We Design Beirut Lifts Up Lebanese Design At Home

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The first edition of We Design Beirut has just wrapped, setting a bold new precedent for showcasing the skills and talents of Lebanese designers at home.
Taking place from May 23 to May 26, this incredible achievement is the brainchild of founder Mariana Wehbe, in partnership with industrial designer Samer Alameen and visual communication studio Bananamonkey; an exciting programme of exhibitions, events and activations across the Lebanese capital.

By Robert McKelvey

“Past Echoes” exhibition / Photography Walid Rashid

Getting to this point has been an uphill battle for We Design Beirut. The design show – the first of its kind in Lebanon – was originally supposed to launch in October, 2023, but was forced to abort due to the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza War. Nevertheless, Wehbe and her team remained steadfast, dedicated to giving Lebanese creatives a space in their own country to show the quality of their work.

There is nowhere in the world where you do not see an influx of Lebanese designers,” Mariana Wehbe told JDEED. “This comes from the fact that we have a story with this country that has had so much diversity and so much pain, but also so much magic.

The show’s primary exhibitions each embodied a core value of We Design Beirut, hosted in locations that reflect Lebanon’s history and situation in a very tangible way.

The whole idea of our exhibition started with the locations,” Webhe explained. “They had to have an impact, and a story. Most of them are stories about time through Lebanon, whether Villa Audi – which was a love story, when the villa was restored – or the Abroyan Factory that just stopped working, or PSLab, which is one of the world’s most important bespoke lighting companies; this was their headquarters, before it was blown away.

Left: Mariana Wehbe in La Grande Chaise by Bits to Atoms Photo by Sebastien Bottcher / Right: Lustre and Cosy Chairs by Post Industrial Crafts at Abroyan Factory ‘Material Exhibition’ Photo by Karim Saker

At the ‘We Preserve’ hub, housed within the regenerated Ottoman-era palace of Villa Audi, ‘Past Echoes: A Journey Through Middle Eastern Product Design’ – curated by Babylon–The Agency founders Joy Mardini and William Wehbe – assembled a collection of works by 35 Lebanese product designers, each inspired by the rich heritage of the region.

The villa provides a stunning backdrop where past and present converge,” said William Wehbe. “Contemporary design elements are seamlessly integrated into the historic setting, creating a dialogue between tradition and innovation, [and] the designers featured in ‘Past Echoes’ are adept at weaving the threads of craft history into their contemporary designs.

Across the city, the Abroyan Factory – a former textile manufacture from the 1940s – provided the backdrop to the ‘We Sustain’ hub and its twin exhibitions; ‘We Search’, a collective exhibition centred on student designers from five Lebanese universities, and the ‘Materials Exhibition’.

“Past Echoes” at Villa Audi / Photography Walid Rashid

Despite the popularity of Lebanese design outside Lebanon, designers are often forced to travel abroad in order to reach international audiences and gain recognition for their work. The ‘We Search’ exhibition’s purpose was therefore two-fold; fostering good peer-to-peer relationships within the Lebanese design community – especially between students and established designers – and giving students a platform for their projects.

It’s a great opportunity, especially as a fresh graduate,” said Lara el Hajj, a student at the Lebanese American University. “It opens doors for us, and it’s a great exposure for our projects. We’re all very happy to see it come together.

I’ve met a lot of designers from different backgrounds,” agreed Gaya Saab, also from LAU. “Honestly, it’s been great seeing that there are so many people with similar interests in the country, and it opens discussions between us and the more experienced designers.

Meanwhile, the ‘Materials Exhibition’ emphasised alternative approaches to design through a showcase of bottom-up processes. Responding to the world’s urgent need for sustainable material solutions, the participants set a clear benchmark for the Lebanese design scene by demonstrating that sustainable practices can be both innovative and aesthetically pleasing.

PSLab installation / Ghady Azar & Galal Mahmoud: Capsule 1.0/ HAWA

With few social enterprises focusing on sustainability, We Design Beirut sets the stage for starting critical conversations with the general public about the future,” said Rami Sbeih, Managing Director of exhibitor Plastic Lab. “It motivates the industry to adopt ecologically conscious approaches and showcases the potential of recycled materials through installations like [ours], ‘Magma Plastique’.”

Given Lebanon’s economic crisis and reliance on imported raw materials, turning to local, sustainable resources can have significant positive environmental, economic and social impacts,” he explained. “The collective of designers at the ‘Materials Exhibition’ works towards sustainability through collaboration and knowledge exchange, which help close the circular economy loop. Their end products are 100% recycled, locally produced and recyclable.

The final hub, ‘We Empower’, revived the building that previously served as the Lebanese headquarters PSLab; one of Lebanon’s most internationally-renowned lighting companies. Destroyed in the 2020 Beirut Port blast, the space now serves as a centre promoting crafts, making it the ideal location to showcase Lebanon’s centuries-old artisanal techniques, anchored by We Design Beirut’s ‘Metiers D’Art’ exhibition, in which talented craftsmen and women in the fields of wood, copper and rattan performed live demonstrations of their respective talents.

PSLab Silly Spoon by Karim Saqr

Blatt Chaya, for example, prides itself on using the exact same techniques, ingredients and natural colours as the traditional manufacturers of the past, following in the footsteps of a family cement tile business that was revived in 1996 after discovering a box of old moulds and tools.

Even with one mould,” explained Managing Director Karim Chaya, “you can create an infinite number of designs, but now we’re starting to do something new; we started casting freehand, thereby giving much more freedom to the artist. If you do that on a large scale, it becomes a mural.

It took us four years to be able to cast our first tile properly,” he continued. “We did a lot of research, and nobody was doing it anymore. It was almost forgotten, but it’s in our blood. I’m happy that this artisanal craft is coming back, and I wish all the good artisanal crafts that we had would come back. It’s very important to have shows like this, because the only thing that can save our country is our creativity.”

Discover more about WeDesign Beirut, here

Cover Picture: Collection Y by Rhea Younes/Hurricane Pastel Colors/2024/Photography Jay Khawand