Laila Al Hamad’s decision to establish Zeri Crafts was motivated by the absence of innovative handicrafts inspired by local traditions in the Gulf region. The Kuwaiti concept brand seeks to fill this gap and rekindle interest in Gulf traditions and crafts, particularly when it comes to Bedouin (Sadu) weaving, incense burners, and palm basketry. “We create pieces that aspire to illuminate the beauty of our heritage and try, through design, to evoke concepts that were once intrinsic to this heritage, such as simplicity, modularity, functionality and understated aesthetic,” Al Hamad explained to Muftah.
The Kuwaiti modern art movement emerged in the 1930s, but after the 1990 Iraqi invasion, much of the country’s cultural life was badly damaged. Today, thanks to a rich heritage, oil wealth, and relative openness, the Kuwaiti contemporary art scene is booming, with weekly art and design exhibitions, concerts, and various cultural events. Zeri Crafts is now contributing to this boom by helping to revive the country’s handmade craft market.
Al Hamad first developed the concept for the company in 2007 and spent several years conducting market research and developing a business plan, before bringing it to life in 2012. Prior to founding the company, Al Hamad, who holds a master’s degree from the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, worked for the World Bank and various NGOs. The idea for Zeri Craft was born directly out of this work and her experiences in international, social, and economic development in the Middle East and North Africa region and East Asia. “The time I spent in East Asia in the early 2000s working for a NGO was instrumental in understanding the value of crafts and this catapulted me into the direction that I took with Zeri Crafts once I left the World Bank,” Al Hamad said.
Zeri is based in a beautifully renovated old beach house in the central part of the Kuwaiti area of Salmiya. Its design ambitions are not, however, limited to Kuwait, but rather extends to the entire Gulf region. “We work with designers and artisans regardless of nationality. What matters is that they share our design philosophy. We mainly work with three or four designers in order to keep a consistent aesthetic throughout our pieces,” Al Hamad explained. Zeri’s elegant products include notebooks and bookmarks inspired by the geometric patterns of Gulf architecture, a collection of mukhbars (incense burners) designed by Belgian-Palestinian Nedda El Asmar, camel leather pieces, tablecloths inspired by sadu weaving, as well as shawls, baskets and rugs handwoven by local artisans.
According to Al Hamad, Zeri “remains very small, but our collection and market keep on growing, although not as rapidly as we would like. We invest in design and production primarily, and we keep all other expenses as overhead and marketing as low as possible. This is good for our clients, but it means a slow growth path for us. A loyal client base has been one of the ways we have survived, and for that we are very grateful.”
According to Al Hamad, the retail market in the Gulf is heavily dominated by big foreign brands and franchises, leaving little room for small businesses. The lack of a design culture that is truly homegrown is also challenging: “The Gulf lacks a mature design industry, designers are still inexperienced, local production is virtually impossible and there is no environment for innovative design. Adding to this, small businesses need to muddle through lots of bureaucratic red tape.”
Zeri has two groups of customers: Khaleejis who are interested in unique gifts that draw on their culture, and foreigners looking to connect with the local culture. “We hope to be able to expand into new product lines and markets, and this is what we are working on as part of our future strategy. I believe it’s a growing market, and more entrepreneurs are realizing this and venturing into similar projects. There are a few competitors, which is always positive as it keeps us on our toes and always thinking of new possibilities,” Al Hamad said.
Though Zeri is small now, there is little doubt it is making a big impact when it comes to reviving traditional design practices in Kuwait and the rest of the Gulf.