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The gift shop: Historic design goes modern
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BEIRUT: A contemporary ode to the Phoenicians – that is overwhelming theme at the National Museum’s gift shop, where the country’s top designers are displaying unique creations in time for the holidays. Nocturne is an annual fundraising initiative held by the National Museum’s gift shop to secure money for upkeep and the preservation of the country’s archeological history, explained shop manager Nada Souaid. The museum has been hosting the event for around a decade and each year brings in some of the country’s elite designers, who infuse their creations with elements of Lebanon’s artistic and architectural heritage.

“Each year everybody waits for it,” Souaid said. “The museum stays open late so that people can come and visit ... and buy things for Christmas.”

The project is a combined effort among the museum, the Tourism Ministry, the National Heritage Foundation and the participating designers.

This year, designers – which included well-known companies such as Paris-based fashion house Maison Rabih Kayrouz, furniture and product designers Bokja and architecture firm Whitesurwhite – drew inspiration from the museum’s vast collection of Phoenician artifacts, Islamic and Ottoman motifs and architecture, as well as modern-day Beirut.

Kayrouz unveiled his contribution to Nocturne Friday night at a block party in the Beirut Port District. This year, he created gold bangles, a nod to the gold Phoenician artifacts in a modern material: mercury glass.

Other designer jewelry took a literal approach to Phoenician inspiration. Cynthia Raffoul made necklace pendants from the iconic Phoenician figurine. A hairpin by Raffoul, entitled “Le Frise de Sidon” was a gold replica of a typical face found in Phoenician art.

“This head was worn by the Phoenicians to ward off evil and bad eyes,” Raffoul explains in a card by her pieces.

Nada Zeineh displayed necklaces of pounded geometric metal pieces that were not so different from the 3,000-year-old gold antiquities sitting a floor above in the museum.

Ghassan Hatem used the Phoenician figure in a handmade backgammon set by Bespoke Furniture. And Cyrille Najjar, founder of Whitesurwhite, had turned the figure into silver bookmarks.

Najjar’s other contributions were influenced by more recent Lebanese history. Islamic-inspired geometric and arabesque patterns were built into silver bookends, lights and candleholders.

Similar motifs were embroidered and beaded into totes and clutches designed by Sarah Beydoun of Sarah’s Bag. And a whole wall of tea trays and tissue boxes combined plastic bases with wooden lids or bases intricately carved into geometric lattice. A favorite was a cookie holder shaped like a traditional fez.

One of the rarest items on display was a set of hand-carved wooden building blocks and a minimalist dollhouse inspired not by the typical Victorian model but by what looked like a 13th-century khan. Big arched gateways lined its wooden walls and were cut into the sides of the wooden cubes.

Common local motifs like the pomegranate and the sparrow were shaped into clay urns and metal bowls. Nada Rizk’s ceramic sculptures came from her “Mystical Bird” collection. The animal, she said, is a regional symbol of power and freedom.

“In many ancient myths and legends surrounding our region, birds linked the human world to the divine or supernatural realms that lie beyond ordinary experience,” Rizk said in a note about her collection.

In the museum’s tiny gift shop, the dozen or so artisans captured both the heritage of craftsmanship – pottery, metalwork, tiling and textiles – and the evolution of its artistic influences.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 16, 2013, on page 2.
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