Doha designer Aisha Al Sowaidi reconnects heritage through art


“I always liked to do things my way rather than follow someone else’s path,” says Aisha Al Sowaidi, a a multidisciplinary designer based in Doha. “I didn’t have this pressure – or stress – about what people would say. I create because it allows me to express myself and, as it turns out, other people relate to what I design, and I like that.”

It’s noon on a Saturday, and Al Sowaidi is peering into her freshly made cappuccino at the Address hotel in Downtown Dubai, which she’s visiting for a short holiday with her daughter. Her career trajectory wasn’t really planned, she explains. Having wanted to study computer engineering (“I was in love with computers”), Al Sowaidi opted to attend Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar to study graphic design, as her original passion wasn’t yet available for female students in Doha.

“I thought ‘I’ll just try graphic design at VCU for a year, and then go somewhere else to study engineering’. I was fascinated with programs like Adobe Photoshop, but little did I know that that’s actually design.” She went on to graduate from VCU with a degree in graphic design, but after she started work she drifted away from her field of study and towards conceptual product design. Ultimately, she would return to the same college to complete a master’s in fine arts, allowing her to explore her newfound passion. “My final project for my MFA was about childhood memories,” she says. “There are moments in the past that I exaggerated and wanted to relive – either a specific incident, moment or even a general custom.”

Khaleeji culture

Nostalgia came to define Al Sowaidi’s many projects. Although she hopes not to pigeonhole herself, her Qatari heritage has been a source of inspiration from day one. An early piece aptly named Nostalgic Table, for example, was inspired by the old habit shared among Khaleeji people enjoying lunch together on an open carpet. Today, though, eating on the floor is a rare occasion; even rarer, coming home for lunch. A tall, thin table with enough space for one,
Nostalgic Table’s face boasts a floral rug-inspired motif, carved into the top slab with bone-white fringe dangling off the side. A piece of wet wool is placed beneath the surface, allowing the smell of old carpet to waft through the cutouts and evoking an intimate feeling of eating at home.

“I designed a series of objects that take you back to these kind of moments,” she says, “like the grandmother chair, which has one arm slightly higher than the other to make you lean. It’s made out of scarf fabric, and the buttons are made of habba sawda – black seeds that release a smell once you rub them.”

Combining senses seems to be Al Sowaidi’s forte and smell, touch and feel are her favourite capabilities to activate. Most of her designs are created to provoke memories so powerful, you’re transported to specific moments in time. Are they usable, though? For Al Sowaidi, the grey space between design and art has her tangled, and she’s currently trying to reconcile the differing forms.

“I’m still in this zone where it’s design, but it’s art, but it’s in between. So for instance, the medkhans – everyone wanted to buy them. I produce them now for sale, but they are conceptual pieces. They aren’t pieces my grandmother should use,” she laughs.

“Their function is not as good as the function of the usual ones because they’re glass – they’re fragile and they can get hot. That’s what I find difficult sometimes… the people who want to buy them. I don’t want to sell a bad product, but it’s a good design.”