For the seventh year in a row, Van Cleef & Arpels — in partnership with Tashkeel, the UAE-based visual art and design organization — has given emerging designers and new talent a challenge to accept, a platform to create, and an opportunity to seize. This year’s winner of the ‘Van Cleef & Arpels Middle East Emerging Designer Prize 2020’ goes to Pakistani architect, Aezad Muzaffar Alam.
His unique and compelling design, “Fragments of a Desert Garden,” won him the opportunity to bring his ideas into reality. Made of wood and rattan, the final presentation of his chair, reminiscent of the “exoskeleton of a dried flower left to whither in a desert”, is at once striking, solid, wistful, and beautiful. It sits on display on the terrace of Van Cleef & Arpels’ Les Salons Dubai Opera boutique, amidst a pavilion rich with color, floral arrangements, and motifs. The terrace has a soft, tranquil quality, enveloping the visitor immediately as if they’ve just stepped through a magical fairyland and entered Titania’s secret garden.
Alam’s chair is as functional as it is beautiful. It can revolve 360 degrees, and feels perfectly at place among the blooming flowers – Van Cleef & Arpels’ signature aesthetic – as it would next to a pool in a desert villa, or on display in a museum. We were lucky enough to meet Alam at Les Salons Dubai Opera for a chance to speak with the architect about his design process, his challenges, and what the future holds for him after winning this prestigious award.
What was your inspiration for the design? And what was your process?
I always try to start with a question. I try to visualize what the end product will look like and I ask myself: ‘How will people interact with it? What will be the unique aspect of the design?’ Before coming up with the idea to design a chair, I had sketched six different ideas based on the floral theme of this year’s competition, but I had to scrap them. I didn’t want to design a chair.
I drew on my architectural background and sought inspiration from the Arabic architectural motifs found on building façades – which are based on rhythmic aesthetics found in nature – to address this year’s theme. The geometry of the flower, the patterns, is what I wanted to synthesize into the design, and make rhythmic arrangements – symmetry, repetition, and elements supporting each other.
Were you inspired by fragments of different flowers or only one flower?
That’s quite a good question. The idea was romantic. There was a garden, but it is now gone. All you have now is the remnants of the flower left behind. It’s like finding dried flowers in the middle of books. So that sort of idea appealed to me.
It’s not alive. But it reminds you that it used to be. It’s the bare essence. Like the Brancusi sculpture. His most famous was the “Bird in Space” and it has the essence of a bird in flight, not an actual bird. So it’s not literal. The physicality was inspired by architecture, but the theme was inspired by this idea of forgotten gardens.
Why didn’t you want to design a chair?
You know, it’s always a challenge to design a chair. There are questions of ergonomics, will it work, will it not work? Will it support? Will it look good? And historically, there have been so many iconic chair designs. But finally, I said, “Let’s just do a chair,” and challenged myself. I wanted to make an object – an object which has a playful interactive nature. And one of the aspects of it, is that it happens to also be a seat. But it’s an object. Visually it should look appealing. When you sit on it, it should be comfortable and should function for the purpose for which it was built. But it’s not like any other chair.
The fabrication was more of a challenge than the concept. Because I was trying to preserve the initial idea and the concept which had already been submitted to the judging panel, and it’s what the tools and materials will allow you to build that dictated what the end product would look like.
And how did it morph during the fabrication process?
First of all, the material was a question. Would it be steel? Would it be some sort of metal? Would it be wood? Wood is traditionally used in furniture design. Steel would be more economical because there was a set budget. But if you interact with steel and metal, it’s not very warm, and I wanted to provide that warm feeling as you come into contact with it. And it was a question of finding material that can be both inside and outside. Natural oak was the obvious choice.
But then, you have to consider certain techniques of wood. Do I carve it by hand? Do I use machines? Do I get carpenters involved? Considering cost, time, and what the materials would allow, it was an elimination process.
And then machine routers were involved, because, if you carve it by hand, or if the carpenters are involved, the symmetry… not every petal can be different. So the machine was another obvious choice.
So, we got the machine, and we got the wood finalized. Then it was just a matter of finding the right people to help build it together. So that is the process that kept shaping what the final product would look like. I did a lot of prototypes, several 3-D printed prototypes, and it kept changing and going back and forth, and it became obvious that it needed to be a hybrid between all these ideas, all these sketches, all the initial discussions.
Is this your first entry into the Van Cleef & Arpels Emerging Designers Competition?
Actually it’s my second entry. Three years ago, I took part in the competition. I was fortunate to be short-listed for the 2017 cycle. It was mentioned to me later that the judges said one of the reasons I was chosen was because I was persistent. I had submitted before, and I was very keen and persistent, and I didn’t give up. So I was very happy that my previous application played a role in me being selected this time around.
There are very few competitions in the Middle East. Generally, America and Europe have a good foundation of design practice for young talent. The Middle East is different. There are very few avenues, and those design avenues are inundated by business. There’s a lot of young talent right out of university or training and they jump into the commercial side and they get lost. The creativity – whatever they learned – it gets compromised. So does the freedom. So platforms such as this, the Emerging Designer Prize, are quite vital to give those opportunities to young talent.
How will winning this prize inform your career as an architect?
Every project I work on is a new learning experience. I learned while working on this how to design on a micro level, something that I had never done before. So working on something like this with a limited budget and limited time frame was new to me. It challenged me and moved me out of my comfort zone. There was a lot of knowledge, experience, and lessons learned, which I think I will explore going forward as an architect. Maybe think about a new career path in furniture design. If a client comes in tomorrow and they want to do a villa, I may say, hey look at this, I could do custom furniture for you. It’s a side of me I didn’t know I had, and I’m just scratching the surface. I’ll leave it at that.