Joy Mardini, who has a design gallery in Gemmayzeh, a hip neighbourhood in Beirut, identifies some of the common obstacles: “Lebanon has been known for years for its crafts, but applying these to detailed design pieces has been challenging in terms of production pricing. Another difficulty they face is making a name for themselves as the number of designers on the market is increasing.” Beirut’s Académie Libanaise Des Beaux-Arts (ALBA) recently introduced a product-design course; before that, many Lebanese designers studied abroad. “Previously you could only study product design in the last year of ALBA’s interior design course,” says Lebanese designer Thomas Trad, who studied at Central Saint Martins, then worked for London-based Fredrikson Stallard and Michael Anastassiades before setting up a Beirut studio in 2016. Even so, Beirut is gaining international recognition as a centre of cutting-edge design. Trad showed his M table made of green, black and white marble in an exhibition presented by Danish digital design store Adorno during Beirut Design Week last June. Now in its seventh year, BDW is organised by Beirut-based non-profit organisation MENA Design Research Center.
This year’s show was held at Beit Beirut, a cultural centre also known as the Barakat building. A former apartment block built in the 1920s, it straddled the Green Line separating Christians from Muslims during the civil war of 1975-1990. Beirut’s municipality shows little interest in preserving old buildings, and it took heritage activists, in particular architect Mona El Hallak, to rescue it. Retaining traces of wartime damage, including bullet-pocked walls, its restoration was led by Lebanese architect Youssef Haidar in 2009. “Beirut’s design scene is young but evolving,” says Mardini. “There is also the Beirut Design Fair, which takes place in September, and House of Today’s Design Biennale.” The latter, held this year from December 12 to 28, will showcase work by 22 designers, including David/Nicolas, whose new Supernova collection was recently shown at Carpenters Workshop Gallery in Paris. Founded by Beirut-based entrepreneur Cherine Magrabi Tayeb in 2012, House of Today is a non-profit organisation; in 2015 it launched a scholarship for product design students to study at “a highly rated product design university in Lebanon or abroad”. “Students must deal with high costs, weak networks and lack of professional guidance, making it an unfavourable career choice,” says Magrabi Tayeb of the impetus behind the scholarship. Compounding the hardships faced by designers is Beirut’s deteriorating environment: the municipality is cavalier about its green spaces, which are gradually being stripped away. But academics and creatives are rebelling against this neglect of communal resources. This year BDW invited designers, activists, writers and students to consider how design could transform city life, which resulted in interventions designed to render the urban environment more pleasant. “This year saw a distinctive growth in participation of local public and private institutions,” says Doreen Toutikian, BDW’s founding director. “The main exhibitions in Beit Beirut welcomed more than 10,000 visitors.”