Having worked on the continent for a few years, designer Ahmad Fakhry is back and getting stuck in to designing better experiences for all concerned.
After living and working on the continent, where is Dublin and Ireland in terms of a design-led culture and our understanding of the benefits to society, commerce and community?
I don’t think Dublin is design-led, sadly, certainly not in the same way Amsterdam or Copenhagen would be. I believe there are facets that are, there are certainly people who are doing great things and pushing to make things better. Like with many areas of the arts here we have incredibly talented people, however, I feel designers are not the first ones in the conversation when they should be, too often they are left with only a chance to add some gloss and not the substance. It’s certainly gotten better since I’ve been working in the industry, but, having lived in Amsterdam and other cities, it still feels behind. It’s not ingrained in our culture like other cities but that’s not to say that won’t change.
When designing spaces for people to live, work, shop and come together, what are the most important things you consider in your approach?
Usually, when starting any project, it’s all about the functionality of it, be it spatial or an object. If that’s a restaurant, for example, we start by looking at the offering, how it’s going to be served, how do you order it, what type of experience is desired, lots of questions really. From that you build up how that works and how people interact with it, customers and staff, then we can start adding layers of touchpoints, of materiality, of colour and texture. Usually, though, it’s the classic function then form. Often the best results reflect the people involved, their passion and drive and those touchpoints take a backseat.
As retail reopens, hopefully this time for good, what will be the trends and changed habits you’ll be designing for?
I think what we’re going to see and what I’m working on for a couple of retail spaces now is much more engagement with customers, something a lot of independent stores do so well already. I think time in-store will also increase, people will want a more engaging and thorough experience, nothing that feels rushed. Spaces that encourage interaction with staff and time spent understanding the value, the life and the quality of products being bought.
As we’ve seen with many places over the last year that have had to pivot to offer either more diverse products or a wider range, I think we will see a greater level of curation of product too. I’m hoping there’s a shift in the mentality of what people are buying too, buying less and buying better has hopefully hit home for many over the last year. The push to shop local and community spirit that has built up will make for a much more engaging retail experience.
The amount of local innovation and entrepreneurship in the last year has been very encouraging. What advice would you give to those looking to make their mark in the city and their local areas? What do you believe are the ingredients for success in creating something that resonates with the communities around it?
It’s been incredible to see how people have reacted and pivoted, started new businesses out of nowhere or side projects to fill that time at home, some wonderful things have been born out this.
I believe that people have gotten behind a lot of these because there’s clearly passion behind it, somebody saying, fuck it I’m doing this, and I think people can relate to that. I also think the language people use to communicate their work or products is key.
As the city centre transforms with the city centre development and both sides of The Liffey, what would you love to see particular focus on by all stakeholders?
I think there has been encouraging signs in the city, in terms of pedestrianising streets (which is coming this summer), adding cycle lanes and reclaiming car parking spaces. It’s unfortunate it took a pandemic to push through even the smallest amount of these, but I’m excited about it and I’d love to see more. I don’t think we need as many cars in the city and we should open up more of the city for pedestrians and cyclists – something people have been pushing for for years; it almost feels redundant to say it. I don’t want to write a full essay here, but we obviously need more spaces for the arts.
Clubs have closed in the time I was away from Dublin and I don’t know if there’s any left…? I’d like to see some of the office blocks that will most likely stay empty for years now be handed over to artists and galleries and give people space to create. We’ve seen an unbelievable amount of great spaces close, when I started out as a designer being able to run events, nights, dinners, whatever it might have been, there was always somewhere to do it, which all led to an increase in the community. Hopefully, we can claim this back. Should I even start on housing…
Your favourite spaces in the city, even a little guilty secret?
I moved back to Dublin last March so like everyone I’ve only been able to really spend time outdoors and there’s certainly some gems. I’ve been running through Irishtown nature park which is a delight particularly with the sun coming up over the sea. I think Saint Kevin’s Park is wonderful, sort of hidden away but right in the middle of town and it gets the sun all day. A nice bottle from Frank’s on Camden Street helps make it a little more special too. I probably shouldn’t be telling people.
Examples where we should have got it better, the spaces that fall flat or disappoint?
The first place that comes to mind is on the North quays, around the new Central Bank. The new buildings there are really well designed, the bank and the surrounding blocks, the grounds around it have been well thought out and are progressive in their form for an Irish public space (maybe they’re actually private?), but these luxury apartment blocks are empty and they are so ridiculously expensive that it feels like such a waste, what makes these places is the people that can inhabit them and if nobody can live there it’s just a shame to have somewhere so nicely designed not used as it could be.
As the country unlocks, what recommendations and potential innovations would you give to the custodians of spaces in towns and cities as we push on again?
I don’t know how innovative more public toilets and more waste management is but that is something that many a custodian of city centre spaces need help with. With a push for an ‘outdoor’ lifestyle it’s highly needed.
Now that everyone has become more digitally enabled, do you see the future of retail being interconnected or does retail need to offer something different in its experience to stay relevant?
This is an area I’m curious about, I think there will certainly be a move to sustaining and encouraging a more tactile shopping experience and the desire for that will increase, but, undoubtedly this can work in harmony with digital tools. I can see a situation where shopping in-store will be aided by your phone or device or your network, but I’d like to see this integrated in a seamless and invisible way. That could be through appointments and using your history as stores do online but only presenting things physically. I know many savvy retailers are doing this in some ways already.
Your favourite project so far, and why?
I love Hen’s Teeth in the Blackpitts, it was a very fun project to work on and their aesthetic and language is always brilliant. They gave me free rein to design the space that reflected them which meant we could have a lot of fun with colour and materials we usually don’t get to use.
Our goal was to keep it adaptable and adjustable which is exactly what they’ve needed it to be. With some spaces it’s nice if they remain exactly the same, but with Hen’s Teeth, it’s been fun to watch them grow and change while using the tools we created for them. I also like the Bean and Goose bar form I designed, having people eat your design – and usually with delight – is a nice feeling.
The dream project you have yet to be commissioned to do?
I think at the moment I’d like to try something a little different, if I could do some public works, sculpture or sculptural furniture I think that would be a fun challenge.
I’d also like to push some furniture projects into a more collectable or art-focused area.
Words: Richard Seabrooke