Maria Iqbal Is Not A Fine Artist! My Interview With Dubai’s Pop Designer

Maria Iqbal is the funniest person I’ve met in a very long time. Her brain clicks away like a slide projector, constantly changing topics, each one more amusing and wild than the next. When I ask her if there is a color she’s drawn to right now, she goes off on a tangent about green—the color of youth, Islam, and tropical jungles. She is already imagining a green handbag and a verdant chair, maybe something with a tail or spots. Her eyeliner is meticulous and her long black hair is glossy. She’s actually flat out gorgeous, but her imagination is so glittery-bright that she hides behind it and claims she isn’t seduced by Dubai’s social scene and actually, “can’t wait to be an old lady and join book clubs, go on cruises with my girls, and have an excuse to stay home at night and knit.” We nurse mugs of green tea downstairs at Objects & Elements, a home decor space in Al Quoz that stocks a selection from Maria’s furniture line.

Maria Iqbal's designs are one of a kind. I'd be able to recognize them anywhere

Maria Iqbal’s designs are one of a kind. I’d be able to recognize them anywhere

She was born in Afghanistan, raised in Dubai, educated in the US, and found the courage inside to start her business, Maria Iqbal Art after a year of introspection in India. Previously, she was kind of a big deal advertising executive in Chicago but gave up the security to become kind of an even bigger deal pop artist in Dubai.

The business is still young yet she’s rapidly made a name for herself with her recognizable chairs, but actually designs everything from dressing screens to handbags, wall art, and motorcycle helmets (which by the way were recently featured in Vogue Italia). There isn’t anything vain about her. She has her own carpenter and a studio and spends most days on her hands and knees painting, upholstering, and sanding. When Maria sees a piece of furniture, she looks at it the way a makeup artist evaluates a woman’s bare face for good bones, then brings out her cheeks in a way that makes her unforgettable.

Maria Iqbal with one of her chairs taking chances in Al Quoz

Maria Iqbal with one of her chairs taking chances in Al Quoz

She never throws anything out and uses scraps of fabric collected years ago in Rajasthan, Afghan carpet remnants, and all sorts of other salvaged and found treasures to repurpose basic furniture into one of her signature creations. Because she’s lived a nomadic life, her accent is untraceable. She tells me, “Until I set up my business in Dubai, I was always moving. I never had any furniture that I cared about because I couldn’t take it with me. Now I make everything I use. I made my own bed to look like something that drifted off the ocean. Why should I buy it when I can make it myself?” She makes everything she needs to use or wear. She swears that, “Even one day when I am famous and I have a lot of money, I’ll never drop $1000 on a pair of shoes.”

Playing with Surrealism in the living room

Playing with Surrealism in the living room

A chair party in Al Quoz

A chair party in Al Quoz

She is confident enough in herself to admit that she doesn’t understand fine art and finds a lot of it to be dull, unattractive, or unclear. She announces, “I paint but I’m not an artist.” I strongly disagree. Take 5 seconds to look at her work and you’ll see she is quite the pop artist, following the likes of Warhol and his soup cans. The difference is that her art is functional and approachable. That is the point of pop. Here is how Maria Iqbal defines it: “ Everything—from the magazine I’m reading to the guy next to me munching on a shwarma—inspires me. Pop is noticing what happens around you and distilling what you see and then presenting it as simply as possible. I want my designs to be useful to everyone.” What could be more utilitarian than a chair? Nearly every human being sits down on some form of a chair and works, eats, or learns for much of the day.

Maria Iqbal adding her own pop to Afghan tradition

Maria Iqbal adding her own pop to Afghan tradition (Afghan Scene, 2013).

Good Idea: Meet Maria and obsess over her designs on her website.

Image Credits: Courtesy of Maria Iqbal