The Genteel
April 22, 2021



Organised by MENA Design Research Centre, Beirut Design Week (BDW) was created to explore local design across the eclectic and vibrant city. Incorporating conferences, exhibitions, lectures and intimate workshops, the events were dedicated to promoting Lebanese designers and bringing to the forefront those who have been playing a vital role in forming the city's contemporary design identity and culture.

Bokja's "We Are Tyre(d)" creative statement.
Photograph by Tala Tayara.

Central to BDW's itinerary was the recently established design initiative, DESMEEM: Rethinking Design Through Cross-Cultural Collaboration; an international, multi-disciplinary social design project. Developed in Beirut, DESMEEM is a research-focused project that facilitates collaborations between European and Lebanese designers and architects to explore design-based solutions to highly relevant social issues in Lebanon. Throughout BDW, DESMEEM hosted numerous discussions, addressing contemporary concerns such as urban living, sustainable consumerism and migrant worker integration in the context of design. 

Respected figures such as Tim Marshall and Jamer Hunt of NYC's Parsons The New School for Design participated in Wednesday's full day conference focused on the future of design education. The discussion explored topics such as the business and environmentally conscious side of design as well as addressing limitations in the design capabilities of a complex city such as Beirut.

Other smaller gatherings allowed us see first-hand, the intricate, artisanal work that Lebanese brands have become admired for. Many of these independent workshops were concentrated in the Saifi Village region, an area of the city that boasts a thriving art and design community and where Beirut's now famous names such as Johnny Farah, Nada Debs, Nadia Khoury and Bokja's Hoda Baroudi and Maria Hibri have set up shop.

Kicking off Saifi Village's contributions was Johnny Farah. After opening his first IF boutique in Beirut making made-to-measure clogs for his clientele, Farah developed a brand that is now adored around the world for its quality leather craftsmanship. Farah has been a vanguard of the emerging Beirut fashion and design scene. Cutting edge brands reside in his various boutiques across the city and his new eponymous destination store, Johnny Farah, is the ultimate name in handmade leather bags and accessories. Hosting a week-long workshop, Farah's team invited us into their highly skilled world of leather making, where anyone intrigued could sign up and attempt the craft of stitching and branding their own bag.  

It did not draw in a large international crowd, but the Beirut scene was abuzz with excitement, expectation and creativity.

Running simultaneously in Farah's boutique was possibly the quirkiest event of the whole week. For "Bag [Talks] with Johnny Farah," boutique visitors were invited to have their photo taken by professional Beiruti photographer, Joe Kesrouani, whilst posing with a Johnny Farah bag over their heads. The concept was to allow participants to become unidentifiable and therefore feel liberated enough to express their true selves without any judgement from onlookers. 

Another celebrated designer who participated in the inaugural showcase was Nada Debs. The talented furniture designer's work is reflective of the eclectic influences she acquired from her Lebanese origin, Japanese upbringing and American training. Debs re-works the aesthetic of traditional Middle Eastern pieces by incorporating minimalistic qualities and contrasting patterns to create a more contemporary design. Inviting us to experience a live demonstration from her craftsmen, the process proved to be a feast for the eyes. Trained artisans carved designs on wood tiles, separated each groove with a hammered, metal outline and inlaid mother of pearl into each section meticulously…and loudly! 

However, the biggest bang is credited to artists Hoda Baroudi and Maria Hibri of Bokja. Although off-schedule of BDW, the pair are an inherent and unmissable part of Beirut's design scene. Starting out with good taste and a good eye, they steadily developed the Bokja brand into a globally respected furniture design house with stockists in New York City, Paris and Tokyo. Their signature style is to use fabrics and tapestries sourced from the Levant and countries along the Silk Road on retro furniture shapes, employing local Lebanese artisans whose craft is vital to the overall feel and identity of the piece.

Promotional piece for Johnny Farah's
[Bag Talks] event.

With the recent slew of tyre burning demonstrations in mind, Bokja decided to make a statement with their own take on the situation. The "We Are Tyre(d)" initiative saw them upholster tyres in their vibrant Bokja fabrics and pile them high in the street, symbolically capturing the mood of the city.

Randa Tabbah also hosted a week-long workshop at her atelier in Saifi Village inviting jewellery enthusiasts to catch a glimpse of the process behind her precious pieces. Tabbah's earthy, raw designs are imbued with the techniques she acquired from her Parisian training. The Beirut-based designer has a loyal following and carries a passion for hands-on craftsmanship and eclectic artistry.

Perhaps, though, the real find of BDW was the gathering at Apractice Architecture Design Studio. Architects Salim Kadi, Mustapha Jundi & graphic media artist Bana Abouricheh have created a contemporary design studio in a pre-war building in Beirut's heritage area, Gemmayze. Conquering projects such as Santiago in downtown Beirut with 360 degree changing rooms in the centre of the space, Joanna Dahdah's jewellery store where the central cabinet is highlighted with a tilted hanging mirror to give the customer an all access view of the designs upon entry as well as residential projects across Lebanon; they are on the cutting edge of architectural design.

One of the favourites in Gemmayze is Sarah's Bag. Whilst working on her thesis on prostitution and female prisoners in Lebanon, Sarah Beydoun decided to give back to the community and offer these women a craft, a purpose and a sense of self-worth. Marrying her sense of style with her social objective, Beydoun's team of artisans create hand stitched, crocheted and beaded fashion forward bags that have become a staple for Beiruti girls and a destination boutique for international visitors. 

During the "Behind the Scenes" BDW workshop, the Sarah's Bag artisans demonstrated the skills necessary to create their sought-after designs. Beydoun has now developed the brand into a lifestyle one, stocking soft furnishings and accessories, always maintaining an inherent and patriotic nod to Lebanon.

Visitors were able to make
their own leather bags at 
the Johnny Farah workshop.
Photograph by Tala Tayara.

Sarah's Bag neighbour Nada Zeineh's rooftop atelier is the perfect setting for her copper-dipped jewellery. A fixture on the Beirut jewellery scene, her pieces are sold in destination stores like Orient 499 and her modern yet whimsical designs are the epitome of BDW, merging economical production with attractive and functional pieces.

A little further down Gemmayze in Mar Mikhael, we finally hit the book launch of Brooklyn-based journalist, Shirine Saad's alternative guide book to the city, BOHO BEIRUT. Published by Turning Point books and launched at Maria Helios, Shirine Saad provides the international reader with an unexpected aesthetic of Beirut and the connoisseur a surprise into the city's secrets.

With a jam-packed schedule, BDW proved to be a successful, innovative, exhaustive and informative initiative. It didn't draw a large international crowd, but the Beirut scene was abuzz with excitement, expectation and creativity, if only to be introduced to the world of design through talks and seminars or to experience the rich culture and workmanship of the city through its most celebrated boutiques, designers and artists.



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