Updates from Tanween Programme 2015 - 2016

Meet the Designer - Zuleika Penniman

What was it about Tashkeel’s design programme, Tanween, that interested you?

The possibility of showcasing my work in a completely new setting is what first attracted me to Tashkeel’s Tanween programme. A setting that required me to not only scale up in size, but also in exposure. There are only a few organisations that are as nurturing as Tashkeel, so to be a part of their programme, in a city where design is really just coming into its own, is terrifically rewarding.

What materials have you explored and discovered whilst on the programme?

I’m working with repurposed coral rock, a material indigenous to the UAE and traditionally used for building walls in construction, so it’s steeped with history and nostalgia. In a way, the social and geographical history of this region is echoed in the cross-section of a coral rock wall from an old house. These walls are quickly eroding and disappearing, so I am eager to explore this material and its context before it's too late.

As for the coral rock itself, I've applied many different processes to it to test its qualities. I've crushed it, cut it, crystallised it, coloured it, cleaned it, cast it, cast in it... In the end, I'm using it in its purest form. We've already taken the material so far from its original habitat. From the sea it washed up, dead, on the seashore. From there it was collected by men and women to build their homes, hidden for years between mortar and plaster. Now I'm giving it its third life, and celebrating its innate beauty.

Who are you collaborating with on your project and what is the nature of the collaboration?

I'm collaborating with three types of makers: the first is a marble factory who cuts and polishes the rock; the second is an industrial metalworking factory that makes the structure that will support it; and lastly, a jewellery workshop for the claw settings that will hold the coral. None of these people have worked with the material before but all are in awe of it. So, in a sense, I feel like we're all collaborating with the coral rock itself in order to make this happen.

How have the labs and mentoring sessions influenced your process?

The labs and mentoring sessions have helped me see that a design is only an abstract idea until it's materialised and hopefully, published - be it in a magazine, in an exhibition like Design Days Dubai or a retail store. This is a truth that wasn’t properly discussed throughout my university education. It's easy for me to lose myself in concepts, ideas and theories, so the mentoring sessions Tashkeel has provided to me have been extremely grounding. During the programme we’ve met a number of people who have incredible insight on how things work regionally – from concept phase to design through to production and, finally, marketing/distribution. So professionally, I’ve taken huge steps in the last few months. The group tutorials and lab sessions have highlighted the communal aspect of design – that no man is an island, and we have a lot to gain from those around us.

What have been your challenges so far?

The design field is building momentum here in Dubai with remarkable speed. Nonetheless, there is still a gap between designer and manufacturer. All the skills exist here, and have for many generations, but finding them or utilising them for unusual purposes can be tricky. Most of the time this comes down to the simple fact that the middlemen between the makers and designers, the factory managers, for example, are afraid to take risks or try something new (well, in fact, it is the mass commercial work that is new! But that’s another story). So breaking down this barrier has been the most challenging part of my process. Once broken, the results are incredibly rewarding and I always develop long-term professional relationships with these workshops.

What do you hope to take away from this experience?

I’ll be setting up my own studio soon, and this experience has given me a big push towards that. Throughout the programme I’ve made invaluable relationships and have realised how possible it is to get things done. I have been working in a different scale to my jewellery and for a different slightly audience but hopefully, I’ve remained true to myself throughout and that this will be obvious in the final installation during Design Days Dubai. I see this experience as the beginning of a big adventure.