For Rana Beiruti, the co-founder of Amman Design Week, the beauty of an object is linked to the story behind it. That is why she and her colleague Abeer Seikaly have put the craftsmen, particularly those whose crafts were disappearing, at the heart of their design event this year.
Beiruti and Seikaly, both architects, founded Amman Design Week in 2016. Supported by Queen Rania Al Abdullah, the event offers a platform for local and regional designers. After speaking with numerous designers, artists and architects, Beiruti and Seikaly realized the needs were much bigger than expected. “They wanted jobs, better access to the region and the rest of the world, better manufacturing and education,” Beiruti told Al-Monitor. “So we decided to launch the first Amman Design Week in 2016, which we consider a spark in the region. This year, it is taking the shape of a movement.”
Its second edition, held Oct. 6-14, showcases more than 100 local and regional designers under the theme of “Design moves life moves design.” The Crafts District is a space that pays homage to local heritage and the ability to transform the region’s rich handcrafts through modern design.
“We are creating a holistic approach of design,” Beiruti told Al-Monitor. “It’s not just about seeing the beauty of an object, but how it is made and the stories behind it. We think that it is a misconception to see craftsmanship as past heritage. Crafts are underappreciated in Jordan, so through collaboration with designers, we show people they can innovate and modernize.”
The Crafts District is divided into two groups: the pop-up market and an area where craftspeople work in full view of the people. This area shows people weaving carpets and baskets, felting, glass blowing and making mosaics or daggers.
“It is important to show people how craftspeople work, how an object is made, because many of the crafts are dying in Jordan. Even though basket weaving and felting comes from the region, very people know about this,” Shermine Sawalha, the curator of the exhibition, told Al-Monitor. “Instead of supporting local craftsmanship, people buy foreign goods from Turkey or China, which are cheaper.”
She said that most of the handcrafts used to come from Syria, but the war destroyed its market, which is very sad. "Craftsmen are losing their jobs, both in Amman and Syria. Family businesses are disappearing. Look at the glass blower. He is from Syria, and his name, Mohammad Maher Alqazaz, whose last name comes from ‘kazazz’ and literally means glass. I bought him an oven especially for the occasion.”
Alqazaz, who came especially from Syria to blow glass for the event, had left the glass business to work on plastics, a more profitable field of business. “Glass is a family tradition, but to be able to work, I need a very big amount of glass and it costs a lot,” he told Al-Monitor. “There is also no demand for it anymore.” To support craftspeople like Alqazaz, Sawalha has been working on a program that helps craftsmen find new markets through collaborating with designers.
“It’s more than just saving the heritage,” Sawalha said. “Most of the women in this business feed their family with their handcrafts. That is why I push them to work with designers. Great objects were born out of this collaboration, like a jewelry line that resembles daggers, 3-D mosaics and misshaped glass objects.”
In the Crafts District, people can indeed discover traditional handcrafts, but with a modern twist, like at Zawayed shop, where art objects are created from waste by women from less privileged areas like Jabal al-Natheef. “I started it almost 10 years ago as a hobby until I met my wife and business partner, Liyan Jabi,” co-founder Mohammad Al Hajji told Al-Monitor. “We use local material with minimal processing so that our products both look natural and are a good price. We are starting to take Zawayed international through working with different international weeks and fairs.”
In another shop, the Iraq Al Amir women’s cooperative showcased a line of products designed by German and French designers and fabricated by the women of the cooperative. The cooperative started in 1994 with the support of the Noor Al Hussein Foundation and received funding until 2001, but now they are an independent women’s cooperative.
“It was opened to support women economically,” Houda Mihayrat, a member of the board and co-founder, told Al-Monitor. “We started off training women with a workshop to make environmentally friendly and sustainable paper objects, then moved to ceramics and weaving. In 2014, two German designers, Jenny Hier and Eva Schlete of Studio Gutedort, came to work with us and created several lines of products. We also cooperated with other international designers since then. Putting talents together helped us create original products. It really helped us revive old-fashioned handcraft methods and products.”
The independent exhibitions of Amman Design Week include traditional Jordanian and Palestinian arts of embroidery and weaving at Tiraz Widad Kawar Center. The center is a nonprofit organization that has one of the largest existing collections of Palestinian and Jordanian traditional costumes in the region. For Amman Design Week, it opened its doors to the Naqsh collective, whose founders Nisreen and Nermeen Abu Dail use traditional embroidery motifs in modern design, and to the initiative Yarns, run by women from villages to preserve the art of embroidery and weaving through new designs and patterns on bags and pillows.
“We must find creative ways to maintain and use our heritage,” Tiraz founder Widad Kawar told Al-Monitor. “We must save what’s left of our heritage.”
With this second edition, Amman Design Week put heritage and craftsmanship at the center of a very diverse audience, with incentives and collaborations that could help local and regional handcrafts find new boundaries through design.