It is our contention that the nation of Kuwait inspires a paucity of high-quality contemporary product designers. The reasons for this are varied and open for debate but, just occasionally, along comes a designer who bucks the trend. Kawther Alsaffar (above, centre) is precisely one such. Representing no one other than herself, she’s quietly going about her business and, well, we kind of like that. 

There are few designers so eloquent about their craft than Kawther Alsaffar, but is she qualified to comment? We think so – she attained her BFA. in Industrial Design from Rhode Island School of Design, and her MA. in Design Products from the Royal College of Art in London. Passionate about the future of design in the nation and across the region, she’s very much on the frontline as a young Kuwaiti designer establishing her reputation both at home and abroad. 

Who better to get the inside track on a designer’s life from, and to take the region’s design temperature with; where we are, and where we’re heading? 

“It can go wrong at the very beginning. There’s a lot of pressure for designers to fit within a mould. Many designers, including myself, go to art school and there they find themselves pushed in a certain direction. I did my masters at the Royal College of Art, and here they taught me to expand that box that was myself, and by pushing the boundaries they taught me that I can create new definitions. 

As a designer, I have to consider the commercial aspect of my work. I feel this is the difference between fine arts and design – fine arts are more introspective, with these you serve yourself before you serve your audience. With design though, you try to serve your audience first. So, if people don’t find value in what you’re producing then, on a certain level, you’ve failed. This is a big indicator towards whether what you’re doing has value or not – does it have a use to society, does it actually ‘work’? 

I’m Kuwaiti, and I’m intrigued by the craft culture of Kuwait. I’m inspired by the limitations that we have in the country. For me, this means the limitation of fabrication and materials – Kuwait is not at all set up as a place for design. Some things simply aren’t available and others are barely possible. I use this to my advantage. Because of the pressure of these limitations, I’m inspired to always achieve more, and to achieve differently. Through these limitations I find myself pushed towards creating a more valued output through my designs rather than simply creating over-commercial products for an already saturated market. 

DUAL BOWLS DEVELOPED FROM STUDYING KUWAITI SAND CASTING WITH ALWAFI CRAFTSMEN AND DISCOVERING NEW UNTAPPED POTENTIAL FOR DUAL METAL CASTING IN KUWAIT. THIS PROCESS IS UNIQUE TO THE CAPABILITIES OF THE ALWAFI WORKSHOP. 

Kuwait inspires me through the context of its built environment. I’m also inspired by exploring the possibilities to understand the way things are, in fact, made in Kuwait. In particular I’m learning a lot from the historical and craft context of Kuwait – about how we can adapt and recreate things from the past using modern technology. 

Truthfully, I don’t feel like we have any kind of design heritage left in Kuwait. Until recently we had a craft heritage, but even that has died out because the skills are no longer needed in the way they once were. For me, as a designer in this country, it feels like I’m fighting an uphill battle. Right now, I’m working with a couple of architects, but to find people in Kuwait who have dedicated their lives to product design – I don’t think that exists other than in a few rare and special examples. 

I do consider my Arab heritage, and I’m happy to include elements of this in my work. Although I don’t feel compelled to do so, it can be very inspiring. There are many reasons we used to do things the way we did, and this knowledge can be used to inspire new work today. In the past, everything we made in Kuwait was very utilitarian – it was only decorative when it was required to be. 

KAWTHER’S WORK IS MULTI-DISCIPLINARY AND USES STORYTELLING AND CRAFT TO TRAVERSE THE FICTIONAL LINES BETWEEN ART AND DESIGN. SHE FOCUSES ON FINDING PATTERNS FOR HUMAN INTIMACY AND TRUTH, WHETHER THIS MANIFESTS ITSELF IN FINDING CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE, INTEGRITY IN MATERIALS, OR CREATING HUMAN CONNECTIONS. 

These elements of our design past have not been studied in depth, so they’re not fully understood. Instead, what we see is a lot of orientalism applied to local designs – it’s translated in a way that isn’t relevant to our modern way of living, nor is it indicative of our context. It’s more an interpretation of our culture imposed on us by the west. They abstract what they think is Arab, but in fact this has nothing to do with our real-life context. 

A better way of creating a direct design language is to have a conversation. I’d like to see us using different methods to tackle the same subject. I try to do this with my own work. Some of it is about the past and goes from utility of use across to decorative utility. Finding the middle ground and learning how to use heritage in a way that is still relevant is important. 

Heritage is always relevant. We don’t live like Kuwaitis lived even just fifty years ago. But I don’t make my work only about the market in Kuwait – every designer needs to understand who their target audience is. Mine isn’t necessarily Kuwaitis. I’m trying to show something about Kuwait to a wider audience – to put Kuwait on the design map. I think that’s what we should all be doing here, because we have such a small audience in Kuwait. 

When I look across the region, I see one person who’s really getting her ethos and approach to design right – and that’s Lebanon’s Nada Debs. The way she works is the way I like to think of myself as working. She studies the craft, and she studies the abilities and techniques of the craftsmen, and works to understand what she can do with these skills through her own design work. She finds a middle ground between crafts and heritage and modern design. This, for me, is the root of her success. 

As a designer in this context, we’re the managers of someone else’s craft. To me, it’s important that I always highlight this. I’ve learned from such craftsmen, and it’s important for all designers to learn from them through hands-on experiences. Unfortunately, it’s not easy for me to do this in Kuwait – in part because of the social stigma that still exists where manual work is concerned, plus also because there are so few craftsmen with the required knowledge. 

I am optimistic though. We can learn a lot from the example of the Emirates and their growth and coming success. I think what’s lacking here though is rigour and the willingness to study. It will take a lot of effort to create a sector that simply doesn’t exist here any longer. 

If the younger generation continues to commit to this though, we will continue to move forward. We’ve advanced hugely from where we were ten years ago. With momentum, we’ll continue to push further forward”. 

Kawther was speaking to Simon Balsom.

You’ll find more about Kawther’s work and ethos at saffarcrafts.com as well as manifested on Instagram here: @kalsaff