BEIRUT: Most aspects of Blatt Chaya are influenced by a heavy dose of nostalgia, from the design of the cement floor tiles the company has been making since the late 19th century, to the techniques used to make them. But Blatt Chaya, for the first time in its history, is expanding beyond its tiled staples – offering a new range of homeware products, which launched last week at Caritas Liban Secteur Ashrafieh’s two-day fundraising event held Thursday and Friday.
The new range has humble beginnings. Youmna Zard, who took on the position of managing director at the company last month, had been using Blatt Chaya’s signature tiles for various applications around her home, as drink coasters or platters.
Zard came to realize the potential for a range of homeware products using Blatt Chaya’s traditional manufacturing techniques.
The new range, Zard told The Daily Star, offers “a way of having a piece of Blatt Chaya without necessarily putting it on your walls or on your floors.”
Blatt Chaya continues to be run by Zard’s grandfather Edgard Chaya, who took on the business from his own grandfather.
As she has become increasingly involved in the company, Zard has found that Blatt Chaya’s history and method of working has come to influence her own way of life.
“We kind of fought at the beginning, my grandfather and I,” she said. “I came and I was like, ‘We have to do this, we have to bring more people, why can’t we produce more, and we should do a chain.’”
Her grandfather quickly taught her that the company philosophy was not about maximizing production and profit. “He was like ... ‘That’s not the way we work. There’s one guy who’s going to take care of this tile, and when he’s convinced about it, he’s going to move to another tile,’” she recalled.
Chaya, Zard told The Daily Star, is still heavily involved in the running of the company, despite being 88 years old. His lifestyle reflects the slow, labor-intensive philosophy that he advocates for the company: He keeps his own chickens at his home in the mountains above Beirut and cooks using produce from his own garden.
The Blatt Chaya modus operandi is tried and tested. Indeed, one of the hydraulic presses still used in the tile manufacturing is as old as the company itself. This is a deliberate attempt to connect the firm’s customers with its heritage. “We want to give a taste of the past, not something that we can produce really quickly using new machines,” Zard said.
It is a way of working that many of the company’s competitors have moved away from. “Today you have new machines, you can just type in what is the pressure you want to put on the tiles,” she said.
Blatt Chaya’s methods, however, set them apart, and they have no plans to change. Their tiles “are actually handmade. Even the pressure that’s applied on each tile,” Zard said. “We have the workers that actually feel the pressure. They’re made the very, very old way, and we’re never going to change that.”
According to Zard, the process means that the factory can produce no more than about 6 to 8 square meters of tiles per day.
“When people come to choose a tile,” Zard said, “we tell them it takes a minimum of two weeks. You have to accept it. We can’t accelerate how things are made.”
Lifestyle changes since the heyday of Lebanese cement tiling mean that even the act of choosing a floor is now less common. “If you want to choose your floors, you know that you’re going to stay there for a while. Today, if you get a house, you don’t know if you’re going to move next year. I just feel that [in the past] things were slower and people enjoyed more the simpler things,” Zard said.
The tiles and the way they are made represent, for Zard, a counterpoint to the speed of modern life.
People nowadays “just want to be everywhere, always,” she said.
Ultimately, Blatt Chaya’s new homeware range isn’t about satisfying a modern need for change and renewal, but about making the company’s packaged nostalgia more accessible. “You don’t need to take a whole floor of it,” she added. “Just one piece could give you that taste of how things used to go back then.”
The homeware also has the potential to capture the attention of Blatt Chaya’s foreign customers. While the company already exports its tiling abroad, its new range offers a means to showcase Beirut’s artisanal heritage on a smaller scale.
“We always talk about Lebanon when we’re outside, and we always want to show what we have back home,” Zard said. “I think this is a nice way of showing what Beirut is.”
Her time spent working with her grandfather and in the family business has instilled in Zard love for a Beirut that no longer exists. “I do like the old Beirut more than today’s,” she said, although she admitted that as she was born in the ’90s she had never lived in the “old Beirut.”
Nevertheless, Zard believes that Blatt Chaya “shows the better Beirut, what it used to be, and what I hope it is going to be ... really evolving toward the past.”