Jordan’s capital is using its creativity – and a whole lot of calligraphy – to rewrite its reputation for art and design.
In Amman, what officials have long-touted as a design movement is actually starting to move – and at considerable pace. Young designers are returning from overseas to join a growing rank of practices aiming to make the Jordanian capital a centre for good design. “I want to make work that is inclusive and that everyone can understand,” says industrial designer Yasmeen Sabri, who formerly worked in London. She’s watching two cheering kids play on her creation: a swing built from recycled material. The work was installed at The Hangar Exhibition, a revamped industrial building used during Amman Design Week (adw), which drew nearly 90,000 visitors in mid-October.
Renditions of this design are also bringing respite to a community centre in a poor city district, as well as the Zaatari refugee camp for displaced Syrians a 45-minute drive away. “We are living in a place where the resources are very limited and the budgets are always tight,” says architect Rula Yaghmour. “It’s not easy working in the design industry in this region.”
Her work at adw also draws upon salvaged materials. Stone and marble off-cuts were used to make a recliner chair, in an effort to point to thriftier aspects of Jordanian design. “It’s actually restrictions that allow us to think more creatively and form better ideas,” she says. A small manufacturing base and an emerging economy have enabled designers here to succeed; however, larger creative firms face challenges.
Architecture practices here tend to rely on work from oil-rich Gulf states and a steady, if small, home market. While conditions can be tough, designers are optimistic. “Jordan is a young country and we don’t really have a set identity to work with, which is great for a designer,” says Saeed Abu-Jaber, co-founder of Turbo, one of many small but ambitious Amman design and branding agencies. “Discovering Jordan from a visual and design aspect is fun.”
It’s the graphic-design industry that offers Amman its greatest creative prospects. Turbo is housed in a refurbished split-level shop downtown and its coffee canteen fuels visiting clients, as well as friends from the neighbourhood.
The work, like the set-up, has an international appeal but a strong Middle Eastern flavour. “Design in Amman feels fresh; we’re not afraid to use lots of calligraphy and colours,” says Abu-Jaber. This movement, committed to making better use of the beautiful Arabic letterform – with its complex, flexible structure and cultural significance – has ignited Amman’s design and arts community.
“The Arabic type is a true representative of Arabic visual culture,” says Hussein Alazaat, a designer and typography enthusiast. Alazaat has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city’s fading calligraphy scene, which he aims to reinvigorate. “My next venture is to have a place for Amman’s calligraphy masters to give workshops and transfer their knowledge to the next generation.”
The Jabal al Weibdeh neighbourhood is home to a growing number of creative practices. It’s where Rula, the designer responsible for the salvaged stone chair, works with her father – and principal architect – Farouk. Perched high on a dusty hill, their building offers a clear view of the city. “Amman is, hopefully, safe but it is affected by political conditions in the region,” says Farouk. “But while these conditions aren’t great I am constantly impressed by how many of my students and employees go on to form their own practices.”
Amman missed the rush to join the creative economy that helped neighbours Beirut and Istanbul establish a regional reputation for design – yet being late to the party is working in its favour. While growing cities the world over experience a ubiquitous cleansing of their countries’ trends, Amman has ducked under the wave. Here, entwining Jordan’s rich culture with design has been both unavoidable and perfectly natural. The result is a unique design language that is beginning to blossom beyond its borders.