A vision for a nation–The work of Kawther Al Saffar
By Purva Chawla
Even if you had no context at all on Kawther Al Saffar’s 'Dual Bowls', they would captivate you, and draw you in. It would likely be the unexpected combination of two, disparate metals that would catch your eye first, and then the crackly, rough texture and surface. Little would you know then, that embedded within the shining, simple and somewhat gruff forms, is the narrative of an entire nation.
Through three sizes of mixed-metal sand-cast bowls, and most importantly, through the ways in which they were created, Product designer Kawther Al Saffar narrates, comments on, and reenvisions the relationship between craft, design, and culture in her home country–Kuwait.
Kawther sheds light on Kuwait’s rich history of production and trade, in contrast to its current state of affairs–where design, and craft particularly, are undervalued, and low-quality, rapidly created work thrives, while well-crafted goods struggle to be appreciated. Coupled with these challenges today, is ‘Ornamentalism’–a false identity for the Middle East that fails to visually represent its culture in a meaningful, and differentiated way.
In response to these realities, Kawther broke free of the role of 'designer in a studio' and Kuwait’s class structure–instead choosing to work closely with craftsmen at the Alwafi Foundry in Kuwait, to learn sand-casting from them, and to co-create the Dual Bowls. The Dual Bowls developed while working with the Alwafi craftsmen on Kawther's Imperfect Tableware collection, and discovering the new untapped potential for dual metal casting in Kuwait. This process is unique to the capabilities of the Alwafi Foundry workshop, and by using simple decorative forms, the foundry was able to push the limits of casting, highlighting the beauty of the process, and the workmanship of the craftsmen.
In this way, the Dual Bowls are both a physical construct and one that is social and cultural. In many ways, the bowls are about seeking and exposing what the emblems of craft and design in Kuwait's present and future can be. It’s not so much the shape of the bowls, or the textures that become the emblems here– It's the methods (the sand-casting, dual metal casting), the materials (varied metals, Egyptian clay casts) and the lineage of craftsmen themselves that begin to actually represent Kuwait abroad.
Next month, Kawther Al Saffar joins the talented, culturally and conceptually diverse collective Form&Seek, in showing their work at Milan Design Week. The ‘Age of Man’ exhibit in Milan becomes an appropriate forum to put forward Kawther's vision–a solution in fact–and representation for craft and design in Kuwait.
To learn more, follow the excerpts from our recent conversation with Kawther below:
On the Value of Cultural Design...
Kawther: The core subject of my work is showing a diversity of perspectives on the value of cultural design, and moving away from the standard, established stereotypes of consumptive product design. I think Kuwait and other developing countries have new and diverse perspectives to offer.
I believe Cultural design value should be assigned to Kuwait not as a superficial ‘orientalist’ export constrained by geography, but instead as an effervescent output based on experience. As someone with formative experiences in Kuwait, the US and the UK, my work is influenced by this. The fabricator's life and history additionally supply their own effect. Combining our understanding of locality, into a product, we have an output that is not possible elsewhere.
On Dual Bowls, and Saffar...
Kawther: The Dual Bowls were created as part of my Master’s program at the Royal College of Art. It was a happy accident that came about through a dream and has now become the strongest focus of my career. While working on my first line ‘Imperfect Tableware,' I had a dream about pouring multiple kinds of metals into one sand mold. This is extremely unconventional as these metals need proper care to react well with each other, and the results are unpredictable and varied each time. Sand casters in the Western world also do not intend to promote the rough grittiness of the multiple castings, so experimental work of this nature is not their focus.
At foundries in Kuwait, the type of casting that is done is very rudimentary and rough. The sand used is imported from Egypt because it only requires water to form a mold. While this is naturally sustainable, compared with adding CO2 or unnatural bonding agents in other cases, it means this type of casting can only attain a certain level of quality, and the results are often rough. Because of this project–which promotes the grittiness of the casting as being beautiful–this local type of casting has flourished.
The intention behind Saffar (my brand, and practice) is to bring beauty and attention to non-generalized, experience-based, and localized perspectives on culture. The reason Dual Bowls has become the focus of my career is that it truly highlights a successful amalgamation of design and craft, and bridges the gap between me (as the designer) and the fabricators. Kuwait has a class structure which makes it difficult for me to become a fabricator. The reason Dual Bowls was successful in bridging this divide is that it allows the fabricators so much control and input into the craft of the pieces. I have provided them a new technique and system, and I am marketing it for them, but the majority of my work is to manage their output and allow their personal craft to flourish in a country where craftsmen are marginalized as unimportant.
On the materiality of the Dual Bowls…
Kawther: The primary materials I use in Dual Bowls are sand-cast copper, brass, and a gray zinc composite. The bowls are sand-cast using a process I arrived at with the Alwafi foundry called dual casting.
Sand casting is the process of creating a two part indentation into a sand mold to replicate a positive form made of another hard material. It can be compared to the replicative process of 3D printing. By this I mean, you can use one sand form, and make multiples of the same form in metal. The limitations in sand casting, however, are that a form needs to be tapered and not have any undercuts.
Dual casting, on the other hand, is the process of sand casting using two metals. I have employed three distinct dual casting processes to create the Dual Bowls:
1) Cutting–Pouring a second metal onto a cold half cut form.
2) Pouring–Pouring two molten metals into the same sand form.
3) Plating–half dipping a finished base metal into another conductive metal.
On her history with Craft and Material experimentation...
Kawther: My father's family received their name Alsaffar due to their Coppersmithing trade–sinking flat sheets of metal into tin plated cooking apparatus when Kuwait was a bustling trade route due to its prime location. In the 1950’s, with the influx of oil in Kuwait, this trade become obsolete, replaced with cheaper but lower-value alternatives. However, I feel like my family still has that compulsion and draw towards fabrication trades. Currently, their name is still tied to several different fabrication industries in Kuwait. You can then imagine my compulsion towards metals, which is an obsession almost.
A magnification of this interest has been unavoidable, especially owed to my extensive study of metal craft at the Rhode Island School of Design, and the fact that much of my current work has been primarily metal based. During my time at the RCA as well, I worked on three sand cast collections as well as a collection of copper sunk bowls that promote the traditional 'Saffar' craft.
In my work, I have found one of the most important aspects is celebrating the materials being used and bringing beauty to them. So, when I am casting it is important not to coat anything with another material. It is important to let the casting imperfections flourish. If I am using a piece of wood, I would not paint, or fill it, instead, using only finishes that promote its natural beauty.
My second largest field of knowledge and interest is in woodworking. My great grandfather was an undocumented established architect in Kuwait, bringing Kuwait the technology to switch from mud to cement. In 1957, to protect a property he owned from being seized by the government for disuse, he erected some works of carpentry which are still fully functional. When experimenting with wood in Kuwait, I have tried to promote a different approach to the woodworkers here, which is to use salvaged wood and show off the imperfect grain, and knots, while they are used to concealing them with filler and masking the wood with lacquer and nonporous finishes.
On impact to the Earth…
The Dual Bowls use metals recycled from industry in Kuwait and also use a naturally sustainable sand casting method that requires no chemicals. Because the bowls are made of 100% raw and recycled metals, this makes the products also 100% recyclable. As I mentioned before, the kind of casting done in Kuwait uses imported sand and brick from Egypt. Due to the geographic proximity, this means Kuwait benefits from sustainable age-old casting methods, due to our necessity of having our casting methods be as low tech as possible. The products make use of materials that may not otherwise be recycled as often in the industry. Due to their high value, they may be left in salvage yards till they are of use to someone. Upon visiting salvage yards in Kuwait, I saw shipping containers filled with hoarded tons of salvaged brass and copper, which are not being used to their advantage.
On the Form&Seek collective…
I think they have a unique and powerful perspective, and they promote valuable and diverse work that needs exposure and deserves to be celebrated. I feel Form&Seek’s vision, and their celebration of material integrity and tangible ingenuity is in line with my own vision and desires for the world of design.