Made in Qatar
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
“I love being around creative people and their positive energy. It’s great to see what comes from them,” says the Qatari-based Alia Rachid of the talent at her design platform Fromm, which she established in 2021. Fromm – the extra “m” refers to its headquarters located in the newly developed Msheireb district of Doha – is what Rachid describes as a “talent incubator” as well as a burgeoning luxury design brand. Its aim is to work collaboratively with a curated group of designers who are offered a mentoring experience that takes them from concept to completed product, resulting in a collection of contemporary furniture, lighting and accessories sold under the brand. Each product is workshopped and developed in Doha, then prototyped and produced with the assistance of the team at Fromm Lab – its studio and showroom in Milan. It is a portal that connects the creativity of the Middle East to the design capital of the world.
Rachid, who devotes most of her time to Fromm, is super-sharp but softly spoken, and impeccably stylish: on the day she is photographed at her hub, she wears a silk Valentino shirt and green trousers. She is the daughter of the Egyptian-born Rachid M Rachid, the chairman of Valentino and Balmain, and founder of the investment company Bidayat, which recently bought the rights for the soon-to-be-relaunched designer Walter Albini. Rachid M Rachid was a trade and industry minister in 2011 when a revolution ousted Hosni Mubarak as president. His daughter, 43, studied industrial engineering in Egypt. Prior to creating Fromm, she ran a commercial furniture and lighting business, and she sits on the board of Bidayat while also serving as chairman for the fashion label Khrisjoy and luxury eyewear start-up Akoni.
Shahzad Akhtar, CEO of Alsara Investment Group (which owns Khrisjoy, Akoni and Bidayat), believes Rachid’s business acumen will greatly benefit the portal. “Alia’s business leadership is defined by her ability to combine strategic understanding with attention to detail,” he says. “Her passion for creativity and design bodes well for her success in the luxury industry.”
It was observing the way in which creatives work – many lacking the business know-how that could lead to commercial success – that first gave Rachid the idea for Fromm. Initially, the intention was to offer mentorship to aspiring designers. As it turned out, there was a need for something more. “I began to think about how to bring more opportunities to young talents of the region,” says Rachid. “To work together to give them exposure to the west.”
She was persuaded by another woman in a similarly influential situation: “It was meeting Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani [the sister of Qatar’s ruling emir], who commissioned the M7 building, that inspired me to come up with the model for the incubator.” She is speaking about the cultural and design hub in Qatar where the company is now located.
The Fromm space at M7, which was designed by Carlos Beghetti, is a bright, open-plan hub with huge communal tables. The building highlights the collaborative ethos Fromm promotes. It includes a showroom where the collection is on display and a material library for clients to customise fabrics and finishes. “We began both here in Doha and in Milan at the same time. Milan is where the expertise is,” Rachid says. That expertise – along with a production and sales team – is led by the designer and strategic consultant Luca Fois, co-founder of the Milanese design district Zona Tortona and a professor at Politecnico di Milano.
“It’s been incredible to be involved in the creation of such a beautiful, cultural and contemporary design story, from its conception,” Fois says of his collaboration with the brand. “Coming from someone dedicated to design like me, Fromm is a unique international platform that emphasises cultural hybridisation and heritage innovation… Who else is doing that today?”
The designers – many of them young women – are chosen by Rachid and her team, often for their passion and ideas rather than experience or formal training. There are currently 11 creatives on the roster, with more to follow. Most are Qatari-born, including Noora Al Melhim, Abdulrahman Al Muftah, Maryam Al Suwaidi, Shua’a Ali, Hammam Alabdulla, Aisha Al Mohannadi and Kaltham Al Kuwari of design duo DHI. Kahhal 1871 Carpets, led by Mohamed El Kahhal, is also part of the line-up, as is Turkish-born Rüya Akyol, who resides in Milan, and the Italian artist Antonio Aricò.
“Our first collection was designed by women and that is something I’m proud of,” says Rachid. “We’ve given them a chance to not only design but to deliver to market, and travel to the factories in Italy and Turkey where the pieces are made – this is their opportunity for exposure and to learn. There is definitely a hunger from women wanting to join the platform.”
The platform currently offers two collections. Shurouq, the Arabic word for dawn (a reference to both the brand’s launch and its inspiration) is Fromm’s main offering, shown at Milan Design Week last year. It includes Maryam Al Suwaidi’s Haima’ chair (£5,280) and Baida’ sofa (£9,240) that were in part inspired by the curves of desert dunes, along with minimal occasional tables, shelving and a desk recalling local architecture and reflective shades of desert sunsets in polished metals, envisaged by the self-taught artist Shua’a Ali. The designer’s Maiz coffee table (£5,016) incorporates an incense burner in a nod to the rituals of her culture.
Al Suwaidi, who is working on a range of new cushions for the brand, says the partnership with Rachid and Fromm has been game-changing. “They’ve given me the opportunity to express my creativity and take an active role in the growing design scene in Qatar. I’ve been able to travel to Italy and immerse myself in prototyping and production,” she says. “Being physically present means we are all part of the artistry and craftsmanship.”
Fromm also offers Wanas (a term loosely referencing social gatherings in Arabic) – an accessories collection (priced from £19 for a coffee cup) that evolved out of a design competition at the Doha outpost of the Virginia Commonwealth University. It was won by Qatari designer Noora Al Melhim, who explores regional culture and artisanal practices in her work. The pieces – comprising a ceramic coffee set, a cake platter, candle and incense burner – allude to the traditions of Qatari craft and coffee culture.
Rachid is delighted with the response. “I remember the first day we sold a Haima’ chair. It was on display at Rossana Orlandi in Milan and a few weeks later, it sold,” she says. “The excitement on the face of the designer was such a great thing.”
The entrepreneur’s vision is to establish Fromm as a design hub not just for Qatar but the wider region. “We’ve started with Qatari designers and have expanded to regional talents but are now being approached by Italian and Turkish designers,” she reveals. “Sales are slowly spreading between Milan and Doha. The enthusiasm and interest are great – this is what I want to see. It’s the opportunity I want to give.”
Tapping into Qatar’s rich history of craftsmanship is also a priority for Rachid. “We’re certainly focused on Qatari culture and telling those stories in a modern way,” she explains. One such example is the Step Seating Sadu Collection (seating that slots into a staircase), which adorns the stairwell of the M7 atrium. “We used local Sadu weaving [an embroidery form in geometrical shapes hand-woven by Bedouin people] but reinterpreted… It’s so beautiful, and people can come in and sit on the stairs.”
A new collection will launch this November: an eight-piece Ottoman Dream Collection designed exclusively for the Turkish retailer Beymen by Italian artist Antonio Aricò, in collaboration with Rüya Akyol and Abdulrahman Al Muftah. The ensemble includes an armchair, bench, coffee table, rugs and lamps but the standout piece is the cotton and velvet Pavo sofa, inspired by the gardens beside the Bosphorus in Istanbul. “I was reminiscing about my childhood memories, where the captivating beauty and vibrant colours of peacocks symbolised the timeless connection between eastern and western cultures,” Aricò says.
Further designs will launch next April in Milan – and Rachid has the US market in her sights. “There’s a lot on our list but it’s a matter of pacing ourselves,” she says of her global aspirations. “We’re looking to expand the pottery collection, accessories and pieces for the dining room. Our focus is on Milan and Doha for now, but we feel this will open the gates for us,” she concludes. “I hope someday we will be the leading platform for the world – and it’ll be coming out of Msheireb, out of Qatar. This is what I would feel really proud of.”