BEIRUT: A piece of cloth sits on a table in Karen Chekerdjian’s gallery of homewares, hiding in its simplicity the depth of her design philosophy.
At the edge of the cloth, red and blue threads snake across the fabric, power lines supplying two embroidered skyscrapers that tower over a traditional Lebanese home. The childish drawing is full of irony, as it conveys a very mature commentary and was stitched by one of Lebanon’s master needleworkers.
Chekerdjian picks up the cloth and turns it over to reveal that it’s actually an envelope.
Considering the object’s possible uses, she suggests with nonchalance, “You could use it to cover a laptop.”
Chekerdjian, a furniture and product designer, has filled her warehouse gallery in the rough Beirut Port neighborhood with all sorts of objects – poufs, screens, flatware and even children’s toys. At first glance the collections appear simplistic: an over-sized bronze platter, a wooden dining table with a leather tablecloth, a set of clear mouth-blown Arak glasses, each not quite the same as the next.
But that simplicity was hard won.
Chekerdjian works exclusively with local artisans – tailors, glass blowers, metal smiths, carpenters and calligraphers – and pushes them to turn her ideas into reality.
Though she’s often met with skepticism, if not outright refusal, Chekerdjian believes she has given her team of craftsmen new relevance by harnessing their mastery to explore contemporary innovation.
“I really had to fight for each piece that I have here,” she says, looking around her showroom.
Take, for example, the bronze platter. Chekerdjian works with a conventional calligrapher whose usual work consists of arabesque flourishes and Eastern geometrical designs alongside elaborate calligraphy – often excerpts from the Quran.
The calligrapher’s typical designs would fill a plate from one edge to the other, she says. But nothing of his training in ornamentation shows through on this platter. Only the word “Alif,” which is the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, sits at its center. There are no flourishes or patterns – instead the letters appear straight and utilitarian like the letters of typed Arabic fonts.
“I took him out of his path. I gave him a place for his artistic expression, I let him explore,” she says. “And now he will be more inventive than me.”
It took two years to build up this relationship of trust between her and the calligrapher, she says. And even now she is still often met with incredulity from her team of artisans.
Chekerdjian’s pieces are also filled with subtle social and political commentary. She points out a photograph of a table shaped like a child’s paper airplane. The name of the table is Iqar, a reference to the Greek myth of Icarus who made wings to escape imprisonment. Overcome with freedom, he flew too close to the sun, which melted his wings causing him to plunge to his death. The name Iqar is also an anagram for the country Iraq, she says.
Made in 2005, the table reflects the designer’s criticisms of the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.
“At that time I was living in Jordan, and there were always planes flying over,” she says. Chekerdjian asked her metal smith to make it unique by bending the plane’s shape from a single sheet of aluminum.
“When I told him I wanted that, he told me he couldn’t do it. He said he would weld the pieces together,” she says. “I told him I don’t want to weld it, and he kicked me out.” In the end, her persistence won out.
Chekerdjian began her career decades ago in Milan, where she worked for several years.
“When I returned to Lebanon, I was always complaining that I didn’t have the materials I had in Italy,” she says. “But I realized everything can be done here, that I can do what I want with what I have.”
The traditional materials and expert craftsmanship give Chekerdjian’s contemporary design ideas a timeless quality, something which is at the heart of her design philosophy.
Sitting at that wooden table with what looked like a leather tablecloth, Chekerdjian points out that the leather is actually sewn and inlaid into the table. It is an inextricable part of the design.
“I had to push the carpenter to follow my plan.”
Her pushiness has grown from necessity, she says, and she insists that the younger generation of forward-looking designers can find and produce nearly anything they desire here in Lebanon; it just takes perhaps a little more determination.
“I’m very attached to my craftsmen,” she says. “I want them to be happy doing it, experimenting. I want them to know they should never stop doing what they’re doing – that they can survive.”