Anyone familiar with Dubai knows that the city has a habit of pushing the boundaries when it comes to building. Instead of erecting a new structure we see entire neighborhoods come to life, often themed around particular industries. It’s what is possible when you build a city from scratch.
One of the city’s newest developments, the Dubai Design District, or D3 for short, is one of the most interesting neighborhoods to rise out of the Arabian sands thus far.
This new development represents true innovative thinking for Dubai, as D3’s mission is to be different by generating art, design, fashion and architecture from within the UAE itself. Intentionally modeled on arts areas like New York’s Meatpacking District or London’s Shoreditch, D3 offers a collection of creative spaces, ranging from giants of the fashion and architecture world to small, homegrown shops and businesses, intended to encourage creative inspiration.
D3 serves as a hub for big, international design players, incorporating Zaha Hadid Architects’ Middle Eastern hub, the UAE headquarters of high fashion brands such as Burberry and Chanel, and a number of high-profile design and architectural practices. While these big brands might seem the antithesis of arts startups, their presence is intended to give local talent international inspiration.
The first phase of Dubai Design District was completed in 2015 with 220 shops, studios and businesses working in the creative industries. It’s about to become even bigger, with the next phase being constructed by Foster + Partners (whose offices are already located in the district), and a third waterfront phase which will bring in hotels and more retail.
Whereas most of Dubai’s neighborhoods sprang solely out of corporate interests, D3 has taken the city’s arts and design community into account. In the second phase set to open next year, Foster + Partners spoke to the local design community during the process to help the district evolve as organically as possible. The result will be a mix of flexible offices, communal workshops and showrooms, flanked by promenades and outdoor event spaces.
Institutions that help facilitate art talent, such as the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, are helping the area to flourish. There is a plethora of ongoing gallery exhibitions, workshops centered on art creation and, most importantly, Dubai Design Week, taking place in November. The design fair, now in its fourth year, incorporates a trade show aspect in Downtown Design, curated artworks in the Abwab fair, and a Global Grad Show which features new talent from around the world.
Many of the gallery spaces themselves have been important in nurturing new talent, such as the AR Gallery, a forward-thinking space that not only exhibits contemporary design but also has a studio component and serves as a creative incubator, supporting a democratic design process and the needs of up-and-coming designers. Their exhibitions have explored subjects such as craftsmanship in commercial design, showcasing angular chairs and geometric rugs, or environmental issues, through pieces that invoke typography and weather patterns.
When you wander around D3, you’ll find a scattering of interesting sculptural art installations to peruse, and stumble upon designers and architects mingling over coffee.
“Being part of the D3 community allows us to take things to the next level and display items that are more cutting-edge.”
Viewing art in Dubai in the past was mostly confined to either small showings in hotels and malls, the temporary displays that popped up during Art Dubai, or the emerging galleries of the Al Quoz district. The latter is a warehouse district populated by dusty streets and rumbling trucks, which now boasts around 30 arts spaces and galleries. D3 is located not far from this area, nestled near Downtown Dubai and the Burj Khalifa. It’s far easier to navigate than Al Quoz’s unlabeled warehouses and randomly numbered streets.
D3 has also attracted well-established Middle Eastern creative brands like the Nakkash Gallery, which has been an influential interior design practice in Dubai since 1983. Founded by Lebanese interior architect Wajih Nakkash, this family-run enterprise takes the most creative, finely crafted furniture and creates interior spaces inspired by fine art, often mixed with sculptures and paintings. Moving into the D3 space has been an important part of the gallery’s growth. Founder Wajih explains, “Since our inception, I never imagined that the growth of the design community in the UAE would flourish as it has in the past ten years.” His son, Omar, adds, “Being part of the D3 community allows us to take things to the next level and display items that are more cutting-edge.”
D3 has also generated some hybrid eating spaces. In typical Dubai style, the district includes restaurants headed by Michelin-starred chefs, such as Charles Boghos at Chez Charles, offering something Bough calls a gourmet picnic, with dishes like veal Viennoise being served to share.
Most of the eateries in D3 involve a creative or collaborative element, such as The Lighthouse, which brings together a café and bookshop in an airy, light-filled interior. The space sells art and design books, homeware, and lifestyle accessories, alongside a Mediterranean restaurant, offering fresh and nutritious dishes like sea bream ceviche and tuna tartare with dried apricot and avocado on toast.
Dubai might not be the design center of the world yet, but when a prosperous city funnels its funds into something positive like a creative community, it’s incredible to see what can be accomplished.