Salem Al Qassimi

After founding a design studio in Sharjah over six years ago, Salem Al Qassimi is still at the forefront of his industry

Salem Al Qassimi grew up in what he later described as a melting pot of cultures. The graphic designer and founder of the Sharjah-based design house Fikra, began his exploration into his culture through a thesis at the Rhode Island School of Design in New York.

The pages of the thesis show montage-like images of a mundane, typically western outfit, consisting of jeans and a checked shirt overlaid onto prints of a creased white kandora. It goes on to focus on three categories of dress, culture and urban landscape, and how these have changed dramatically over the past generation. Calling it Arabish (a combination of the words English and Arabic) he began the project by asking people in America about their thoughts on the UAE and went on to deconstruct his own perceptions of the country.




‘From my experience, I think people in New York and Rhode Island know very little about the UAE,’ he says. ‘That’s probably another reason why my thesis was on UAE culture – to educate and to familiarise people with my own culture. I feel responsibility to talk about where I am from.’

He is now one of the few Emiratis successfully representing the design industry in the UAE and it is an accolade that makes him proud. ‘I am lucky to be part of the first wave of designers and design educators in the UAE and the region. We are still relatively new to the industry and there is a lot to be done.’


I feel responsibility to talk about where I am from


He says he did not set out to base his work on his culture and background but an ‘obvious pattern started revealing itself through my thinking process and work’. Now, he says that these aspects are crucial in defining his work.

In 2006, he founded Fikra – a multidisciplinary design studio that would allow him and others the freedom to explore design in its broadest form. Fikra evolved into a platform for design education and now involves itself in national educational programmes that offer workshops on design as well as ADAM, a collaboration with Pink Tank that will map out the creative population in the Middle East region.

‘As an educator, I felt that my students and other students at different universities in the region lacked an understanding of relevant design-related issues specific to the region. With Afkar Fikra – the educational element of Fikra – our mission is to foster design education and explore different topics revolving around design and culture. The subjects investigated in Afkar Fikra are meant to challenge the traditional understanding of design and specifically graphic design and visual communications in the Arab region. We try to involve students, and the public to participate in those conversations revolving around design.’



Going from strength to strength, Al Qassimi is aware that he is part of an influential generation and he wants to continue to be involved in long-term cultural research projects and in arts and culture.

His home emirate of Sharjah is also extremely important to him both personally and professionally. ‘Sharjah is extremely unique and authentic,’ he says. ‘It is family oriented and is also very rich in arts and culture. We have the Sharjah Art Foundation and the museums which are instigating rich conversations related to the arts. I think Sharjah’s biggest hidden secret is still hidden and that is what keeps it something special.’ While he has no desire to leave, he says if he ever had to he would go nowhere without his kandora, a bottle of oud and a bag of dates. ‘These things remind me of home and for me they represent a home comfort.’