Standing at the crossroads between East and West, Lebanon has long been recognised as a cosmopolitan haven. When designer Nada Debs arrived back in her home country in 1999, however, there was a feeling that, as least as far as design was concerned, West was considered decidedly best.
‘At the time people wanted European designs. I wanted them to be proud of their heritage, to show that it can be beautiful in a modern context. I wanted to show Lebanon that we can have Lebanese design and manufacturing,’ recalls Debs. Her ambition was realised with her locally produced items, many of which have become modern classics. The East & East collection features stylised versions of traditional pieces, such as the Arabian Nights mirror, which combines resin and Plexiglas with mother of pearl. In the more contemporary East & West collection, items such as the Pebble series of furniture take their inspiration from local surroundings, in this case the pebbles on the beach at Batroun, north of Beirut. Debs’s success has led to the opening of two outlets, which face each other in Saifi Village; the Gallery for furniture and the Boutique for accessories. The latter, explains Debs, was created to make her designs more accessible while offering smaller items that visitors can take home easily.
According to Debs, the local design scene has come a long way since she set out to change the status quo. Saifi Village, a pedestrianised area on the edge of the Beirut Central District, is proof of this, having become a hub for much of Lebanon’s booming local design scene. It is here that Bokja, founded by Hoda Baroudi and Maria Hibri, opened its doors, long after it had developed a cult following among many Hollywood celebrities far beyond Lebanon’s shores. Bokja’s brightly hued furniture, produced in partnership with local artisans, reflects the Beirut-based duo’s love for vintage furniture and ancient textiles from the Levant and countries along the Silk Road. For Bokja, the essential attributes of colour and craftsmanship are ‘a celebration of life and its unending possibilities’.
Situated across town, Orient 499 has become a byword for modern chic with regional roots. The brainchild of Frank Edouard Luca and Aida Kawas, the store opened on Omar Daouk Street in August 2006 and houses a frequently updated collection of furniture, homeware, clothes, jewellery and bath items. The vast majority is designed by Luca and Kawas, although the boutique also sells jewellery by Nada Zeini and works by Hubert Fattal and Karen Chekerdjian. ‘We’ve been approached by many designers, but I’m very picky,’ says Luca. ‘The design has to move me.’ Luca, who has never formally learned design, describes his own work as coming ‘from the heart’. All the items are produced by Levantine artisans, employing the needlework skills of Lebanese women, mother of pearl inlay from Syrian ateliers and hand-hammered metal from Tripoli, among others.
A fresh approach to traditions has also taken root in the country’s dining scene. Café Blanc opened its first outlet in Beirut in the ABC Ashrafieh mall in 2005, offering a menu of reinvented Lebanese classic dishes. Local designers were asked to contribute to the project. Several years before fashion designer Milia M gained international recognition, Café Blanc commissioned her to redesign the sherwal (traditional Middle Eastern trousers), which she brought into the 21st century with edgy style details and denim fabric. To reinvent the narguileh (hookah pipe or ‘hubbly bubbly’), Café Blanc called on Joseph el Khoury, founder of Lebanese design company Ex Nihilo, who dreamed up a minimalist silhouette. As well as being able to enjoy such design elements while dining, clients can also purchase their own versions in the café’s boutique, along with a selection of teas and accessories.
Debs cites the accessibility of local craftspeople working in diverse mediums and willing to produce in small quantities as one of the key drivers of the Lebanese design scene. This has also been noted by style maven Tyler Brûlé, editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine, who recently bought an apartment in Beirut. Writing for the Financial Times recently, he observed that focusing on ‘encouraging a culture of craft’ puts Lebanon in a prime position to differentiate itself from its neighbours by offering a unique visitor experience. A browse through the local design scene is all it takes to prove him right.