The causes of the sprouting are nebulous, but have been encouraged by a flurry of institutional inaugurations in the early part of this decade, which provided nuclei for the country’s scene. First, in 2011, came the MENA Design Research Center, aimed at developing design sectors in the broader Middle East and North African region. In 2012, MENA launched Beirut Design Week, providing an annual gathering place for Lebanese practitioners and a platform for connection with other designer cultures. The same year saw the businesswoman Cherine Magrabi Tayeb found House of Today, a non-profit aimed at fostering young talent, as well as the addition of a design faculty to the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts (ALBA), helmed by designer Marc Baroud.
Baroud and Tayeb were among the seven-strong jury for Rising Talent Lebanon, whose selections encompass a heterogeneous range of approaches to design. Studio Caramel, a collaboration between Karl Chucri and Rami Boushdid, produce furniture that draws on the stylings the 1950s: a period in which Beirut was a significant nexus of intercontinental commerce, and dubbed the “Paris of the East” for its prosperity and cultural clout. Designer Carla Baz, meanwhile, looks further back towards traditional crafts, including woodwork and cane weaving; her most recent pieces have involved teasing out decorative applications of marble. Marc Dibeh, who has completed interior projects internationally, demonstrates a playful relationship with narrative, while the half-Finnish Anatasia Nysten designs objects that fuse influences from her multiethnic, globe-straddling childhood.
For Paola Sakr, one of the selected designers, being a designer comes with a huge responsibility. For Sakr – a Lebanese practitioner based in the country’s capital Beirut – obligation animates her practice. “All designs that we praise for making our lives easier,” she says, “are the fruits of a good design thinking process. On the other hand, many of the man-made problems of our planet result from what I call a ‘design bug’. When design has caused social or environmental neglect, we shouldn’t take it lightly.”
Carlo Massoud, also one of this year's selected designers and who studied at ECAL and worked at the office of the architect Nasser Nakib in New York before returning to Beirut, echoes Sakr’s belief that design comes with obligations. “A designer,” he says “should be responsible for any product they are designing and producing. They need to understand a product’s social and economic impact.” This is embodied in a portfolio that fuses functionality with cultural commentary. His Arab Dolls series (2014) – which was chosen in 2015 by curator Maria Cristina Didero to feature in New York’s The Armory Show – comprises lacquered wooden figurines resembling both artillery shells and abstracted forms of chador-wearing Muslim women. Massoud aimed to capture the beauty and individuality of his subjects, while also referencing ongoing European tensions over the veil.
The experience of living in Beirut reverberates through much of Massoud’s oeuvre. His 2013 series, Beirut 8, consisted of rusted steel sculptures in the form of excavators, which call attention to the 300 such vehicles then in operation across the city, many of which were engaged in tearing down historical architecture for new development. “Despite the difficulties that we live with on a daily basis,” Massoud says, “Beirut is rich in its diversity and contradiction. It allows me to perceive things differently. And the design scene is vibrant and rich.” For his presentation at Maison & Objet, Massoud will present three projects: a set of candle holders, a chair created in collaboration with a group of blind people, and a set of 19 Carrara marble table sculptures that each incorporate references to different architects.
The city also represents a potent creative stimulus for Sakr. “Beirut,” she says, “feeds the chaos within me. Its energy constantly inspires me to create.” After graduating from ALBA in 2016, Sakr immediately set up her own practice. In Paris she will exhibit a series of ceramics, influenced by forms taken from architecture; it will be the first time she has used the material. “Three months ago,” she recounts, “I started taking pottery classes and quickly fell in love with its versatility, treatment and utter unpredictability.” Sakr’s willingness to constantly expand her horizons has already become a hallmark of her output. “I am bored with conventional materials,” she explains. I find it much more interesting to create your own, or look where no one has before.”
Sakr’s Morning Ritual (2016) collection of pots, trays and containers are formed from a biodegradable mixture of discarded newspapers and coffee grounds collected from coffee shops. Impermanence (2017), a set of seven vases made from scrap material, began when Sakr picked up concrete cylinders from Beirut’s building sites: an endemic feature of a city that has been subjected to alternating periods of construction and destruction, prosperity and stagnation. Gathered together, they represent a testament to Beirut’s ability to constantly remake itself, as well as Sakr’s ability to wed design aesthetics to thematic heft.
Much of Sakr and Massoud’s work to date has been created in limited series, a symptom of Lebanon’s tumultuous recent history, developing economy and relative lack of infrastructure for industrial production. “The design scene is blooming here,” says Sakr, “and there are a lot of things to be created still. I find it interesting that the Lebanese market has shaped the way we design things: mostly small editions or gallery pieces in opposition to mass-produced objects.” In introducing Lebanese designers to its global market, Maison & Objet’s Rising Talent Award may help precipitate a change.