BEIRUT: Red flags dotted through the streets of Beirut marked out hubs of the local architects, artists and thinkers engaging with the theme “Is Design a Need?” for the fourth annual Beirut Design Week. Drinks in hand, event-goers poured through the streets and alleys of Downtown Beirut, Saifi Village, Gemmayzeh, Sursock and Ashrafieh in the first four days of the six-day-long event. Through numerous workshops, open houses and displays, all packed into a few city blocks, exhibitors illustrated their diverse design identities.
Interior architecture and design studio Roland Helou Design, along with HM Management, welcomed guests Tuesday with bottles of Moet & Chandon and entertainment from an international DJ at the Dress Concept boutique in Gemmayzeh. Guests later enjoyed a live demonstration of furniture making.
Across the street, Recycle Lebanon, a platform for local environmental initiatives, hosted a variety of exhibitors at their “EcoSouk.” Joslin Kehdy, the organization’s founder, noted the need to look beyond sustainability in ecodesign.
“People are all for ‘upcycling’ and recycling, but that’s the wrong idea,” Kehdy told The Daily Star. “That’s people being reactionary in design; we have to look at it holistically to actually solve the situation. We’ve breached the era of sustainability.” Rather than look for short-term solutions, she said, “We need to be looking far more forward.”
For Kehdy, looking back at Lebanon’s history is essential in order to successfully move forward with ecodesign in the country. “It’s interesting to consider how the West has influenced our understanding of design, and how we’ve been affected by a Western and industrial influence. So I think when you consider design, [it’s necessary] to consider the power of past and culture.”
Philippe Elriachi and Thea Raffoul, two of the exhibitors at the EcoSouk, expressed their concept of design via the fashion and art platform Tribe. For Elriachi and Raffoul, comfort, accessibility and “open channels of communications” are the defining aspects of Tribe’s exchange between “maker” and “wearer.”
“Design is largely political,” Elriachi told The Daily Star, standing in front of a line of clothes he described as combining primitive and dualistic motifs. “You wear it on your body – you physically embody it in front of the eyes of others.”
While he noted the significant crossover between design and art, Elriachi highlighted the intention behind the technical aspects of design as one major divide between the disciplines.
Raffoul agreed that the utilitarian aspect of design was a marker, separating it from the more rarified purpose of art.
“When I think of these designs, I think of how people can live their lives in them,” Raffoul said. “I want it to speak for itself, but I want it to be wearable, comfortable. But with art, it’s not as easily incorporated into everyday, utilitarian life.”
On the rooftop of the building, Mohamed Mortada, an architect at sustainability consultancy EcoConsulting, demonstrated how to make “adobe bricks.” Formed from earth – specifically dirt, straw, clay, sand and water – the bricks were a perfect vehicle for Mortada’s pitch on the environmental benefits of constructing with natural building material.
“Making adobe bricks has a low environmental impact,” Mortada told The Daily Star. “You don’t need to destroy anything to get raw materials, you reduce emissions from transportation of materials and it’s also healthier because earth actually breathes so it absorbs and releases humidity as needed.”
Unbeknown to many Lebanese, the architect said, adobe is both durable – more durable, in fact, than concrete – and was previously a far more common building material in the country.
“Actually, adobe is nothing new to Lebanon. It was used before the modern era, but you still have buildings now that still constructed with it. With more modern [modifications] they don’t require as much maintenance and can withstand weather,” he said.
Luxury furniture-maker Hicham Ghandour approaches design from a different worldview, with the “aesthetic” at its epicenter. Displaying his work at Villa Audi Wednesday, Ghandour’s exhibition demonstrated his luxurious use of semiprecious stones in furniture design.
“Everything I do is purely design, but sometimes my pieces veer toward sculpture-like rather than remaining functional,” he told The Daily Star. “Depending on your budget, you can go wild with your understanding of design. For example, if you need to stay simple, a table is just four legs and a top. But otherwise, it becomes something else entirely,” he said. He pointed to his use of lapis lazuli – a highly sought after stone that has been used since antiquity – in one particular table.
The stream of evening design events brought a new surge of life to Beirut’s streets – a warm-up for the coming summer bustle.
Design enthusiast Dana Khoury remarked that good energy – such as was reverberating through Gemmayzeh – is an essential component of an atmosphere conducive to creative collaboration.
“You’re at one exhibit, then you’re picking up a drink with a crowd of people before going to the next. The learning and collaborating happens just as much on the streets,” she said, before heading off to the next workshop.