Newcomers step into Lebanon’s design scene

BEIRUT: New designers came out in fighting form to shove a foot in the door of Lebanon’s thriving design community, despite a tense security climate coinciding with the start of Beirut Design Week. A handful of designers – from chunky-jewelry makers to textile creators – kicked off their careers and this week’s events at the Atelier NS gallery in Mar Mikhael. The events wrap up Saturday with a design conference at the Lebanese American University, which will cover issues related to design in the country and the greater Middle East.

Whether out of necessity or optimism, presenters at the Newcomers Exhibition were remarkably upbeat about what Beirut and the country have to offer.

“I love this city, so my collection is based on this relationship with the city,” said Celine Khairallah, the graphic and product designer behind Scene Beirut.

An ode to Beirut inspired one of the two collections Khairallah hung on the walls of her exhibition space. Her Beirut Manifesto, which underpinned the collection of T-shirts, bags and pouches, highlighted the capital’s diversity as its strength.

“My vision is big, so I hope the situation will permit having exhibitions,” she said, hopeful that city’s design scene would continue to flourish.

More often than not, however, Lebanon’s designers seek regional or international clientele, as they must reach outside of the country’s small market to make business profitable.

Khairallah already has poufs from her Oriental pop art collection showing in Dubai’s Galleries Lafayette, she said.

Organizers picked 10 Lebanese and two British designers to show at the exhibition, which was a refreshing mix of fields including home accessories, textiles, graphic arts, fashion and hand-painted ceramics.

One such multiplatform designer was Jo Baaklini, newly returned to Lebanon after studying at Central Saint Martins in London. Baaklini presented painted ceramic pendants, illustrations in gouache and, the main attraction, textiles featuring his illustration designs.

Baaklini said his return to Beirut was mainly a decision of financial practicality. Materials and services for the design community are less expensive here, so is life in general, he said.

“London is a money sucker,” he said. “Plus, I really wanted to come back.”

Baaklini’s style of illustration uses simple forms to create human characters or objects like watermelons, flowers or crosses. His style of bright colors and thick brush strokes brings one back to the illustrations found in children’s books.

“They are quite playful,” he said.

His themes were simple, but not simplistic. Among the samples of banana and watermelon prints hung a nod to Lebanese patriotism and history. Red rockets with a cedar at their center decorated a scrap of fabric as a reference to the “Lebanese Rocket Society,” a 2012 film about the Lebanese experts dabbling in space exploration in the 1960s.

For his next move, Baaklini hopes to print his summer patterns on cotton T-shirts – thanks to advice from fellow designers in the local industry, he said.

The exhibit also featured work by forward-looking creators, such as Laura Martinez and Charlotte Nazarian.

Martinez, one of the two British designers at the exhibit, displayed work from her Digicrafted fabric and textile design line. She fuses the growing trend of 3-D printing – which creates customized small-scale plastic objects – with traditional textile methods, like beading and feather embellishment.

The results of combining traditional crafts and rapid-manufacture plastic bits were things like hexagon honeycomb patterns, trim featuring small plastic ringlets and plastic pieces that at first glance looked like bone fragments.

Nazarian displayed a set of shelves made from a basic metal cube unit that could be recombined and restacked to make many of different configurations, heights and widths.

Nadine Khatoun was among the exhibition’s more traditional creators as a ready-to-wear fashion designer who has recently graduated from Esmond Beirut.

Khatoun had on display six pieces from her spring/summer 2014 collection called “Nafas,” which refers in Arabic to a long, deep breath. In keeping with her theme, the pieces are silk based and rely in part on drapery, she said.

“The concept was a bit philosophical, it’s an escape from the ordinary world, and so the dresses are very fluid,” she said.

The colors made up a cooler palette for summer with two greens, gray, blue and black, she said.

“Black is always part of my collection. I don’t make black an unhappy color,” she said.

Among her creations getting the most attention at this week’s exhibit are a silk, emerald maxi-skirt with slits on both sides and a flattering waist detail. She created two pairs of destroyed leather ankle boots to go with the collection that are also attracting unexpected attention, she said.

“I’m not a shoe designer, but it seems people really like them,” Khatoun said.

For the future of her design work, Khatoun, like many of her young peers, is interested in accessible ready-to-wear, pret-a-porter clothing rather than the made-to-order gowns for which Lebanon’s local designers are perhaps best known.

In addition to the early launch of Nafas, Khatoun wants to make a mini-collection for the same season of simpler cut daywear.

“I’m not a person who is into couture,” she said. “I would appreciate the field of couture, but I think a dress can be special, even if it’s ready to wear.”

The Newcomers Exhibition will have its last day Friday evening.

For more information about Beirut Design Week, visit

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 28, 2013, on page 2.




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