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Spinning the Recession: Sheik Majed Al-Sabah

Americans may be in a state of gloom about the economy, but it’s still a beautiful day in the neighborhood, if you live next door to Sheik Majed Al-Sabah.

Americans may be in a state of gloom about the economy, but it’s still a beautiful day in the neighborhood, if you live next door to Sheik Majed Al-Sabah.

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Majed, founder of chic luxury retail chain Villa Moda, is the man the New York Times dubbed “The Sheik of Chic.” The nephew of the Emir of Kuwait, Majed was in Miami this week to launch his latest venture, Al Sabah Art & Design Collection, during Art Basel Miami. The gallery will officially open in March in Dubai.

Lounging on a chair upholstered in a pastiche of native Middle Eastern fabrics on the sidewalk outside his gallery in Miami’s Design District, the Sheik says his business is booming. “We sold out our first gallery of merchandise and had to restock,” says, offering me and other passersby dates, pastries, and tea. “People come from the fair where a chair is $45,000 and our chair is $7000. So the price is right.”

The gallery is selling a variety of works that combine modern design with indigenous Middle Eastern crafts. Hudi Baroudi and Maria Hibri are two Lebanese designers who scavenged a variety of mid-century modern pieces that had been discarded following the Lebanese Civil War, and then reupholstered them in vintage embroidered fabrics from the Middle East.

The gallery also features the work of Dutch designer Pieke Bergmans, who took antique furniture embellished with traditional Syrian mother of pearl and hand blew crystal shapes onto it, for a weirdly parasitic look.

For those preferring to wear their Middle Eastern art, Sheik Majed is showing the work of Dubai-based graphic artist Nadine Kanso, who creates gold jewelry in the shape of the letters of the Arabic alphabet — a sort of Arabic bling a rapper might wear. Sheik Majed says the jewelry has been wildly popular with Miami customers, who have been commissioning necklaces with their own letter.

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But while he wants to move his merch, the Sheik says he is sensitive to our economic pain. “I don’t want to come here in an arrogant way,” he says. “I could jack up my prices, and say, ‘This is design. Take it or leave it,’ but no. I want to touch the hearts of everyone. We respect people. We respect their budgets. We’re not selling at big margins. We want to break even. It’s all about the launch. Later we can do more extensive projects and ask for a higher price.”

As we were munching our dates, Dutch design guru Li Edelkoort wandered in, to a warm welcome from the Sheik. Edelkoort, who recently announced her retirement as head of the prestigious Design Academy Eindhoven, is planning that school’s first international branch in Dubai, in league with the Sheik.

“Our dream is to have young talented people in our own region,” Sheik Majed says. “But first we need to have the educational infrastructure.”

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About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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