BEIRUT: A glance at the agenda for the Christmas sales this month at galleries, gift shops and private ateliers spread across the Beirut area is enough to overwhelm and send one sprinting for the malls. In the knick of time, the annual Afkart exhibit has returned to remedy those last-minute shopping jitters by bringing together all the disparate designers, artisans and non-governmental organizations in one massive souk at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure center on Beirut Waterfront.
Over the last few years, Afkart has become the most-awaited pre-Christmas trunk show, and is undeniably the best place to pick up last-minute stocking stuffers with some real character: from hand-painted traditional tea sets and ceramics of every variety to soaps, costume jewelry, candles and sweets.
It is especially useful for local creators hoping to get exposure or test the market with new pieces.
Take, for example, locally manufactured toys by The Bakery in Mar Mikhael. The Bakery is an old mankousheh shop that’s been turned into an office for Rapid Manufactory, a relatively new operation that offers the country’s first 3-D printing services. In order to supplement the service side of the business, Rapid Manufactory’s owners have decided to open a small gallery called Freshly Baked Today with objects they and others create.
Afkart offered a testing ground for the new retail endeavor, which will open in mid-January, said shop owner Guillaume Credoz, a French architect who opened Rapid Manufactory with his wife Zeina al-Rifai.
The shop’s new line of construction toys, called QalamSila, challenges children to reassemble an object – say an airplane – from a bag of wooden pencil sticks and plastic, 3-D printed hinges and joints.
The end result is a basic wooden structure that, while based on a very new technology, embodies a nostalgia for the simple wooden toys of another generation.
In addition to the airplane ($75), Freshly Baked Today has a model bulldozer ($95) and a two-item set of a bicycle and pantograph ($35). And after the child has mastered one given shape, there’s nothing stopping him or her from attempting their own objects by refiguring the pencils and joints.
Another company testing out its market at Afkart was Young Wilderness. The online clothing retailer launched its website last month and this week’s exhibition is the first time shoppers can see and touch the line of colorful crop tops, leggings and bodysuits in person.
A loiter by the stand for 20 minutes revealed a steady stream of traffic from young women. The creators, Hiba Kadri and Yasmine Kara, debuted a few new prints at the exhibit, such as a whimsical hamburger print, a design of Arabic letters in purple or yellow and a leopard pattern that’s been particularly popular.
If shopping for a young women or teen with playful taste, a pair of graphic leggings ($59) are the perfect last-minute gift to help her brighten up oversized winter sweaters.
A shop selling customized decorative lighting, Purple People, also debuted at Afkart this year. The stand is lined with hollow balls of string in dozens of colors that blur the line between bauble and holiday lights.
They would make great mood lighting for a balcony or child’s room. You can customize which colors you’d like in strings of 20 ($32), 35 ($42) and 50 ($52) electrically lit balls.
For anyone interested in alternative gift ideas with an environmental or social bent, Afkart also has a number of fairly new galleries.
Plan BEY, whose shop is located along Mar Mikhael, commissions local artists and designers to produce things in small quantities that are then sold in the gallery-bookshop’s teeny showroom. Its Afkart stand offers shoppers a range of quirky eco-friendly items, such as brown and green glassware from the Green Glass Recycling Initiative Lebanon.
Made For started when founder Leslie Mourad was trying to put together decorations for a Christmas family gathering. Disappointed by the mass-produced decorations, she decided to use her background in art to make her own.
The result is a range of products, including leather goods, quirky lighting options, crocheted bags and, of course, Christmas tree ornaments.
Made For has taken plain glass baubles ($10) and filled them with sweet sentiments written in wooden letters and Christmas scenes such as frosty pines. For tech lovers, Made For is also selling multicolored leather iPad covers ($110), laptop cases ($180) and wallets.
Coco & Co. is selling plain star-shaped sugar cookies in chocolate and vanilla, perfect for a Christmas decorating session if time for baking at home is scarce.
Shoppers can even assemble personalized gift baskets in a corner housing artisan goods by members of the Syndicate of Lebanese Craftsmen.
Olive-oil soaps (LL10,000 for a gift set) by Al-Sharkass, based in Tripoli, sit across from traditional clay pottery by Jihad Esber. Pick up a handwoven basket to pack all the gifts into.
Afkart is located at Beirut Waterfront in the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure center. It’s open from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. every day until Monday.