Beirut: ‘This city fuels my creativity’

Lebanon’s chaotic recent history has witnessed a brutal 15-year civil war, conflict with Israel and the destabilising influx of more than a million Syrian refugees. But amid such significant turmoil, capital city Beirut is proving an inspirational home to a thriving group of young designers.

22 Jul 2016

Being resourceful and inventive is hardwired into every Beiruti’s psyche; making a living in a city constantly teetering on the edge of crisis makes these essential traits. So it’s perhaps no surprise to find a company in the heart of Beirut called Waste that makes bags, wallets and furniture out of discarded advertising banners. It sold more than 100,000 pieces last year after launching as a business just three years ago, a remarkable feat given the chaos into which it was born.

Waste’s output has also inadvertently made a small dent in one of Beirut’s most visible problems: rubbish. It hasn’t been collected for almost a year as a government paralysed by in-fighting has failed to come up with a solution for its full-to-bursting-point landfills. It sparked angry protests throughout last summer as rubbish festered and the streets stank in the Mediterranean heat.

A million refugees
It’s not the only crisis that Beirut faces. The same government deadlock has meant the country has been without a president for more than a year. Corruption and inefficiency has long been rife. Infrastructure is crumbling and clean water isn’t a given across the city, with the poorest areas facing chemical-laced salt water trickling out of their taps.

Meanwhile in the past four years, Lebanon’s population of four million has absorbed 1.2 million Syrian refugees fleeing a war that has sporadically spilled over the Lebanese border.

Despite all of this, Waste is part of a growing community of independent design and craft-based businesses that has decided to stay put and build successful ventures. The design scene based in the north-east of the city is thriving against the odds – or almost determinedly because of them.

Marc Metni and Waleed Jad

Marc Metni and Waleed Jad

Culture clash
Many talk of being inspired by Beirut’s clash of cultures and values; a rare situation whereby Islam and Christianity sit equally side by side, social norms seesaw jarringly between neighbourhoods and a confusing local dialect of jumbled English, French and Arabic is spoken by many locals.

‘It’s definitely the city that fuels my creativity the most,’ says lighting designer Ghassan Salameh (pictured, main), who also used to be the production manager at the Beirut Art Centre. ‘You can find 10 different stories in every five metres across the city. But it’s also a fucking hard place to be. The problems you face here are much bigger than anywhere else, even the most simple things – like rubbish being collected – simply don’t work.’ ‘Yet in the past four to five years the creative and design scene has been booming,’ says Salameh.

The explosion in new designers has been aided by the formation of Beirut Design Week in 2012, which has seen the number of exhibitors more than double from 70 to 156 over the past three years.

Design boom
The event’s co-founder, Doreen Toutikian, says that alongside the eruption of new designers, there’s also a distinctive visual identity developing. Rather than looking to Europe, as many established Lebanese designers have done in the past, this new wave is influenced by Beirut’s heritage and traditions while remaining contemporary. ‘Beirut’s designer community is small – everybody knows everybody,’ says Waste co-owner Marc Metni. ‘But with more designers gaining success internationally, the city’s becoming recognised more and more as a design capital.’

Metni admits that Beirut isn’t always the easiest city to base a business but believes that there are few places in the world where you can make things in the centre of a capital city, as Waste does in Beirut. ‘The economy is suffering hugely from the situation in Syria,’ he says. ‘Bribery goes across lots of levels of the government. You have to fight every day to get things done.’

Eli Rezkallah

Eli Rezkallah

Stay or go?
Such frustrations leave many in the community constantly wrestling with a dilemma: stay in Beirut or move to Europe or the Gulf. The temptation is understandable even outside of the daily difficulties: with a modestly sized population and a small middle class, there’s just a minuscule local market to sell to. A boost to the design community has nevertheless come from the nearby Emirati cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi over the past two decades, a growing and lucrative market in the region with a taste for Middle Eastern design.

‘The Gulf has proven that there really is an international appetite for this new form of Lebanese design,’ says Toutikian. Meanwhile, Salameh recently returned from an art fair in Abu Dhabi, where he says around 70 per cent of the exhibitors were Lebanese, drawn from the tightly knit design community in Beirut and flown out by the organisers. The Gulf is also proving to be Waste’s biggest market outside Lebanon.

Courting controversy
Design studio Plastik is another enterprise that has attracted international attention, as well as no shortage of work in Beirut. It has created photography, branding and shows for retail groups, jewellery and fashion designers and fitness centres. It has also unleashed the Arab world’s most unlikely magazine: a fashion-photography publication heavy on nudity, which recently featured Miley Cyrus on the cover.

Launched by Eli Rezkallah in 2009, Plastik has been a magnet for controversy. A shoot portraying Jesus holding a plastic neon gun resulted in the city’s security forces visiting both the Plastik office and Rezkallah’s father’s house. Nevertheless, with a circulation of 20,000, the magazine has proved a big hit in both Lebanon and further afield, with distribution across Europe, Asia and the US.

‘I’ve had a pretty bad relationship with the city in previous years but I’m happy here now,’ says Rezkallah. ‘The city has given me a lot. Rent is cheap, I can get things done quickly and easily; if I need to organise and do a photoshoot in a day, I can. There aren’t many places where you can do that.’

Nour Hage

Nour Hage

Boomerang effect
Not everyone resists the temptation to leave Beirut. With her clothes popular across the Middle East, Nour Hage is considered one of the leaders of a new crop of Beiruti designers. She started her fashion label in Beirut in 2014 after studying in Paris and is now eyeing a move to London later this year, where she hopes her business can expand.

She won’t be abandoning the city entirely, however, instead planning to continue manufacturing in Lebanon while hoping to help build the capital’s reputation for design in Europe.

Others prefer to stay more firmly rooted in the city. ‘I want to play a positive role changing things in this society,’ says Salameh. ‘We need people here who have new ideas, who go against the flow; if we all leave, the city will fall apart.’

Read more:
Area Guide: Mar Mikhael, Beirut
Design amid destitution in south Beirut