©Bessaam El-Asmar

Spotted at Beirut Design Week

Some highlights from the 6th edition

When Doreen Toutikan launched the Beirut Design Week in 2012, it was her mission to support the emerging design community in Lebanon. Mission accomplished so it seems, since Beirut is now the bustling capital many craftspeople call home. Here, you’ll find an overview of the most remarkable projects we spotted at the 2017 BDW.

Veerle Devos June 2017
This year’s theme for all participating designers was ‘Is Design a Need?’ and an international conference on ‘critical design’ was organized - a term first coined by Anthony Dune in 1999, referring to a critical approach to design opposed to ‘affirmative design’ which simply reinforces the status quo. “If we want to inspire people to be more critical, let’s start with questioning ourselves as designers”, says co-founder and director Doreen Toutikan explaining the choice for this year’s theme. “Interestingly, some people didn’t agree that we had put a question mark, they’d rather expected us to make a firm statement. Proof it’s an exercise we really had to do. ‘What is a need?’ ‘Is design a need?’ We’ve put these questions out there.” The result was diverse and often surprising. Take a look at the overview below to get an idea of how Beirut based designers responded to this year’s theme.
©Bessaam El-Asmar
The event attracted visitors and guests from all over the world, for whom it was often their first acquaintance with Lebanon and it’s vibrant capital. One of the inspiring speakers was British designer, artist and writer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg known worldwide for developing experimental design approaches that test whether design can take a more active, critical and even guiding role in our understanding of a ‘better future’ – which is also the subject of her PhD. She expressed herself to be pleasantly surprised: “I very much enjoyed that Beirut Design Week took this controversial issue of ‘critical design’ and explored it with the audience, in a local-global perspective. I was really fascinated that this kind of criticism and emerging activism was coming from Beirut. It was the first conference ever dedicated to critical design.” Her lecture was all about the fact that designers often advocate how design makes things better, “but what is better? That very much depends on the context… And who gets to decide what good design is, and what would designers do?” Her talk explored how critical design can be used to address these questions.
Ginsberg also expressed her appreciation for Tatiana Toutikians Speculative Needs XOXO Exhibition at BDW, a collaborative project between nine Lebanese university campuses. On display were prototypes made by students and generated through a series of participatory workshops. In these workshops, design was used as a medium to explore topics such as emerging digital anxieties, ethical machines, DIY Currencies, living with cyborgs, techno-spiritualism, digital shrines, strange biospheres and mutations etc. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg: “They were introducing biological engineering through design – when challenging evolution is controversial for religious reasons for many of these students. Very strong!” Read more about this project in the pdf you can download here.
Other highlights of the Beirut Design Week include ‘Beirut Makers’, a collective of ‘Digital Manufacturing Explorers’. “The conjunction of being able to describe forms thanks to the assistance of computers and having access to information driven machine tools, has empowered a new kind of creative. Bridging between designers and craftspeople, this new generation of makers are more in control of their creations, as they have to organize information to operate the machines, and are also conscious of the manufacturing process and requirements. The maker movement is rising in the Middle East and this exhibition is the acknowledgment of this phenomenon.” Get a taste of their work here
©Bessaam El-Asmar
One remarkable project at the BDW was ‘Face From Another World’: a series of 55 pieces of embroidery, containing codes with a contemporary message about the Middle East and the world in general, inspired by traditional rural Palestinian embroidery which flourished in the 19th and first half of the 20th century and which was used on traditional dresses called ‘thobes’. This extraordinary collection was made by Amman based Ziad Qweider who comes from a Palestinian family that has been collecting and cherishing these historic garments for decades now. “In the past, Palestinian women would sew motifs into their dresses to represent their heritage, ancestry, the village they originated from, and their marital status. So their thobe was a way of communicating without words. It was a competition between girls to put all of their creativity and talent into the dress.” Is design a need? For Ziad Qweider it certainly is.
Another interesting project displayed at this year’s Beirut Design Week was launched by product designer, photographer and artist Paola Sakr. She became very interested in waste, did some research on it, collected all types of material waste from local artisans’ workshops in Beirut (from construction site concrete, leftover pieces of walnut to pieces of glass) and created a fabulous series of vases called Impermanence from accumulated bits and pieces that were meant to be thrown away. “In Beirut, you constantly lose yourself in a city that is endlessly transforming and reinventing itself, forever in a period of transition. Beirut’s cityscape is an arrangement of miscellaneous architecture and broken neighborhoods, always reminding us of its destructive nature”, says Sakr, thus giving a second life to waste. paolasakr.design
French born architect Annabel Karim Kassar is a passionate defender of Beirut’s architectural past, and decided to answer the question ‘Is design a need?’ by showcasing one of her ongoing projects in the city. “In a healthy city, several layers of civilization should be visible, the past is as important as the present. There is no future without the past – we really need this connection in order to establish a healthy society. History, even when painful as in the case of Beirut, shouldn’t be hidden”, says the architect, who thus decided to open the doors of her nineteenth century Ottoman house in Beirut which she has been restoring. The BDW public was welcome to visit this beautiful mansion, and was informed about every step of the ongoing restoration.
Controversy at the Beirut Design Week came from Rana Salam, who challenged both local and international visitors when she chose to answer the curators’ rhetorical question by displaying trolleys made by street kids in Beirut for garbage collection and the transport of goods. Whether these kid’s tools were design or not, whether Salam was authorised to deprive the kids of their work tools: the project ‘Exploring Street Design’ certainly didn’t go unnoticed. “In Beirut, we all know that these kids are there and still we never notice them; we also don’t recognise their talent until their work is on show. The vehicles I put in the spotlight are beautiful and useful, and these kids have a genuine approach to design! Is design a need? For these kids, it clearly is! That’s the message I wanted to share, and the controversy proves my message was received”, says the London trained, Beirut based graphic designer.
Helsinki based designers Klaus Aalto & Tero Kuitunen joined forces to create a pop-up exhibition about Finnish design and presented a small workshop during the Beirut Design Week. Their mini-expo Finland 100 - Picks from Now and Then celebrated the 100th anniversary of Finland's independence at Beirut’s Sel et Poivre design shop, and was constructed around four themes: Natural, Traditional, Playful and Minimal. The duo also introduced design and fashion items from Finnish designers and brands such as iittala, Marimekko, artek, Lapuan Kankurit, Minna Parikka, Natalie Lahdenmäki to the BDW audience. Their designer run, child-friendly workshop Finnish Playtime - Building toys as we did before design at KED received great acclaim too. “We were serving traditional Finnish buns and playing some nostalgic Finnish music to accompany the workshop. This made for a cozy and relaxed atmosphere; very Finnish indeed.”
Over The Counter is a 500 m2 3-level store in the heart of Beirut that hosts a range of furniture, lighting and design products; giving equal importance to design and craftsmanship. After many years of showing the best international design in Beirut, Over The Counter launched ‘OTC Editions’: its very own collection of local design products intended to conquer the global market. Among the designers are Rania Abillama (who is the founder and owner of Over The Counter), Sayar & Gharibeh, David & Nicolas, Karim Chaya, 200 grs, Sana Asseh, Rani El Rajji, Christian Zahr, Maria Group and many others. All OTC Editions’ products are made in Beirut, and sold at competitive prices worldwide.
Read more about Beirut and its thriving creative scene in the upcoming DAMNº63! And on DAMNº website, more in-depth articles about some of the designers and speakers here presented will be published. Stay tuned!