Innovation a success for Beirut artisans

BEIRUT: In a dark factory tucked beneath the highway in Burj Hammoud, a handful of craftsmen work with ancient tools in a cloud of sawdust. The skills they employ have been passed down for centuries, to craft the backgammon boards that this family has made for generations. Upstairs, meanwhile, a state-of-the-art laser cutter carves intricate patterns into thin sheets of walnut, achieving a level of precision hitherto unattainable by craftsmen. Joseph Tohme & Sons is now run by its founder’s son, Elie. Although Elie’s grandfather was also in the woodworking trade, it was Elie’s father, Joseph, who set up the current business, which was moved to its present site following the end of the Civil War.

Elie Tohme loves working with wood, and fondly recalls spending his spare time in the factory growing up. “When I was 15, 16 years old, I used to come into my father’s factory to watch how he did the handmade [work]. I loved to learn in my summer vacations and after school. I love wood and I loved what he was doing,” Tohme told The Daily Star.

A year and a half ago, Joseph passed away. Elie chose to give up his other ambitions to follow his father into the trade and keep the family business running. “My hobby was music and I learned to be a DJ ... It’s completely different being a DJ [to] working in handmade wood.”

When he took over his father’s business, Tohme also inherited a profound respect for traditional woodworking methods. Many of the factory’s current craftsmen had also worked under his father, using the same machines and materials. The walnut wood they use is imported. Tohme has an aversion to harvesting trees unnecessarily, so when possible he buys spare Lebanese olive wood – of which he is particularly fond – from building sites. “The olive wood is so beautiful,” Tohme said, passion in his voice.

Despite this respect for tradition, Tohme feels liberated in his new directorial role, and believes his youth has helped to energize the business. Speaking of his father, he said, “When he was my age, he created a lot, he didn’t stop creating. ... He was working day and night.” But his father lost some of this creative spark as he aged. As time went on, he became more conservative in his approach to the business and more skeptical of new ideas. “When it is an old mentality that takes the decision, it’s a little bit difficult to get him to believe in your [dream] for the future,” Tohme said.

Since taking over, Tohme has led the business in new directions, using modern technologies to reach new markets. The laser cutter etching complicated patterns into walnut wood is computer-programmed, making it easier to personalize backgammon boards. Once a pattern is cut, the spaces are inlaid with the factory’s hand-made marquetry. Tohme’s vision for the factory fuses new ideas with knowledge and skill acquired over generations. “I would like to preserve ... what [my father] did with handmade [techniques], and mix it with developments.”

This embrace of new technology is not limited to woodworking tools. Tohme has taken the business online: “Now we are on Google, we are on social media,” he said. This new commercial platform has enabled his products to reach new markets, and he has found that his boards are popular among customers in the region looking for a traditional product with modern flair. Many of these customers are in the Gulf, where, Tohme said, “Most of the people ask me to customize.”

Customization is, however, labor-intensive. The production time of each board is one week to ten days; the factory produces roughly 100 pieces per month. Although the majority of boards are sold within Lebanon, the popularity of customized boards affects Tohme’s ability to supply local markets. “We have a lot of artisans in Lebanon. They ask me to put my items on their stalls but I don’t have enough power.”

Tohme knows that he could increase his output using even more new technology, outsourcing more of the artisans’ work. But he is also aware that what makes each board special is the skill of his craftsmen. “Without the handmade, [the board] will be very normal,” he said. “It will not be a piece of art.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 16, 2017, on page 3.




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