WRITER: Alex Ritman
Rami Farook, the Emirati founder of Dubai’s design house Traffic, has started to take Middle Eastern creations to a global level. As intrigued as the rest of the world, Bespoke sat down with Farook to talk a little shop.
In April this year, the dark-rimmed spectacles of the world’s creative elite flocked to Italy for its festival of furniture, the Milan Design Week. An epicentre of cool, the annual event sees contemporary designs fight for attention, and to stand out requires something rather special. But one new launch by an unknown design house managed to turn several heads. Entitled Local, from a design house called Traffic, the collection included several lights, an assortment of seats and a single table. While the creations were eye-catching enough on their own (of particular note was a wooden bench with pots of fresh grass for seating) it was the new line’s origin that had most visitors scratching their heads.
“People couldn’t believe where we were from,” exclaims Rami Farook from his office in Dubai. As founder of Traffic and the driving force behind Local, he was in Milan to celebrate the launch of this ‘Made in the UAE’ collection. Dubai may have become internationally synonymous with glittering and over-elaborate sky-piercing architectural creations, but aside from oil, it hasn’t been known for exporting its own handiwork elsewhere. With the Local range, which is designed and produced entirely within the UAE, Farook hopes he can turn this around and help stimulate the local design scene in the process.
There are several Local pieces scattered around Traffic’s headquarters, a bright and spacious ground level property with bare concrete floors that serves as a gallery, offices and studio. Ironically the shop can be found right next to the more clichéd representation of Dubai – the Mall of the Emirates. By the door sits Mow, the aforementioned grass-cushioned bench. “It’s fine to sit on it without staining your trousers,” assures Farook, who admits it did need the occasional watering in Milan. There’s also the nomad-inspired Bidoun Sofa, with several colourful mattresses stacked together and tied by chord onto a base. Parked by a wall is the less comfortable-looking Dubai Syndrome, which sees concrete and metal bars forged into a rather unforgiving seat.
Designed as a statement on our post-industrialist times, Dubai Syndrome also represents one of the ways in which Farook is inspiring regional creativity. It was created by Lebanese architect Fadi Sarieddine and was one of the winners of the Traffic’s first Design Competition, held in 2008. Now entitled Design As Reform, the annual competition has attracted the interest of designers across the globe, each hoping to see their creations turned into marketable products that could potentially join the Local troupe, which itself was borne out of the expansion of Traffic. Launched in 2007 as a gallery and gift shop for achingly cool designs that Farook had sourced internationally, it quickly grew, bringing in an artist-in-residence and exhibition space. The crunch was yet to hit Dubai and Farook was contracted to kit out the interiors of various new buildings and developments. Most notably, the lounge of the Burj Dubai was given Traffic’s seal of approval. “We furnished the lobby,” says Farook. “It was very minimal.” But as the team grew and the projects rolled in, so he felt limited by the products available to him, so they used the in-house studio to create their own pieces. “Eventually, we saw that we had enough for a whole label.”
Design has clearly been a driving force for Farook, and in the few years since he launched Traffic he’s become a well-regarded purveyor of regional design products. Yet it’s important to note that this not his only passion, which becomes clear walking around his headquarters. At the entrance sit large clear letters, partially filled with oil, spelling out ‘Democracy’. It’s an installation piece by the Russian conceptual artist Andrei Molodkin, intended to poke creative fun at the oil-for-arms programme between Venezuela and Russia. Towards the back of the main room there’s a huge collage by rising Iranian star Ramin Haerizadeh, purchased at the Art Dubai fair earlier in the year. The walls are liberally scattered with other pieces of contemporary art, ranging from the well established, such as a classic skull x-ray by Damian Hirst, to pieces by more unknown regional artists. In a glass box in the corner of his office, sits a gleaming solid gold knuckleduster, with a diamante inscription that says ‘Allah’ in Arabic. “Yes, my collection is quite provocative,” he says, quite unnecessarily.
Despite not having yet hit 30, Rami Farook has amassed a collection of modern art sizeable enough for several healthy exhibitions. And through his Farook Foundation, as it has become known, he now wants to help give international prominence to artists from the Arab world.
Recently, he was called upon to curate an Edge of Arabia exhibition of Saudi artists at the Sixth Berlin Biennale, surely a tricky subject given his penchant for more politically charged artwork. “You know, we managed to pull off a show, sponsored by the Saudi Arabian investment authority, without them coming back to us to change a single thing even once. We had complete freedom.” The show featured the works from a new generation of Saudi artists, including Ayman Yossri and Ahmed Matter, the latter whose lightbox series ‘Evolution of Man’ depicts a petrol pump morphing into an x-ray of a man holding a gun. Several items from the show have since found their way into The Farook Foundation.
Towards the end of the year, a new chapter for Farook will open as Traffic moves into a huge space in the industrial district of Al Quoz, a popular location for many Dubai galleries. It’s here where he’ll have the opportunity to give his love for the arts the treatment it deserves, with ample room for two shows to run side-by-side, along with a host of educational programmes. “You’ll have a big show with maybe 20 artists, and then a smaller one for a solo show,” he says, excitedly pointing at the building plans on his computer. No doubt several of Farook’s Saudi artists will find themselves represented in the exhibitions he’s already planning, as will the artists-in-residence the new building will house.
Farook mentions Charles Saatchi as an inspiration, but it’s clear that it goes far beyond a shared appreciation for the works of Hirst or Tracey Emin (he owns one of her pieces too). In the early 1990s Saatchi helped thrust the precocious talent of the Young British Artists into the creative limelight. Three decades on, Farook – through his curating of Saudi exhibitions in Berlin and upcoming shows in Dubai – is attempting to do something similar for emerging Arabian artists, while still keeping within acceptable and respectful boundaries. “I’m radical, but civilised,” as he puts it.
Dubai may not yet have the equivalent of a Hoxton for Young Arab Artists, but in Rami Farook it has an Emirati not just looking to break the mould, but to provide an opportunity for others wishing to make their own. Through Traffic, Local and his growing art collection, here is someone readily laying down an internationally endorsed red carpet for the region’s upcoming creative types.