In Saudi Arabia, Ayah Al Bitar is driving social change by design

Culture & Entertainment

Karim Mansour

Photos: Winter Collection / (inset) Designer Ayah Al Bitar / Courtesy of Ayah Al Bitar

For women across Saudi Arabia, the right to drive has been a long time coming. In her own small way, designer Ayah Al Bitar has contributed to the national conversation on a three-decade ban.

Wisada, a series from the young designer’s last collection, was a telling comment on social mobility. The collection of floor seats in the shape of oversized bicycle saddles marries traditional Bedouin seating with a contemporary message: change can be as comfortable as a seat in the majlis, the Arabic living room.

Saudi Arabia_Interior designer Ayah Al Bitar_Photo: Classic Wisada / Courtesy of Ayah Al Bitar

“My pieces create dialogue about social change in a more light-hearted, less formal manner, and this aids change and puts different thoughts in people’s minds,” Ayah told My Salaam. “Wisada was not created to allow women to drive; it was designed to create dialogue, provoke thought, trigger positivity and release frustration.”

The Riyadh native trained at Parsons’ The New School for Design in New York and now runs her own business, Aya The Art of Living, in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. She channels her heritage to design for Middle Eastern habitats and, by extension, an Islamic lifestyle. “Living across some diverse cities and cultures, I’ve learnt a lot about how product and furniture design does not have the same function in all cultures,” she explained.

Saudi Arabia_Interior designer Ayah Al Bitar_Classic WisadaPhoto: Designer Ayah Al Bitar / Courtesy of Ayah Al Bitar

Some situations require their own solutions. At Dubai Design Week ahead of Ramadan last year, she debuted Sanctuary, a portable storage structure for everything necessary for prayer, including a Quran, a prayer mat and a place to hang the ghotra.

“I focus heavily on functional art, looking at a day-to-day situation and how art and design can aid those everyday situations,” she said. “Islam and Arabic culture is a huge part of my work, it is the main inspiration: it is my world! Islam is my background and family heritage; I want to showcase Arabic heritage in a more contemporary way to the region and rest of the world.”

Saudi Arabia_Interior designer Ayah Al Bitar_Photo: The Sanctuary / Courtesy of Ayah Al Bitar
Saudi Arabia_Interior designer Ayah Al Bitar_Photo: The Sanctuary / Courtesy of Ayah Al Bitar

More recently, Ayah presented her newest collection at Saudi Design Week, which took place in Riyadh from October 4 to 8. She says on her website that she designs to solve problems as well as to create problems, and her stand at the event featured expressions of both notions. On display were many of her previous designs, such as Masbaha, a set of prayer beads and the Alef Collection, which included a Quran stand.

Saudi Arabia_Interior designer Ayah Al Bitar_Photo: Masbaha Collection / Courtesy of Ayah Al Bitar

The highlight is the new Y collection, an elegant, accessibly priced range of sleek and functional furniture, a line partly inspired by her new logo. There are six pieces in four colours, including two tables, a pebble tray, a coat hanger, a drawered TV unit and a trash bin. All are derived from the shape of the letter Y and are perfectly suited to the needs of Millennial lifestyles. As with her previous work, the pieces work well with Arabian homes: the half-Y table, for example, responds to the market gap for tables suitable for floor seating. The coat hanger is useful both for shaylas, the headdresses Muslim women wear, and for hats, while providing space for everyday items such as keys or mobile phones.

“The Y Collection is based around the Y in AYA The Art of Living. We spent a lot of time rebranding and re-designing our logo and font; I wanted to celebrate this through a collection of designs.” Ayah is now working on a bespoke furniture service and a full interior design service as enterprise extensions.

Saudi Arabia_Interior designer Ayah Al Bitar_Winter CollectionPhoto: Winter Collection / Courtesy of Ayah Al Bitar

Ayah believes that simply running her own business helps fuel change in conservative Saudi Arabia. “Many Saudi women have become entrepreneurs aiming to create change and prove themselves; they have done so very successfully. This is causing the entire ballgame to change; they see the capabilities of a woman and her ability to change, create and be.” And as she observed, these developments are all working towards making women gain an equal prominence in society in Saudi Arabia and the GCC.

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