Interview: London-Based Designer-Artist Yahya On The Marriage Between Art And Design

BY Ayesha Sohail Shehmir Shaikh / Nov 30 2019 / 10:03 AM

Yahya’s ethereal designs challenge perceptions and norms, serving to build bridges between cultures

Interview: London-Based Designer-Artist Yahya On The Marriage Between Art And Design
Courtesy of Yahya Group
Lotus Sculpture designed by Yahya

“I was never meant to be an artist, at least so I thought” says London-born designer-cum-artist, Yahya. At school, he was once thrown out of class because of his lack of ability to draw. “I never had art or design in my trajectory,” he explains. In university he studied philosophy and planned on becoming a writer. 

Yahya

Photography by Marie Rodier

During his travels to the ancient Silk Road in Western China many years ago, Yahya became fascinated with the beauty of design and craftsmanship. “I picked up all sorts of beautiful things from my travels,” he recalls.

“We discovered mountains and I got exposed to many different cultures along the way and that opened my mind up to a lot, which I think instilled a sense of style and art in me.” Observing the different cultures and how they were intertwined, Yahya became inspired to create and collect design pieces from all over the world, including his father’s birthplace, Morocco.

Tear Drop Floor Lamp from the Creation Range by Yahya

My father comes from Morocco but he had passed away and I never visited the country,” he says. “I didn’t speak Arabic - I knew nothing about Morocco.” Despite this, Yahya decided to venture into the country almost two decades ago. “It was a journey of great discovery. At that point, I decided to explore Morocco and see what it has to offer.”

Liquid Light Cylinders from the Creation Range by Yahya

He immediately fell in love with the place and two weeks later, his wife joined him with their firstborn son. The flight to Marrakesh, however, tested Yahya’s parenting skills which eventually led to the birth of a new passion. “On the plane, my son was crying for hours,” he remembers. “I thought, this is a disaster, it’s my first attempt as a father. He just wouldn’t stop crying.”

When they reached the hotel, after tireless attempts to sooth their son, there was silence at last. “I thought he had fallen asleep but when I checked, I realised he was very much awake. He was looking up at the ceiling and staring at all these lanterns,” he says. “And I looked at [the lights] and thought wow, how does all that come from one light bulb? From one light bulb, you have all this projected shadow, this story that’s being told from the ceiling from one source of light.” It was at that moment Yahya discovered his love for light. “My child brought my attention to the beauty of light and had me spellbound. I was fascinated by this effect of how everything emanates from a single point. Intellectually, I became very curious.”

An interior view of the Royal Mansour  in Marrakesh featuring bespoke lighting pieces designed by Yahya

Shortly after, Yahya began importing traditional handicrafts including lanterns from the souk in Morocco, back home to London.  “We made Moroccan style very fashionable in London at the time,” he says.

“But after a while, Moroccan style was no longer fashionable – it had been seen, done, exposed.” And so Yahya settled in Marrakesh with his wife and with a team of just ten artisans, started a business of repackaging items bought from the souk and selling them. When that no longer brought in business, Yahya did what he never believed he could do – he drew.

A view of Villa TreVille featuring lighting by Yahya

Photography by Dan Kullberg

As he expected, his team laughed and questioned his artistic skills. “I drew a little nightlight that came to my head,” he recalls. “[A team member] started making it and I was fascinated with seeing this process of an idea in my head coming to life through his hands. My hand can’t really draw what’s in my head.” As the piece was being made, Yahya began directing the craftsman.

“We made this piece and they all thought it was stupid - they were laughing at me saying ‘that’s not Moroccan style, it will never work, it’s not nice and it won’t sell’.” But they were wrong. The pieces sold in an instant and when they came to the attention of Neiman Marcus, Yahya received his first order of 1,200 pieces.

An interior view of Yahya’s gallery in Marrakesh

From there onwards, Yahya’s artistic journey flourished rapidly. He established an unnamed shop in Marrakesh and sold pieces he designed himself and six weeks later, every item had been sold through word of mouth alone. “Light became the central focus of my work in terms of decorative accessories. When we applied jewellery work and intelligent lighting solutions, it suddenly made patterns very magical and people loved them because they couldn’t work out where the light was coming from or how the patterns were being projected,” he says.

“Light sparks mystery. It made people question and wonder about what they were seeing. It was at that point I realised that what I really loved to do is to challenge people’s perceptions and that’s when the work started changing towards art as opposed to design.” His lighting pieces are known to be original, eclectic and unconventional. “I am not bound by a particular style, I mix and match and do all sorts of things that come into my head.”

A highlight work of Yahya’s is an unnamed metal piece resembling a dragon, made in 2018. “People say it looks like metal has been spun and they just don’t understand how,” says Yahya. “They were astounded by this piece.” Also of note is a 5mm, handmade sculptural piece in bronze displayed in Mayajah restaurant in Monaco. “No one has been able to come up with a name for it,” says Yahya, of the installation. “It’s an architectural sculpture, that’s the closest way of putting it.” In the summer of 2017, the designer began the refurbishment of Villa TreVille, the former residence of renowned Italian director Franco Zeffirelli and now one of Italy’s most admired boutique hotels.

Dragon sculpture by Yahya

Inspired by nature, beauty and unity, Yahya began crafting pieces which reflected the commonalities between people. “I don’t get involved in politics, I don’t get involved in religion - I avoid anything that divides us,” he shares.

“I look for ways of breaking down those barriers and [search for] common points that bring us together. I think this is important. I work off the unseen, the divine. I get inspiration from nature, the cosmos - because as Leonardo Da Vinci once said, you need no further inspiration than that which you find in nature.” Today, his work involves lighting, decorative accessories, furniture, architectural elements and most recently art and sculpture work too. The bespoke projects see him travel internationally for various private clients.

Reclining Lady Sculpture by Yahya

“All we’re trying to do with our human hands and minds is to bring people together, break down barriers and talk about human condition – this inspires us and makes us think,” he says. “That’s what I try to do with my work. I believe that we should be free to inspire from other cultures.”

Yahya’s bespoke designs reflect the mystery of life and evoke philosophical topics surrounding where we have all come from - what our source of light is. “We’ve all come from the same place and we’re all going to the same place, wherever that is, we’re all on the same journey. I think art could push us out of that constant state of war we all seem to be in and we will find peace as people amongst ourselves - it will all be through art. This will bring people together.” Reflecting on how far he has come, he adds, “Because if I got thrown out of class for drawing, anyone can do it.”

Layers No.10 from ‘Invisible Light’ exhibition, Paris, 2013

yahya-group.com


From the Winter 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar Interiors

Images: Courtesy of Yahya Group