Ayah Al Bitar designs to provoke social thought
IT MAY NOT be the most obvious of avenues, but even your living room chairs can be a topic for social discussion. Saudi designer Ayah Al Bitar has always been inspired by women's rights, thus, when creating her brand, focused on breaking cultural boundaries with her designs' concepts. Interesting pieces such as the Wisada - a cushion shaped in the form of a bicycle seat - and others featuring caricatures depicting satirical drawings such as women in balls and chains or standing up to the patriarchal society were the product. Encouraging more people to sit on the floor as both a cultural experience and a practical space saver was also a mission. Here we speak to Ayah to find out if she considers herself a social warrior.
How do you believe social change can come about through furniture design?
I think the main thing to note when it comes to my work is that I am not trying to change the world; I simply want to make a difference and I believe design and creative outlets can do that. Wisada was not created to allow women to drive; it was designed to create dialogue, provoke thought, trigger positivity, and release frustration. The social issue may be resolved tomorrow, in ten years, or never; but the point is to show maturity towards it and work towards a goal without being destructive in a society; slowly but surely. Everything will happen in the right time.
My pieces create dialogue about social change in a more light-hearted, less formal manner and this aids change and puts different thoughts in peoples minds.
What made you first decide to incorporate this theme into your designs?
My main inspiration for design is people and the way surroundings affect behaviour. However, there was a specific turning point to why I wanted to design for social change, specifically relating to my upbringing in Saudi Arabia.
In 2013, there was a very big protest where around fifty women each decided to drive a car in the streets of the capital city Riyadh. Some were caught and were interrogated and others were not affected at all. This was done to create awareness and bring to light this topic in the country. At a similar time, it was announced women were then allowed to ride bicycles, however there was a limitation; women could only do this with the presence of a male figure; which was humorous. This created dialogue in the society, with a humorous manner. From there, I was inspired to create something tangible that related to this social issue and funny as well; with the enlarged size of a bicycle seat. The idea was to create a piece that people can discuss and speak about in their homes; behind closed doors. There was no necessity for all the negative rebellion I thought.
Do you think real change is happening when it comes to gender equality?
Yes I do think there has been real change, and is still a lot of change to come. I visualise women's rights and gender equality concerns more as avenues for opportunity and change. In my opinion, these topics of conversation are actually positive situations that shed light to where we need to work on more. I always have an optimistic take for the future.
Many Saudi women have become entrepreneurs aiming to create change and proving themselves; very successfully. This is allowing for the entire ball game to change; they see the capability of a woman and her ability to change, create and be. These are all developments that are working in the direction for women to become as prominent in the society in Saudi and the GCC. Concepts like Wisada will be either praised or criticised; this on its own creates dialogue and allows for discussion.
Do you consider yourself an unconventional Saudi citizen and would you encourage others to follow in your footsteps?
I consider myself more of a hybrid than an unconventional citizen. I'm a mix in thoughts, education, and vision. A mix between tradition and modern, East and West. My clothing always changes and is always different and it is not really representing anything in specific per se. It's always about adding a modern touch.
My family is my biggest support, they honestly are. If it weren't for them, I wouldn't have been able to start this journey of mine.
From where do you get your design inspiration?
My background has had a huge impact. My concepts mostly target ideas and needs in the Arabic customs and traditions. It is about redesigning what does not work in the society and creating room for something that makes their lives easier. My main objective is to create functional art.
I also have a large focus on people as my inspiration. I always look at my surroundings; people especially. I find people very fascinating and I enjoy studying their behaviour and ways of life.