Saudi Arabia Makes It Clear They’re Taking Design Seriously

In a wide-reaching show at Milan Design Week, the oil-rich country conveyed design’s role in the Vision 2030 plan through a five-month residency with five international talents and a transportive scenography that evokes the region’s sand dunes.

Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030 plan likely evokes fantastical renderings of architectural giga-projects in the barren Middle Eastern desert, not to mention the multitude of thinkpieces spurning them as a dystopian nightmare and questioning their feasibility and as the oil-rich country’s cash reserves dry up. Wild architecture is only part of the plan to diversify the economy, which involves building new industries. The country has created an airline, plans to invest $40 billion into AI research, and launched a golf league in partnership with the PGA Tour. Less talked about are Vision 2030’s design initiatives, namely Madrasat Addeera Editions and the inaugural AlUla Design Residency, which were on display during Milan Design Week.

Set within the landmark Mediateca Santa Teresa library in Milan’s Brera district, Design Space AlUla presented a smattering of projects created with local craft traditions. Among these were the AlUla Design Residency, realized under the curation of architect Ali Ismail Karimi, which tapped five global designers to participate in a five-month immersion into life in AlUla. Most visible was Hall Haus’s giant seating system, which blended Majlis-style sofas with the swoops of sand dunes. Also appearing windswept are Bahraini-Danish’s steel partitions and sculptural chairs by Leo Orta that channel AlUla’s geological formations. Studio Raw Material’s floor lamps explore the spatial quality of light in the Qasr al-Bint while Leen Ajlan’s wooden platforms and benches reflect the setup of Saudi folk games.

To present the projects in the most authentic light, designer Sabine Marcelis and her life partner Paul Cournet, the founder of Dutch studio Cloud, devised scenography for the lounge-like interior that, as she tells Dezeen, “gives you a feeling of what AlUla is like.” They topped Hall Haus’s giant seating system with a giant overhead cylinder that bathed the entire room in a gentle color-changing light. The skylight, which faces downward, mimics those commonly found throughout AlUla to limit light pollution.

While it remains unclear how much Saudi Arabia has invested in the design industry, the high-budget Milan Design Week outing does make it clear the country is taking the sector seriously. “We are working alongside local and global arts and design communities to inspire a new generation of creatives to grow our design economy in line with the ambitions of Vision 2030,” Nora Aldabal, executive director of arts and creative industries at the Royal Commission for Alula, told WWD. “Saudi now has a growing number of impactful institutions and organizations that have launched initiatives across the country.” According to a recent report, fashion contributed 1.4 percent of the nation’s GDP across 230,000 jobs in 2022. Perhaps design isn’t too far behind.

All images courtesy of Design Space AlUla 2024.

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