Design and love. A private tour inside the magical wedding of HH Sheikha Meera bint Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan and HH Sheikh Zayed bin Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
To say an Arab wedding calls for celebration is a substantial understatement. With its commemoration of unity comes the outpouring of emotion – best enjoyed if accompanied by spectacular decor, each detail as exceptional as the next. When delivering a royal wedding, the craftsmanship must be of the highest universal regard and the imagination as visionary as those honored. This particular event was highly anticipated in the wedding season of 2022, occurring May 10, and celebrating the union of Her Highness Sheikha Meera bint Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan and His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Architects, engineers, and artists were selected from around the world to acquiesce to the exceptional demands for creativity and savoir faire, gathering more than 700 professionals working tirelessly over three months. Forming this collective of talent and at the center of it all was Designlab Experience, a creative studio based in Dubai and Riyadh specializing in transformative experiences through bespoke architectural design, led by co-founders and managing partners Hibah Albakree and Mootassem El Baba. “With the overarching ambition to create a transformative experience, we did just that,” El Baba says. “We transformed a black box-like space – like an exhibition hall – into the grand architecture of a palace.”
Albakree is as revered for her counsel in strategic project inception, just as her intuitive gift to reframe initial thoughts into concise opportunities. “From the beginning, we aim to set a tone where we engage guests through a multisensorial, emotive journey. We dream up new environments with distinct personality that evoke emotions and memories, and create new ones to treasure at the same time. The ambition is always to create a new layer of originality,” she explains of the immersive experiences Designlab Experience produces.
For this Emirati royal wedding, each ceremonial cue was revisited, as each detail honored the bride’s personal memories. The evening was divided into three distinct acts, each of which moved the guests seamlessly from one space to the other. Theatrically staged within illuminated and decorated scenography, a topographic world welcomed hundreds of guests with abundant hills of red flowers, carefully curated to reveal elements of nature. The arrival was embellished by the performance of a 28-piece fusion orchestra bringing together classical and Arabic strings, seemingly performing over water, and accompanied by a pianist.
With a passion to mesmerize, Designlab Experience drew from the bride’s intimate souvenirs in an ode to the nostalgic, brought together through volume and light. With her whimsical sense of aesthetics, Albakree refers to this nuance, citing, “The bride always wanted the place to feel like it was cherished for centuries and preserved in time with imposing arches, height, and regal proportions, reflecting a sense of home for her.” Further alluding to this facet is the idea of embodying “a shower of light,” as beams of natural light streamed through perforations of the domed ceiling.
Realizing such ambitions is testament to the skills of managing partner El Baba, whose work is fueled by expressive narratives and exquisitely crafted touch points. As a visionary in transformational design, with previous projects including the Glowing Tide installation in Jeddah and Fireflies of Diriyah, El Baba guides his team from concept to execution. “Guided by the DLE team, the aim of the collaboration was the creation of a new incarnation of an artistic palace, through continuous joint exploration and experimentation, allowing us to elevate each other’s work.”
The collaboration brought together renowned scenographer Stefan Lubrina, who worked with the late Karl Lagerfeld on Chanel’s set designs for the last 30 years, and lighting designer Ignace D’Haese, who has designed for Chanel, Dior, and Hermès. The duo was further extended with Japanese floral artist Makoto Azuma, who conceptualized the floral installations throughout, culminating with botanical sculptures set in ice, flanking the catwalk.
With lead architect Marwan Maalouf and El Baba’s son Jad El Baba as senior architect, each moment was meticulously calculated. As Maalouf reflects, “With a non-linear approach to space and journey planning, guests began their evening in the center of the venue before moving through to the dining hall and eventually the Majlis. Connecting all spaces and setting the stage for the evening’s climax was the catwalk spine, joining up the experiential sequences and creating a seamless flow for the guests throughout the venue.”
From arches with a sand-patina texture reflecting a palace environment, to the Mashrabiya inspired by the pattern on an existing couch – where the bride and groom took a photo as young children – each detail of the Majlis offered a timeless quality. “Such references to the bride’s heritage drove the overall feel of the wedding,” notes El Baba. “When the doors opened to the Majlis, you saw a whole other world, in the sandy tones of the UAE.” With an intricate layering of art, crafted by Recycle Group’s Andrey Blokhin and Georgy Kuznetsov, guests became spectators of a lyrical dialogue. The walls paid homage to the love of the bride’s grandparents. Decorated with mesh horses, falcons, and gazelles, they echoed themes from the poetry of Her Highness’s grandfather, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Founding Father of the UAE.
The event commenced in the early hours of dusk, and lasted until well past midnight, allowing for a gradual exhibition of the sky to peer through the venue. “The guests were made to feel as the spectators and actors alike, switching roles throughout the evening as they were entertained by live performance and culinary delights, until the emotional arrival of the stunning bride,” Albakree recalls. In transcending the expectations of a classic wedding, such details created a sense of multiplicity from a single moment.
Originally published in the June 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia