An experimental creative industry, one of the most significant in the Middle East, is emerging from this city of contrasts. From fruit leather to silicon cauliflowers and synergy tables, designers are subverting traditional techniques for innovative outcomes
Beirut, a seaside city fringed by the Mediterranean, was known as the Paris of the East for much of the 20th century. Its harbour was filled with the yachts of the rich who strolled its seaside avenues, enjoyed its enviable cuisine and partied in a city known for stylish people and cosmopolitan mores. Then civil war broke out in 1975 and tore the city to pieces. Beirut became synonymous with bombed out neighbourhoods and more than 100,000 people were killed.
Since the war ended in 1990 there has been a slow return to normality. The city has been rebuilt and in the last 10 years, people have begun to see the Beirut of old re-emerge. Visit today and you’ll find a city of contrasts: bustling chic boulevards with fashionable boutiques, cafes and restaurants sit side-by-side with crowded neighbourhoods and traditional markets. The sea and mountains beckon but a garbage collection crisis leaves the streets filled with rubbish. Some graduates leave for Europe or the US but others stay, building their lives and careers in this bustling, energy filled city. And a creative industry, one of the most significant in the Middle East, has also emerged.
‘We’re seeing an exponential growth in the creative sector, across fashion and product design to graphic design, architecture, lighting and interiors,’ says designer Vroyr Joubanian. ‘There are areas like Mar Mikhael and Karantina, where there are lots of design shops and galleries that host exhibitions. If you wander through there you get a real flavour of the design scene in the city.’
A former Fulbright Scholar who holds two master’s degrees, Joubanian is also co-founder and programme manager at MENA Design Research Center, an organisation that supports young designers and which founded Beirut Design Week in 2012, an event that has tripled in size since its inception, attracting more than 25,000 visitors in 2016.
Showcasing Lebanese and international design it covers architecture, product, lighting, fashion, furniture, technology and graphic design at over 150 events in almost 100 locations around the city. In 2016, participants from Berlin, Helsinki, London and other cities across the world joined local designers in a week dedicated to sustainability and experimentation.
‘The focus on experimental design is something that’s noticeably growing in Beirut,’ says Joubanian. ‘There are a lot of designers here working with new materials, taking their practice beyond traditional wood and metal working. Sustainability is becoming more important, too. People are focusing on eco-friendly materials, they’re considering the social impact of their work and looking to use local production techniques.’
Joubanian points to emerging product designer Muriel Kai, who will show the first fully developed version of her Fruit Leather collection as part of the Beirut Design Week show at Downtown Dubai, by way of example.
Inspired by different cultures and the natural world, Kai is a graduate of the product design program at Lebanon’s Académie Libanaise de Beaux Arts (ALBA). She is committed to sustainability in her work and Fruit Leather is an innovative material made from fruit and vegetable waste combined with starch and baked to create a long lasting, 100 per cent natural, leather-like fabric. Fully biodegradable yet strong, it is flexible, translucent, textural and somehow otherworldly – you want to touch it to find out what it is. Kai uses the material for boxes and for lighting, where its translucent properties shine through.
‘Kai is one of the designers that proves we don’t have to be limited to standard materials, that we can come up with interesting new things to experiment with and use in our work,’ says Joubanian.
Tamara Barrage is another of the young Lebanese designers based in Beirut whose work will be on show at Dubai Design Week. Barrage studied product design at ALBA and then completed a masters at the Design Academy in Eindhoven before returning to Beirut in 2014. Her work is on the border of design and art and focuses on materials and tactility – in Dubai she will show Once upon a Cauliflower, a lighting series made by casting cauliflowers in silicon and epoxy to highlight their unique texture. Another project, Echo, also on show, will see vegetables and fruit cast in concrete to create vases and other vessels.
‘I’ve realised that as a designer I don’t need to do much to create beautiful objects, so many things with interesting textures already exist in nature,’ says Barrage.
She has also collaborated with Joubanian and another designer, Lea Kirdikian to create the Synergy tables, a series of coffee tables inspired by the sensory world of traditional Lebanese medicinal herbs and culinary spices.
‘Beirut is such a rich city and very contradictory and messy but I think that’s what makes it so interesting. The streets, especially, can really inspire you,’ says Barrage. ‘We came up with the idea for Synergy Tables by walking past the traditional spice shops and seeing the bags of spices and herbs and flowers piled high outside the door.’