Phoenix rising: The new face of Lebanese design

A dynamic new generation of Lebanese designers is contributing to a creative boom in this once conflict-torn nation, with the evidence on display at a new design fair in Dubai

Hot on the heels of the region’s flourishing arts scene, activity in the Middle East’s contemporary design arena is turning heads on a global scale. Nowhere is this more evident than in the outpouring of creativity from Lebanon, with brands such as Sarah’s Bag and Nadine Kanso fast becoming household names.

Within central Beirut, Saifi Village (also known as Le Quartier des Arts) is home to furniture and home accessories designers such as Bokja and Nada Debs and features a branch of the popular Artisans du Liban collective. Here, individuals such as graphic designer Rana Salam and product and furniture designer Karen Chekerdjian celebrate the region’s rich cultural heritage, while boutiques such as Orient 499 showcase contemporary twists on traditional design.

Design dynamic

Visitors to the inaugural Design Days Dubai event, which took place earlier in March as an offshoot of contemporary art fair Art Dubai, were able to witness the Lebanese design dynamic for themselves. Here, alongside international design galleries and a dedicated Emirati section, two galleries from Beirut presented their work. Carwan Gallery and SMO Gallery both participated in the fair with the former showing works by Emirati designer Khalid Shafar, alongside new creations by Karen Chekerdjian.

“Lebanon has a solid understanding of craft,” explains Design Days Dubai Fair Director Cyril Zammit. “The Lebanese also have an understanding of the concept of ‘vintage’, due to their strong relationship with Europe. This creates a society that understands classic styles but at the same time wishes to move ahead and leap forward with new creativity.”

This sense of fusion, influenced by the mixture of the diverse communities that exist within Lebanon, plays a key role in Beirut’s creative vibrancy. So too, does the history of conflict. “Through conflict, there comes a sense of questioning,” says Nada Debs, who is a patron of Design Days Dubai, and will head two mentoring sessions for young designers during the fair. “Through questioning comes creativity.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Nadim Karam, who explains that “instability prevents people from getting comfortable; it forces them to question more”.

Legacy of conflict

Creativity there certainly is, in abundance, in part due to the influx of people who have been returning to Beirut in recent years. “You could say war played a role in the youth of Lebanon striving to be the best they could be, express themselves and unleash their passion for creativity,” says Sarah Beydoun, founder of Sarah’s Bag, a company which melds design and social responsibility with a rehabilitation programme for women prisoners who make the brand’s handbags. “The war pushed many out of Lebanon, where studying abroad gave them exposure to different styles and influences.”

Of course, it would be facile to attribute the city’s creativity solely to the legacy of conflict. Award-winning Lebanese photographer and designer Nadine Kanso concurs: “I don’t think all designers from Lebanon are inspired by the conflict or the war. There are designers with visions and a contemporary take on things,” she stresses. “They have taken elements from our history and modified them.” This is particularly evident in Kanso’s own work, the creations of Debs, whose minimalist furniture incorporates traditional Arabic mother-of-pearl inlay, and Chekerdjian, who works closely with local craftsmen to create new twists on traditional metalwork.

For many, succeeding as Lebanese designers has also brought about a two-fold challenge – firstly, to be taken seriously as creators of high-quality goods, and secondly, finding the resources within Lebanon to achieve large-scale design projects. “When Sarah Nahouli and I first started Sarah’s Bag, it was a challenge for us to market ourselves as ‘Proudly made in Lebanon’ as people back then didn’t think very highly of local production. We worked hard to maintain quality and set a standard in craftwork,” recalls Beydoun.

The second issue then, that of design resources, is also changing, and the Lebanese traditional arts and crafts industry is witnessing a revival. “When I returned to Beirut from Milan 11 years ago, people didn’t know what an industrial designer was,” laughs Chekerdjian. “They would ask me if I was an engineer building machines!” The reason for this, despite a rich tradition of woodworking and artisanal crafts, is that Lebanon is only just beginning to see the emergence of dedicated design manufacturing outlets.

Lebanon, despite its many years of war and strife, is indeed witnessing a renaissance, and it is its very resilience that has led to such a deluge of creativity. “Many of the young Lebanese generation of designers are returning to Beirut with strong ideas to experiment with,” says Karam. “Beirut is known for being a phoenix. Every time it burns, it comes back with a new vigour.”