Exil Collective: Building Community in Lebanon through Affordable Design

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Affordable, innovative design by emerging designers is almost invisible in the Middle East. Exil hopes to change that. Inspired by a renewed focus on interiors during the pandemic, Exil is a Lebanon-based incubator promoting affordable design made in Lebanon by up-and-coming Middle Eastern designers. Today, emerging designers in Lebanon are faced with increasing challenges: economic realities push many designers to move their practice out of the country, meaning design remains limited to the elite few. Exil hopes to change this with a circular economy model of design, supporting designers all the way from conceptualization to sale. Although much of Exil’s platform is their online store, they are more than just a sales point for affordable design. With a low commission not seen by mainstream design platforms in the MIddle East, Exil hopes to create long-term relationships between designers and the Exil family.

JDEED sat down with Exil, featured this November in Dubai Design Week, to learn more about their groundbreaking vision and plans for the future.

By Ethan Dincer

The ‘Beirut Candle Holder’ by Yara Boulos

What does affordable design mean to Exil?

Affordable design starts with good design! In the set of criteria each designer receives when beginning to work with us, we state that their creation needs to be adapted to the production methods available locally and be mindful of the cost before reaching a shape. We know we’re not competing with companies like IKEA – we are far from having the capacity to produce objects as cheaply as they do – but we’re staying away from the astronomical prices we see on the local market currently.
Simply put, affordable does not equal dirt-cheap: affordable is the lowest price to pay in order to fairly remunerate every person involved in the making of an object.

Can you talk a little bit more about Exil’s first collection?

Initially, we wanted to have a specific theme attached to the pitch we sent out to designers. We ended up deciding against it to allow the collection to build itself organically… and it did! So many designers with different styles and mindsets were involved but somehow, there ended up being a form of homogeneity connecting all the pieces together despite the eclectics. Allowing everyone to express themselves within the same set of criteria resulted in a common aesthetic!
So, what one can expect from Exil’s first collection is a series of simple and muted yet cleverly designed home objects that are a discrete reflection of both a common vision and individual designers’ creativity.

Mini Blobs by @itsradcat

What role does Exil envision itself playing in building community among emerging MENA designers?

Honestly, we “simply” are looking to change the way design is perceived in the region; both by potential clients and designers themselves. As students, we are taught to make pretty drawings and then try to have them translated and produced into objects regardless of production methods, materials, weight, transportability, and cost… all while hoping someone is willing to buy this piece that will be hard to reproduce at a later time. This makes design a practice only open to a limited and privileged few. That, to us, is not design… or at least not where it stops.
So we hope to become a hub for education and discussion to make our field evolve and become more inclusive and connected to its context, especially for aspiring or emerging talents looking for an opportunity to make their ideas come to life.

How has the pandemic impacted the way Exil thinks about interiors and engaging with designers?

Exil was born during lockdown! Of course, being stuck at home made us more aware of the things that surround us within these spaces – that’s the premise of many design initiatives and practices born during that period. Fact is, though, that it was important for us to take a step back and see what that newfound awareness meant to us as a team: if it meant creating more overpriced pieces for elite clients or cheap, wasteful, and soul-less mass-produced objects, that would have been a detrimental lesson and outcome… Exil needed to be a platform that offers objects that are ethically produced, affordable and built in a way that would make the customer want to own them for a very long time – not just toss them after a short while and buy the “next best thing”.
Other than that we were so excited for restrictions to be relaxed to be able to meet with the designers and artisans in order to start with the real and on the ground work!

OSIRIS by Zeina Bassil

Do you imagine Exil to be in direct competition with established design firms in the region? Or do you see Exil as creating and inhabiting a new space of accessible design for all?

We don’t really see any person or firm as competition for two reasons:
The first is that we are doing something we feel is very different and new in the region; reaching into an untapped field. The second is that one of our main goals as an initiative is to link the designers of our roster to firms, companies, industrialists etc. in order to create new grounds on which to collaborate. We always say “Exil is not just a shop” and that’s what we mean by it.

With current political and economic crises in the region, especially in Lebanon, how is Exil positioning itself at this current moment? How is Exil responding to increasing difficulties to exist in the region as a creative?

Young designers in the region, and especially in Lebanon, are faced with two choices: either leave to work for a firm abroad, or fend for themselves to make their work seen. The second option is costly and otherwise pretty much impossible for young graduates who don’t have experience designing for and in the real world – especially within the saturated market of high-end design.
Exil is here to give them the opportunity to design, be mentored, meet artisans and manufacturers, and ultimately produce their creations all for free (as long as it fits Exil’s criteria). Of course, at sales, they get their designer’s cut – which we have set higher than with any other commissioning entities we have studied.
Aside from designers, it’s the artisans and manufacturers that benefit. Everything is produced locally and since our products are formatted for worldwide shipping, that means that we will be able to generate export revenue to remunerate them fairly and in foreign currency.
So all in all, we’re trying to function in a circular economy model and we hope that anyone involved will be able to reap the benefits!

What are Exil’s short and long-term goals and dreams? Is there anything upcoming we can look forward to?

Our short term goal would be to expand the collection and widen the scale and types of objects within it: so for example get into furniture, or create objects that are even more affordable and adapted to be sold in Lebanon’s weakened market. Otherwise, we would love to start having exchanges with designers and actors of the field in the MENA region and beyond… we’re thinking as we move.
Long term though, the goal is to set up a workshop with prototyping facilities open to all as well as a space to host workshops and courses for designers and artisans alike. Basically a big space for exchanges and dialogues as the heart of design in the MENA.

More on Exil’s Instagram, here!