Minor Paradises, 2019, Civil Architecture x studiolibani, plywood, sand, gravel, various indigenous plants, photo: Edmund Sumner

On arrival, the first installation you saw was Minor Paradises, a waterless garden for arid climates designed by Civil Architecture x studiolibani. Indoors a succession of pieces and prototypes all spoke a similar monochromatic and contextual language: an angular gravel ‘landscape’ by architect Sahel Al Hiyari, that you could climb up and get lost inside; Made From Jordan, furniture that included a textured green chaise longue made of olive mill waste and palm leaves by design studio Twelve Degrees as part of its experimental material design research project; Creative Being, a woven shelter made of goat and wool yarns that referenced Bedouin tents by textile designer Ishraq Zraikat; and Soils of Jordan from the multidisciplinary Atlal Collective, which transformed soils found in different parts of Jordan into a collection of columns for the duration of the event, that visitors were invited to touch and crumble.

Untitled, 2019, Sahel Al Hiyari, photo: Edmund Sumner

These projects appeared to be designed from the earth but also celebrated the resources, landscapes and making or construction methods commonplace across the Arab world before colonial visions of what buildings and gardens should look like. They offered a new and resilient vernacular of ‘possibilities’. “When we did our open call around the theme of Possibilities, my expectation was that something futuristic would come out of it,” says Rana Beiruti, director of Amman Design Week, “but what was interesting was how designers were looking to the past and how they had a deep awareness of the natural resources available across the region and how they could make use of them.”

Made From Jordan, 2019, Twelve Degrees, palm leaves, olive mill waste, organic binder, photo: courtesy of Twelve Degrees

Amman Design Week may only be in its third iteration, but in that time has achieved a cohesion and quality in terms of content, presentation and execution that some longer-standing design events can only hope to emulate. And unlike many design weeks in the region and elsewhere, it is resolutely non-commercial, providing both a rich snapshot of the talent and making skills available in the Arab world but also raising the bar, through grants, programming and events held throughout the year, within a local design community that feels increasingly listened to, appreciated and nurtured. “Unfortunately so much of what happens culturally in the region is either commercially based or tied into marketing campaigns for a specific city,” says Noura Al Sayeh-Holtrop, guest curator of the main show in the Hangar space this year. “One of the things I really admire about the work the Amman Design Week team is doing is that it’s rooted in a will to improve the local design scene in terms of education. It’s about design for design’s sake.”

Creative Being, 2019, Ishraq Zraikat, wood, wool, metal, photo: courtesy of Amman Design Week

This focus on research and experimentation was palpable throughout the event. In the urban farming exhibition across the road from the Hangar, in the material innovations section of the Crafts District (a venue curated by local research and design office Arini), where designers had been given free rein to experiment with bio-based substances that could make fabrics water-proof or, like Sama Shahrouri’s Rosemary, Kiss, Kill, in the creation of sophisticated sculptures out of milk, rosemary sap and charcoal or starch and straw. It could also be seen in Bethlehem-based architects and designers AAU AnastasAmoud, a five-metre column made out of repurposed found stones combined with shiny digitally-cut new limestone boulders. The piece, which was one of several commissioned larger installations at Amman Design Week, represents a new chapter in the duo’s Stone Matters research project aimed at reclaiming the use of solid stone in contemporary architecture and using digital fabrication techniques in stone construction. “In the past we used stone for structural purposes but now it is used only as a cladding material and it is creating a city where all the buildings look alike,” says Elias Anastas. It’s about more than just fomenting interesting architecture and new construction techniques for the pair however. “The idea of using stone structurally is also about reviving craftsmanship and know-how in Palestine but also beyond, creating jobs and reducing the use of concrete, a major source of pollution,” says Yousef Anastas.

Rosemary, Kiss, Kill, 2019, Sama Shahrouri, rosemary sap-based bioplastic, gauze, photo: courtesy of Amman Design Week

Elsewhere the work and installations on show spoke of territory, raw materials and skills with a similar sense of affection, connectedness and history, and also sometimes humour and wit. Omar Sartawi’s edible replica of Ein Ghazal, a two-headed statue discovered in Jordan a staggering 9,000 years ago was a good example. Made out of the dried goat’s milk yoghurt – or jameed – used in Jordan’s national dish, and raised the absurd but delightful notion of eating away at your cultural heritage. “It’s the only ingredient unique to Jordan and this part of the world,” explains its designer-and-chef, Sartawi. “This method [of drying the milk] has preserved life and culture in this area for thousands of years.”

Omar Sartawi’s edible replica of Ein Ghazal, 2019, jammed and food grade hyrocollid

In a similar vein, architect Dima Srouji’s Ghosts project celebrated and reactivated the disappearing art of glassmaking in a region associated with the craft since its inception. A continuation of her Hollow Forms project, the series of translucent vessels were replicas of glass artefacts from the Levant currently on display (or worse, in storage) in major western museums. The new vessels, produced by a glassmaking family in Jaba’ in the West Bank, were playful and shimmering forms that nonetheless symbolised a form of restitution, as if these objects had in some way come home.

Ghosts, 2019, Dima Srouji, translucent glassEarth Chair, 2019, Bisher Tabbaa, earth, photo: courtesy of Amman Design Week

Bisher Tabbaa’s reading chair, on the other hand, was literally made out of earth. Chunky and tongue-in-cheek, Earth Chair nevertheless made a serious point about the loss of an Arab desert vernacular of making. “Local materials and ancient technologies are more appropriate for the arid climate of Jordan than concrete and steel,” says Tabbaa. While Sama El Saket’s ceramic hollow cast wall system for storing water (on show in the Crafts District) was inspired by the porous terracotta pots (known as Olla) used to irrigate plants and conserve water in arid regions. Combining digital and industrial techniques, and finished by hand, the piece was architectural, functional but also echoed a strong sense of place.

Reshaping the Vessel, 2019, Sama El Saket. Drawing on the ceramic traditions in the Mena region, this project uses 3D modelling and CNC fabrication to produce a mould that is then used to create slip-cast ceramic modules by hand. A single hollow module is designed, stacked and repeated in different orientations in order to create a perforated architectural wall system – known in the region as a mashrabiya. Photo: Amman Design Week

After Amman Design Week it may be time to turn this question of resources in Jordan, which has conventionally been seen as a resource-poor country (and one that charges high import tariffs on many goods), on its head. “I think of Jordan as resource-rich,” says Jordan-based architect and designer Abeer Seikaly. “It has an abundance of locally manufactured resources or building materials such as animal fibres (wool, goat hair, camel hair) for instance.” Her piece, Meeting Points, paid tribute to these traditional materials and techniques, as well as communal ways of making, through a striking three-dimensional textile and membrane structure that wowed for its complex geometry and tactile handmade qualities. Referencing Bedouin tent cloth, and using the same materials, each module had been arduously and meticulously made of plant fibre and goat’s hair she had processed and spun with the help of expert Bedouin women spinners.

Meeting Points, 2019, Abeer Seikaly in collaboration with 58 members of the Amman community and supporting designers, wooden sticks, goat hair, jute yarn, steel connectors, photo: Edmund Sumner 

Possibilities as a theme and a design event was ultimately open-ended but the results usable, practical and inspiring. It embodied the very human need to look back in order to look forward and subtly posited the idea that understanding cultural context, tradition and history can free you up to generate new ideas. As Al Sayeh-Holtrop says: “Once you start looking at things in terms of what could happen instead of what isn’t happening, it’s already a first important step. Because despite difficult political and social conditions, you can always do something within the given conditions.” Amman Design Week did more than something with its given conditions, it created something that could only have come out of a specific context but that has a wider resonance for all of us.

Amoud, 2019, AAU Anastas, collected stone architectural ruins, photo: courtesy of Amman Design Week