REPORT

Beirut Design Week 2014

Beirut

23 June 2014

For its third edition Beirut’s design week extended its international reach and began to reflect the hybrid realities of the Lebanese capital. Luxury product exhibits and exclusive dinner events took place, as well as collaborative workshops, panel discussions and craftsmanship demonstrations. The result was an energetic program that stepped up to Beirut’s reputation as the Middle East’s centre of creative economy and cultural production.

Since launching in 2012, Beirut Design Week (BDW) has grown in ambition and size. This year’s edition included 90 designers in 87 different locations throughout the city, including studios, galleries, shops, courtyards, warehouses, rooftops, lecture theatres and a movie theatre.

This edition felt markedly more professional than last year’s. Better organised and with more guests from abroad, it offered a strong, coherent programme, with each day focused on a different part of town. Shifting from the slick malls of Beirut Souks and the rebuilt pink townhouses of Saifi Village, through the palatial villas of Sursock and Gemmayze, the post-industrial galleries of Karantina and Mar Mikhael, the universities of Hamra, and the workshops of Bourj Hammoud, it was a curatorial decision that made navigating the plethora of events that comprise the festival practical, while also serving to describe the different shapes that the Beirut design scene now takes.

BDW is unusual in the way that it mixes the sorts of luxury product exhibits found at a design fair with community-focused, hands-on experiences and discussions around critical design that are more typical of festivals and conferences. It is a combination that reflects both the spirit and the structure of the city, in which polished glamour often rubs shoulders with the numerous rough and ready aspects of a dysfunctional metropolis. This eclectic approach, that welcomes a whole range of standards as well as styles, makes for a wildly varied programme.

Ghassan Salameh’s Magma Lighting Fixtures

This year’s headline speakers were the Beirut-born British artist Mona Hatoum, V&A curator Rowan Bain, fashion journalist Hilary Alexander, and designer at Philips Healthcare Rik Runge. Each gave a talk that sought to be relevant to Beirut, with Hatoum focusing on materials and making, Bain discussing how international museums collect and commission from Middle Eastern designers, and Alexander celebrating the exoticisms of dress around the world. Alexander was invited as part of this year’s emphasis on fashion, curated with the Lebanese American University to mark the launch of its new fashion design program.

Such inclusivity stems from the spirit in which co-founders Doreen Toutikian and Maya Karounouh launched the festival. While Karounouh is behind the agency TAGbrands that backs BDW as a corporate social responsibility venture, it is Toutikian who curates the programme, in parallel to her role as Director of the Middle East and North Africa Design Research Centre. A native Beiruti, Toutikian was educated in Glasgow and Cologne and her story is typical of the city’s cultural innovators. She combines her knowledge of her hometown and its idiosyncrasies with a critical overview enabled by an overseas education, allowing her to place the components of Beirut’s design scene within a regional frame and global context.

Nadah Debs' #craftcool demonstration

Toutikian describes one role of BDW as being to support design education in Lebanon as it evolves – a process that she says is currently about developing a vernacular design language – and this was clear from the projects on display. Marc Baroud, head of the design program at ALBA (Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts), and Nada Debs, arguably Beirut’s best-known furniture designer, are two of the city’s leading voices in design and both agree that a key aim of the development of design in Lebanon is to strengthen links between contemporary practice and the country's craft heritage. Debs’ BDW installation, called #craftcool, brought three artisans to her shop for an evening demonstration of their inlay techniques.

“In the Middle East we don’t have a history of naming our craftsmen – it’s a very discreet tradition in which the craft speaks for itself,” she said. "I wanted to invert this for one evening, putting them in the spotlight so that the consumer can see the immense skill and effort behind every piece”. Baroud, meanwhile, dreams of facilitating a local production network that supports both established craftspeople and emerging designers, which also interacts with today’s digitised design methods and distribution channels.

Debs'project aimed to lend a voice to Lebanon's otherwise nameless artisans

This theme was prevalent elsewhere in the festival. Designer Ghassan Salameh’s Magma Lighting Fixtures series represents something like this continuation of tradition through a contemporary lens. The series resulted from experiments in fusing metal and glass to abstract the geometric patterns of traditional Islamic decorative arts.

Carwan Gallery, fast-becoming Beirut’s leading voice in collectible design following a series of installations at fairs overseas, exhibited a handful of high octane light pieces by international names Michael Anastassiades and Vincenzo De Cotiis. The gallery also showed De Cotiis’ furniture and an installation of black and white wooden dolls, called Maya, Zeina, Racha and Yara, representing veiled Arabian women, by Carlo Massoud, who was also commissioned to create a food installation at Centrale restaurant for the week.

Work from Marc Dibeh's exhibition at Art Factum gallery

Of the other gallery exhibitions, Marc Dibeh’s solo presentation, the laboriously titled, "[...] Tonight I'll be crashing your place empy-handed [...] and will be leaving with what you'd least expect." - A Narrative Selection of Stolen Products, at Art Factum gallery, stood out not only for its execution but also its conceptual coherence and narrative approach. For the project, Dibeh visited 14 people for dinner, waiting until the following morning before writing a short text about the experience. From each text he developed a design-art piece, ranging from a shining wood and brass shovel, to a cutwork cake-stand series, to a divan and footstool upholstered in deep turquoise velvet. His focus was on storytelling he explains: “My products are about telling stories and helping people write their own stories in everyday life.”

Dibeh says he worked on the project non-stop for two months, rushing to finish in time for the festival. This feels characteristic of BDW, where many things seem to have been produced by designers at the last minute. Although this can be inhibiting for advanced promotion of the event, it also contributes to the general feeling of the BDW being a live and contemporary event. That said, a number of Lebanese studios with an international presence continue to prioritise the bigger overseas fairs and typically show installations that have already been exhibited in Europe, Dubai or the US. Bokja, for example, re-created its interactive piece The Tree of Life, which was first shown at Salone del Mobile in Milan earlier this year; the textile work invited visitors to write what makes them happy on white strips before pinning them to a collaborative wall hanging.

Bokha's Tree of Life wall hanging

Toutikian’s says that her ongoing aim with the festival is to raise awareness around different design practices and build up the city’s international dialogue to show how design thinking can be used to improve communication and functionality in the haphazard urban environment of Beirut. Talks this year took instructive subjects such as Designing Your City of Tomorrow with Anna Asikainen, Nina Martin and Francisco Blockstrand. T+HUIS and T+LOCAL gave a workshop on design for social impact, while Agile Lebanon and Mirada Madrid gave one about Designing at Multi Capacity.

What is most telling about the festival is its sheer variety. Alongside the events already discussed there was a weekend market held at arts venue Station, where small designers exhibited beneath a ceiling hung with terrariums by local landscape architects Green Studios; a 3D print shop Rapid Manufactory exhibited a line of spectacles and sunglasses printed in ultra-light concrete; and a fabrication workshop given by Cyrille Najjar’s White sur White studio that examined customisable modularity and zero-waste production lines in furniture design – themes that are rare in this region.