We Design Beirut: Celebrating Multifaceted Middle-East Design

We have admired the creativity of Lebanese designs and the passion of creation spurring the designers. When Mariana Wehbe, a Lebanese design-enthusiast and marketing professional envisioned the coming together of design and creatives, the success of We Design Beirut seemed inevitable. This design festival is underway in the face of mounting challenges and will undoubtedly pave way for a design revival in a country that needs resurrection. We speak to Joy Mardini and William Wehbe, of The Babylon Agency, the curators of “Past Echoes: A Journey through Middle Eastern Product Design”, one of the programmes within We Design Beirut.  

We Design Beirut was initially planned as a four-day design experience from October 27 to 30, 2023, in Beirut, Lebanon to celebrate as well as promote design and rich craftsmanship of Lebanon in locations that would stun design-enthusiasts. But then the war broke out in the Middle East, in neighbouring Israel and Palestine, intermittently spilling over to south of Lebanon. Mariana and the team who were ideating constantly with venues and themed events around the exhibition, never gave up and thus We Design Beirut brought the world of design to Lebanon and was held from May 23 to 26, 2024.

Mariana Wehbe, the founder/ideator of We Design Beirut; Photography Sebastian Bottcher

According to Mariana, “This country needs something like this. It needs the magic and the hope back,” as according to her, “continuing to do what you need to do is the right course in times of crisis.”

Lebanon, historically is the land of makers before it was ravaged by war, and later by corrupted leaders looting the country to leave it a poor shadow of its earlier glory.

“I think it is safe to say that the world has born witness to the challenges facing the Lebanese people since 2019, from revolution to financial collapse, COVID and the August 2020 explosion. What is less known is the resilience of the Lebanese design scene in the face of all these obstacles,” says Mariana Wehbe, a born changemaker, “Lebanon has been a major hub for design since the early 1940s, and we felt it was crucial to expose these talents and the unique creativity of Lebanon to the world. This in turn will create networks and opportunities for the creatives, artisans and designers that will provide them with greater chances of continued growth and business sustainability.”

We put the focus on “Past Echoes: A Journey through Middle Eastern Product Design” that celebrated Middle Eastern design at the historic Villa Audi. Initially conceived for a space steeped in history, this location is a true testament to classical architectural prowess.

The venue of Past Echoes preserves a rich tapestry of history within its halls.

Built between 1918 and 1921, Villa Audi served as a haven for generations of the Karam family until its transition to the ownership of Bank Audi in 1973. Since then, the villa has stood as a custodian of Bank Audi’s private mosaics and antiquities collection, preserving a rich tapestry of history within its halls.

Joy Mardini and William Wehbe of Babylon Agency; Photography Tarek Moukaddem

Past Echoes is curated by Babylon – The Agency, founded by Joy Mardini and William Wehbe. From furniture pieces to utilitarian objects, the works of 33 regional product designers echoing the region’s rich cultural heritage and craftsmanship were in focus within the walls of this historic building. The location also featured a number of installations and pop-ups.

“The significant presence of historical mosaics from our region adorning the walls of Villa Audi, stand as testaments to the ingenuity and craftsmanship of our forebears grounding “Past Echoes” firmly in the history of our region and country, fostering a deeper connection to our cultural roots and ancestral traditions,” says Joy Mardini.

“As we embark on this collective journey, let us dare to dream of a future where our creative endeavors transcend borders, where our stories resonate globally, and where our community stands united, heard, and empowered,” says Mariana, whose passion and intent are the two reasons why the event took off for the world to see.

Contemporary and Connected to History

Ginger Sculptural Lounge by Fadi Yachoui of L’atelier Inconnu and Lux Divina: A Spiritual Quest for Light by Hala Matta

 “Set within the historic Villa Audi, the exhibition serves as a focal point for showcasing the region’s design heritage and fostering cross-disciplinary dialogue among designers and enthusiasts. It enriches the diverse programme of We Design Beirut by offering a curated showcase that encapsulates the essence of Middle Eastern design excellence,” says Joy.

Shown above is one of the exhibits Ginger Sculptural Lounge by Fadi Yachoui, a Lebanese-multi-disciplinary architect and industrial designer based between Milano and Beirut. We Design Beirut is equally important to designers like Fadi who says, “Even amidst chaos, Beirut’s heart continues to beat. We design Beirut will revive our craftsmanship, highlight our vibrant design scene and shape our city’s future.”

Lux Divina: A Spiritual Quest for Light by Hala Matta.

Right alongside the quirky Ginger Sculptural Lounge is a string of beads called Lux Divina: A Spiritual Quest for Light by Hala Matta.

“It is a succession of irregular spheres strung like a precious rosary on a cord of nearly four meters long. A tribute to the different phases of the moon and its versatile influences,” according to Hala Matta, who after her extensive career in the world of finance, and the corporate world, decided to change direction to become a ceramicist. By renouncing any ornamental overload, the artist reconnects with the centuries-year-old tradition of pottery as preserved by archaeological museums in the Middle East.

Carpet – Iwan Maktabi, Camber marble piece by Anastasia Nysten produced by Stones by Rania Malli, Table by Karim Choueiri.

The beautiful setting is abound with carpets, and artefacts that tell the story of the designers behind the products, of the history of craftsmanship yet all of them show a contemproary perspective that is the hallmark of Lebanese designs.

We carefully selected designers whose works not only embody excellence in their respective fields but also align with the thematic focus of the event. The defining criteria included innovation, craftsmanship, cultural relevance, and the ability to contribute to the holistic design experience offered by We Design Beirut. Each designer was chosen to offer a unique perspective that enriches the overall narrative of the exhibition and resonates with the diverse audience attending the event,” shares Joy.

The Camber marble piece by Lebanese-Finnish designer Anastasia Nysten is a representation of how graceful time could be on nature. “The minimal bench celebrates its curves, voids and prompts us to reconsider our preconceived notion of materials and the shapes they take,” according to Anastasia.

High Heels Dresser by Karen Cherekdjian, Light sculpture Granita al limone for House of Today by Stephanie Mousallem

High Heels Dresser by Karen Cherekdjian gives the viewer the illusion of lightness. “Marble is a very heavy material even if cut in thin slices. The thin legs were to convey the idea of something that looks light,” says Karen whose trajectory into the world of design was driven by eclectic interests, resulting in an unconventional combination of practices. In addition to affecting her personal history and personality, growing up during the Lebanese Civil War also impacted her design philosophy and the continuous pursuit of meaning and also the art of being more than the obvious.

The scultpural lampshade, Granita al limone for House of Today is by Stephanie Moussallem Design Studio, a multidisciplinary practice with a rich tapestry of interior projects, products, and furniture. The “Granita al Limone” lamp, created with Neapolitan artisans, draws inspiration from the shared essence of the Mediterranean, Napoli, and Beirut.

“The striking similarities between these regions— passionate people, devotion to family, strong faith, everyday rituals, and the presence of lemon and olives—underscore a unique connection. Despite the juxtaposition of bustling chaos and tranquil serenity, there exists a familiar, pulsating energy that epitomises the distinctive charm of these locales,” says Stephanie.

While the Arab world is known for its craft, according to Joy, there is room for sustainable practices.  “While the Arab design world boasts unparalleled craftsmanship and a rich cultural heritage, one area where there’s room for growth is in embracing sustainable design practices. By integrating sustainability into their work, Arab designers can further elevate their impact and relevance on the global stage, ensuring a harmonious balance between tradition, innovation, and environmental stewardship. We Design Beirut serves as a platform to promote and encourage such initiatives among designers, fostering a culture of sustainability within the design community.” he says.

Quartet a group of 4 Echelle Chairs by George Geara, Untitled Light sculptures by Tarek Dada

Quartet is a group of four Echelle Chairs from the AMALGAM collection by George Geara is a dialogue of materials, trends, and craftsmanship. Quartet represents a handcrafted dance between time-honoured traditions and the exquisite touch of modern sophistication echoing nobility, resilience and the attributes to human proportions.

George Geara is a Lebanese designer based in Beirut, who after pursuing his masters in Architecture and Industrial Design in Beirut and Madrid, returned to Beirut to implement his own philosophy by enhancing the perception of the local trades and manufacturers and pushing them to a higher level of expertise and achieve high standards of furniture production.

“For a long time, furniture production has relied heavily on manual processes, but in today’s world and responding to the high demand of the society, machinery became a useful tool to the makers. In this collection we are emphasising the importance of the two sides(Artisans\Machinery) and how they meet and complete each other in creating a new product,” says George.

Infinity Screens by Eva Szumilas, Side table by Karim Choueiri, Arm chair by Roula Salamoun

“We Design Beirut will give the  world a chance to see the exceptional creativity that comes out of a small country such as Lebanon,” says Nada Debb, whose products have graced many design festivals around the world and whose collbaorations with designers and brands around the world has made her work known to a more international market than being confined to a local premise.

Inifinity Screens by Eva Szumilas are part of  the latest Infinity Collection that bring a sense of limitless possibilities and the fluidity found in nature. Polish-Lebanese designer, Eva has successfully connected her passion for design with her love of traveling. Her work blends poetry and functionality together, with powerful aesthetics and an eye for comfort. Her designs are fueled by her life experiences and her background of both MiddleEastern and European cultures.

Objeu-Closer Together (mirror sculpture) – by Milia Maroun; Homesick wooden stools – by Nareg Krikorian

Objeu-Closer Together by Milia Maroun combines “Objet” (French for ‘object’) and”Jeu” (French for ‘play’), symbolising hope amidst conflict. Opening the seemingly flat board reveals a three-dimensional shape, reflecting the idea that what separates us also unites.

“The paradox in this separating wall element is that if the openings are closed, it collapses.The openings breaking the reflective surface, disrupt our narcissistic view on things while questioning what’s on the otherside, exposing the self to the others,” says Milia, the designer behind Lebanon-founded women’s wear label milia-m and whose work straddles the boundaries between art and fashion.

While the instability and the economic stifle has affected work and the life of designers, creativity doesnt seem to be lacking nor is there a dearth of inpsiration for new designs.

“The instability in the region has undoubtedly posed challenges for designers, yet it has also fueled resilience, creativity, and a sense of collective purpose. As we navigate through uncertain times, events like We Design Beirut play a crucial role in providing a platform for designers to showcase their talents, network, and collaborate.

“By coming together to celebrate creativity and innovation, designers have the opportunity to amplify their voices, forge new partnerships, and contribute to the revitalisation of the design industry in the region.

“We foresee designers emerging from this instability with renewed vigour, harnessing their experiences to create meaningful and impactful designs that resonate globally,” says Joy.

All Images of the Exhibition is by Walid Rashid