Mideast meets Far East in Downtown Beirut

BEIRUT: On a quiet street in the middle of bustling Downtown Beirut, a splash of bright colors and minimalist designs catches the attention of passersby.

The furniture designed by Nada Debs is neither Arab nor foreign. The designs are from a combination of inspirations from her upbringing in a close-knit family of Syrian textile merchants living in Japan. Arab mosaic designs, known for their extravagant details, are given a sleek, minimalist look, a clear influence of her time in the Far East.

“In Japan I was surrounded by beauty,” she recalls. “There’s a kind of organizational aesthetic – even in the way people eat and in their handwriting. There’s lots of attention to detail. It’s subtle and innate, you don’t even question it.”

It was in this atmosphere that she grew up in the southern Japanese city of Kobe, part of the third generation of a family of Arab merchants that migrated from Damascus. Debs’ great uncle left the Syrian capital in 1917 in search of business opportunities. The family eventually came to thrive in the textile and grocery industries.

There, in one of the world’s greatest economies, she says she learned the importance of hard work, respect for time and a love of craftwork.

Now back in Beirut, she says, “I’m struggling because people don’t have industrial mentality. It’s the Lebanese nature to be entrepreneurs. They don’t like to work behind the scenes. All my workers are Syrians.”

Indeed, from her small studio in Downtown she is trying to instill those same values in those around her, as she endeavors to take her business to the next level with more exports.

She admits that in Lebanon, the country of her birth, she often still doesn’t feel at home amid the chaotic traffic and often lax work environment.

“I’ve been working since age 18. I worked in everything, it didn’t matter what it was. If had the chance to do anything I did it,” says Debs, whose early jobs included teaching English in Japan.

“I started at the bottom and I worked my way up. When you have experience, people respect it. I know about sales and production because I did it. When you reach a management level and you tell someone to do something, you know what you’re talking about.”

In fact, Debs’ role as an entrepreneur and manager came about somewhat by chance. In 1991, after studying at the American University of Beirut and completing her master’s degree in interior architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, she moved to London, a city she chose for its vibrant Arab community.

There, she said it was difficult to find work at a design firm. When she became pregnant with her first child and was unable to find good children’s furniture, she began designing and making her own pieces from her home. Word quickly spread, and soon she was getting requests from people who wanted custom-made furniture – including Queen Rania of Jordan.

In 2000, she and her family moved to Beirut, where she continued designing children’s furniture – this time from her home in Verdun. But she also wanted to make furniture for adults.

In 2004, she got the chance to prove herself when she opened a studio in Downtown’s newly built Saifi Village. There, she says people would walk in to buy her pieces – only they weren’t for sale. Then, she opened a boutique on the same street, where again news of her interesting designs quickly spread.

Today, with the help of Endeavor, a global NGO that helps accelerate the growth of high-impact businesses, Debs is looking to expand her exports, which already account for 65 percent of her sales.

“This region has a very long tradition of handicrafts, and it’s something that’s to our competitive advantage,” says Tarek Sadi, managing director of Endeavor in Lebanon.

“There are some great industries flourishing in Lebanon, such as technology and services. But other industries can help us diversify our economy. We need to encourage people to come and work in these sectors.”

At her Saifi studio, Debs works on her latest collection – chairs and tables inspired from the 1950s and couches with brightly colored cushions made with fabric from the 1970s. She has heard that in Damascus people ask designers to “do Nada Debs,” a bittersweet attribute of her success that forces her to continually change directions and reinvent herself.

Sadi says, “In a region where we’re used to having our senses attacked, hers just slices through.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 29, 2012, on page 3.




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