to as the Italian design capital, and to the delight of creatives this year's edition of the design event returned with a flurry of events, a number of large scale installations, several cultural initiatives and special projects, each exploring the boundaries of design.

As the Kingdom's interest in culture rapidly expands with multiple art festivals, scores of exhibitions, the introduction of cross-cultural exchange programmes and initiatives such as public art installations, the nation has embraced the values that underscore the country’s Vision 2030 plans. The Kingdom's generous engagement with the global creative community has received much fanfare across categories such as art and film for example.

Drawing on centuries of tradition and know-how, the Saudi Arabian installations shown at Milan Design Week were thought-provoking works, each unashamedly transcending artistic and regional boundaries.

Design Space AlUla at Fuorisalone 2024

The seemingly un-ending desert landscape of AlUla has been a muse for artists and creatives for generations.

And this legacy continues as Design Space AlUla became the first permanent gallery in AlUla, aiming to preserve the heritage of the region, while also encouraging contemporary artists and designers to push boundaries, and innovate using AlUla’s dramatic topography, undulating vistas and complex natural ecosystem as inspiration.

Set within Mediateca Santa Teresa, a library building in the fascinating Brera District in Milan, Design Space AlUla, debuted this year at Milan Design Week, featuring a special cultural project and an installation designed by Dutch architecture studio Cloud and renowned designer Sabine Marcelis.

The exhibition explored traditional craft, materials and artisanal skills from the region, which is inline with Fuorisalone’s 2024 theme of ‘Materia Natura’. While, the scenography reflected the warm and earthy hues of AlUla and presented it as a hub of culture, creativity and storytelling.

When I spoke with Marcelis about her affinity with AlUla, she said: “AlUla is a magical place on many levels. From its long history to its most recent transformations, the city has inspired many to create and dream. Design Space AlUla in Milan is the perfect opportunity to unveil to the public the latest design initiatives developed in the city by designers who have been collaborating over the past months with local crafts. For this exhibition we wanted to create a platform to not only to show a selection of finished products, but also to showcase the process behind the creation.”

The pieces on display included designs by leading artists and designers that were featured in two recent design initiatives in AlUla - Madrasat Addeera Editions and the AlUla Design Residency, respectively curated by Spanish creative director Samer Yamani and Ali Ismail Karami.

Showcasing on an international stage, the creative works represent a marriage of local heritage and contemporary design, and are inspired by the indigenous culture and narratives of AlUla, merging traditional craftsmanship with contemporary manufacturing techniques, utilising sustainable materials.  

Other Saudi highlights included artist Dr Zahrah Alghamdi’s ‘The Magical Pillars’; an impressive leather and embroidery recreation of native rock pillars and TAKK’s seating system crafted from clay and naturally dyed fabric to evoke the undulations of Saudi’s desert.

Meanwhile the entry courtyard showcased, Saudi Arabian designer Leen Ajlan’s series of wooden platforms with benches, based on the set-up of Saudi folk games.

"We've tried to transform this space into something that does justice to the residency projects but also evokes the feeling of being actually present in the mystical landscape of AlUla,” Marcelis claimed.

“Crafts possess the extraordinary ability to encapsulate the multifaceted essence of a region. Not just materials, and techniques but also traditions, beliefs, identity and the profound values of a community”, Yamani states in his curatorial statement.

“This universal truth finds expression in the transformation of AlUla, where art and design serve as vivid reflections of the region’s distinctive heritage and scenography. These collections, unveil the captivating elements of the AlUla landscape through a myriad of stories and narratives. The local materials and innovative techniques were carefully selected to be aligned with AlUla’s sociocultural influences that have deeply shaped the local communities spanning from ancestral pasts to the most exciting futures”.

Ithra at Isola Design Festival 2024

As a season of firsts for the country, Saudi’s King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) also presented its first ever participation at Milan Design Week.

Ithra highlighted the spirit of collaboration through two significant exhibitions focused on sustainability and innovation from Ithra’s Tanween program, the largest creativity conference in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia designed to celebrate, explore and inspire the creative process.

“We’re thrilled to showcase Tanween design outcomes as part of Isola Design Festival under the banner of Milan Design Week, shedding light on circular design and MENA region designers,” says Noura Alzamil, Head of Programs at Ithra. “Tanween has become a crucible for partnerships that ignite creative expression while expanding the reach and building the reputation of Saudi ingenuity in design.”

The headline exhibit is ‘Routes to Roots’a co-curated exhibition created by Ithra and the Italian design platform Isola Design (the first all-in-one curated digital platform dedicated to international emerging designers and independent design studios, with a focus on innovation, sustainability and biomaterials).

First revealed during Tanween that was held in November 2023 at Ithra, ‘Routes to Roots’offered a journey through designs that preserve heritage and the planet Earth.

Astounding works from Arab designers such as Asma Derouiche, Maryam Al Homaid, Lameice Abu Aker, Bachir Mohamad and Ahmad Al Emadi amongst other exceptional designers from the region were on display. The exhibition drew inspiration and expertise from ancestral culture fusing it with cutting-edge craftsmanship, in a successful illustration of how emerging talents can breathe a new life into the design landscape, bridging the gap between tradition and innovation.

The second installation, ‘Iwan’, was the winning pavilion from Tanween’s foldable pavilion challenge designed in collaboration.

Designed by emerging Saudi architects Abdulqader Alsuwaidan, Nawaf Alghamdi, Hayat Almousa and Lama Dardas. The innovative structure combined traditional Islamic design elements with a contemporary approach. ‘Iwan’, is a 3-D printed installation (constructed entirely from aluminium sheets). The design draws inspiration from the Islamic vaulted architectural feature known as an Iwan and from the abstracted shapes that typically decorate these vaults, Muqarnas. 

Both ‘Iwan’ and ‘Routes to Roots’ showcase a sustainable approach to contemporary design integrating biomaterials, natural resources, household and industrial waste and seamlessly blend traditional methods with innovation.

“Our goal in the upcoming years is to establish ourselves as the leading platform that promotes independent design globally, with a special attention to the Middle East. That’s why the partnership with Ithra is a source of pride and an extraordinary opportunity for Isola,” says Gabriele Cavallaro, CEO and co-founder of Isola Design Group. “Our collaboration began last year, and it became evident from the start that we both share the same vision: to nurture talent and promote conscious design”.