In 2019, during Pope Francis’ official visit to the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan gave the pontiff something old and something new. The gift consisted of a woven camel leather ‘mandoos’ chest, holding the title deed to the first church in the UAE. The documents highlighted the region’s rich and diverse history, while the chest itself was an example of contemporary cultural riches; the mandoos was made by Aljoud Lootah.
Lootah is one of Dubai’s leading designers, creating works that embrace traditional Emirati silhouettes and injecting them with modern elements and patterns, such as deconstructed classical Arabesque motifs, to arrive at something both up-to-date and grounded in history.
Trained in graphic design, Lootah moved into working in product design following a year-long professional mentorship program in London and Barcelona. This experience allowed her to see how her graphic design work in two dimensions could translate to three-dimensional forms. Lootah’s origami-like Oru Cabinet was inspired by playing with Post-it notes, and joins a series of pieces that includes a faceted teak and copper mirror, chair, and table lamp. The National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia acquired two items from this series, making Lootah the first Emirati designer to have her work in the permanent collection of an international gallery.
Lootah is also one of the female designers featured in the new Phaidon book, Woman Made: Great Women Designers. In this interview, she discusses her life, work, and the one design she couldn’t live without.
Woman Made Can you describe or characterize what you do?
Aljoud Lootah My work is based on storytelling mainly. I design with a concept in mind which I tend to draw inspiration from. These concepts or stories are usually those related to the Emirati culture, heritage, and history. There is so much we, as designers, could say through our work. I chose to tell stories of who we are as Emiratis and how this land we grew up shapes my design aesthetic.
WM What was the design of yours that was the hardest but ultimately the most satisfying to create?
AL It would be the first collection I designed; The Oru Series (2015). It was a big challenge in terms of manufacturing techniques due to the complexity of the designs. As the collection was Origami-inspired, trying to mimic folded paper in teak wood, metal and fabric was not the easiest to do! The shapes were very uncommon, and for most fabricators, these were quite hard to achieve while making a functional product. I am very happy with the outcome. The collection was the most talked-about since the launch, and I still get media requests to feature the products in magazines and online platforms. It was also very satisfying when 2 pieces from the collection were acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia on the same year the collection was launched.
WM What is the one piece of design you most admire and that has made the world a better place?
AL Let’s break it down to the design item I need and the design item I want and admire. Design item I need: I actually never knew I needed it until I tried it out but it’s The Cosm chair by Herman Miller. We spend most of our day at the studio and having a comfortable, supportive chair is a must! Design item I want/admire: The Talisman Tray by India Mahdavi for Louis Vuitton Objets Nomades.
WM What is the one piece of design you could not live without? (And one you wish hadn’t been created).
AL The iPad Pro. I never realized I needed one, and I didn’t get one when it was first launched, but when I received it as a gift and started using it, it changed my design approach. It is on the iPad Pro where my design process starts. I begin brainstorming on it—making several mind maps, remarks, random thoughts and breaking down the brief before I start sketching the initial designs and concepts on it. I take it with me everywhere I go. I am not sure I have a design in mind that I wish it had never been created! What may not work for me, may work for someone else.
WM Are there aspects of the design process that women are better suited to?
AL I don’t believe that there are certain aspects in the design industry that women are better suited to. What I believe in is talent and creativity. Innovative and authentic ideas. Difference in the design approach. Having that eye in design that makes a designer stand out more than the other despite their gender.
WM As a female designer, do you have to work harder for certain commissions, or turn down certain requests, in order to avoid gender bias?
AL I honestly haven’t faced any issues with projects or commissions because of my gender. I believe what individuals, companies and government entities look for is the creativity, authenticity and new ideas that are put on the table.
We are very lucky to be living in a country where gender gaps are reduced, and gender balance is enhanced through a myriad of initiatives and projects.
I believe anyone should work hard to make their work stand out, whether it was a female or male. It is the hard work and efforts that will take you places.
WM What is the one thing that still hasn’t been designed correctly for a woman?
AL The briefcase!
WM If you had to rework one famous piece of male design, what would it be, and what would you do to it?
AL Most of the time when I view design pieces, I don’t really look at the person who designed them, but pay attention to their story, the details, the finishes etc. I tend to see how these pieces have an emotional effect on me. Can I relate to them? Do they evoke specific emotions? Do they feed my curiosity? I don’t see if the piece was designed by a male or a female. It is the concept that they drive till the end. I see the end result. There is no specific piece that was designed by a male that I would like to redesign.
WM If you could collaborate with one designer in the book, who would you choose?
AL Patricia Urquiola. I admire her ethos and her design approach. The dream collaboration would be one that would involve designing furniture, lighting and objects for an office space. The concept would revolve around the idea of merging Patricia’s background, history, and culture with mine. A little from both worlds!
WM What advice do you give young women designers?
AL I often get asked by young and emerging designers or students in universities about design-specific matters, entrepreneurship, setting up a business and sometimes how to approach specific projects with their own clients. I usually give the same advice to university students: Always be passionate about what you do. It is a very tough industry and without being passionate about what you do, you will collapse at the first obstacle or challenge you may face.
Be persistent in a good way. Make sure you have an eye for details. Be curious. It is normal to be afraid of your ideas but never be scared to take a leap of faith.