Chen Chen and Kai Williams at Design Days Dubai

When Brooklyn design duo Chen Chen and Kai Williams — known for their eccentric experimentation with materials — headed to Brazil two years ago for a residency with the gallery Coletivo Amor de Madre, they learned an important lesson the hard way: Don’t show up in a far-flung country expecting to source all your fabrication supplies at the drop of a hat. Invited to join the same gallery last month for an interactive installation at Design Days Dubai, they brought from home many of the materials they needed to make their new Moonmilk vessels (above), which they constructed live in their show booth from pigmented quick-dry cement slowly dripped onto a substrate. They also left time before the show began to scout working-class areas where, says Chen, “instead of big box stores like Home Depot, you’ll see an entire neighborhood in which one shop only sells plastic and another shop is a carpenter inside this little storefront, where you can say ‘I need pieces of wood cut to this size,’ and he’ll cut it for you.” The rest of their eight-day trip was spent making — and exploring.

Having never been to the Middle East, much less Dubai, the pair admit they weren’t sure what to expect of the fair, and the city in general. “Dubai was less exotic than we imagined,” admits Williams. Adds Chen: “It’s a really international city, which really make it easy to be an outsider coming in. Everyone speaks perfect English. Although on the other hand, the first day Design Days Dubai was officially open was women’s day, so there were no men allowed in the fair.” When they were able to be present at the gallery’s booth, making the Moonmilk vessels but also leading casting workshops, the biggest difference they noticed was that the show was frequented not just by design afficionados but by regular citizens of all kinds, who were constantly asking questions about their process. “In Dubai people are really into new things,” says Williams. “They’re not stuck in the past at all. There’s also this feeling there that you can do anything. In a country where they’ve just taken a desert and turned it into a city with the tallest building in the world, there’s a ‘why not?’ attitude that pervades — it isn’t so un-American in the end.”
CKDubai_aerial“Design Days Dubai was held at the base of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. The block it sits on is one giant circle which contains Dubai Mall, the world’s largest mall (the building to the left of the fountain pool). The skyscraper is The Address, a hotel and residential building.”
CKDubai_water“To clean the giant fountain pool, men need to navigate it in boats.”
CKDubai_art_Carpenters“Carpenter’s Workshop Gallery built an elaborate apartment in their booth.”
CKDubai_art_lights“It was showing work by Wendell Castle, including this LED-encrusted wood light.”
CKDubai_art_Carwan2“At Carwan Gallery, Michael Anastassiades’s bronze ball vases expressed a surprising amount of humor for such a minimal object.”CKDubai_art_marble2CKDubai_marble4“A big trend was complex forms carved from Carrara marble, which is a reflection of the new capabilities of stone-milling CNC machines.”CKDubai_booth2CKDubai_booth“We were participating in Design Days Dubai as part of Coletivo Amor de Madre’s booth, where we debuted our Moonmilk vases, making them on-site. A lot of what’s interesting for us about the way we use materials is allowing the material to take its own form. With things like resin and cement, normally you’d create a mold in a pre-determined shape, then fill it up. Here, we’re just layering cement over a substructure by dripping it over and over, forming structures similar to stalactites and stalagmites that you’d see in a cave, or even under the BQE in the winter, when there’s a lot of salt on the road and it forms these giant salt structures.” (The vessels will debut again during New York design week at The Future Perfect.)CKDubai_art_glowingCKDubai_goldsculpture“Concurrent with Design Days Dubai was Art Dubai. There was an interesting mix of what you would expect to see on the fair circuit along with some more regional work.”CKDubai_jewelryCKDubai_Spices2“Outside of the art and design being brought to market, Dubai is also home to the Spice Souk and the Gold Souk. The Gold Souk is the largest gold market in the world.”CKDubai_Boat2CKDubai_Boat“These souks are located next to Dubai Creek, which comes in from the ocean and was the original commercial hub for the city. It’s still being used, and wooden barges are still being loaded by hand. We saw a guy carrying microwaves onto these boats, while less than a mile away is the tallest building in the world. The clash of old and new in Dubai is really amazing.”CKDubai_tarps“Further down the coast, just a mile or two north of the fancy hotel that hosts Art Dubai, is a dry dock for poor fishermen. Situated between these wooden boats with tarps draped over them is a restaurant serving the day’s catch, fried whole and served on a sand lot.”CKDubai_flyingCKDubai_ShakeShack“On the opposite end of the spectrum, you can also dine in the Dubai Mall and have Shake Shack while seated across from an enormous waterfall festooned with sculptures of diving men. That’s the strange thing about the city — in an attempt to be most important hub of the Middle East, Dubai has imported a lot of things, from architecture styles to food chains.”CKDubai_Flowers“I think this image of the lawn of a gas station kind of sums up how much the environment has been changed in Dubai. When you’re in the fully man-made city, it can be easy to forget that you’re standing in the middle of a desert and that none of the plants around you should be there.”CKDubai_StreetAd“All businesses serving women (hair, manicure, etc.) have storefronts that are completely blocked out. There’s a women’s day at the beach when no men are allowed, and there was also a women’s day at Design Days Dubai.”CKDubai_tshirt“Images of the Sheikhs are everywhere. There are skyscrapers with images of Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai and Sheikh Khalifa of Abu Dhabi.  This baby t-shirt has an image of Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE.”CKDubai_cars“Kai took a day trip out to drive dune buggies in the desert.”
CKDubai_MaleToilet“We liked this male toilet sign.”
CKDubai_filmchair“On the way up to the top of the Burj Khalifa, you can see Sheikh Mohammed’s director’s chair from the set of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. To the left of the chair is an autographed picture of Tom Cruise which says: ‘Thanks for making the impossible, possible.'”