Mixing tradition with modernity

Mixing tradition with modernity 
Date: Friday, June 01, 2012
By: Alex Taylor 
Source: The Daily Star
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BEIRUT: Though Lebanon is full of artisans – from embroiders and carpenters to glass blowers – and has exported top designers around the world, there is rarely an opportunity to see firsthand the collaboration between the two groups.
The House of Today, launched Tuesday in Beirut, is a new, artisanal platform that brings together traditional craftsmen and more than 30 contemporary designers, including Lebanese successes Rabih Keyrouz and Bernard Khoury, to “explore the combination between art, craft and design.”
The founder and creative director of House of Today, Cherine Magrabi, believes that Lebanon’s artisans need to be better promoted and protected.

“Everywhere else in the world, the artisans are sacred – they’re well-kept and preserved by their governments, but in Lebanon that’s not the case,” says Magrabi, who has scoured villages and towns all over the country to find the most talented individuals in their craft to collaborate for the project.
Magrabi concluded that the best way to promote Lebanon’s talented artisans is to help them link up with today’s designers and move into producing more contemporary products.
“I realized that the workmanship [in Lebanon] was great but the artisans haven’t modernized to meet today’s needs,” she says, seated among the sculptures and products on display at Villa Zein in Downtown Beirut – the location of the month-long pop up shop.
“I realized that artisans haven’t really modernized because they haven’t met the design world. So this platform is basically about that – mixing the design world and the designers with the artisans.”
The products on display include furniture, home accessories, soaps and essential oils, food, lighting sculpture and clothing.
Each product has been specially designed to have a modern look or feel – even if just in its packaging.

The food items – olive oil from the Moawad Foundation in Batroun, homemade jams from Douma and the Bekaa, baklava, zaatar and spice mixes – all come in hand-blown glass containers made by artisans in Sarafand and with labels illustrated by artist Joelle Achkar.
An example of Magrabi’s idea to push traditional artisans forward is seen in the embroidery and crochet products designed for House of Today. Instead of creating doilies from a generation past, Magrabi has worked with the artisans to produce bookmarks, purses, gift labels and iPad cases.
The same embroidery skills have been put to work in the clothing line of hand-embroidered Kaftans – all initially conceived with the help of graphic designers, then carried out with vibrant, neon thread to update the traditional silhouette.
With more than 30 designers involved, Magrabi decided to guide their creations under the theme “confessions,” to create a cohesive feel to the crop of work.
“The idea was to have everyone working under one theme and to find out something quite personal about each designer,” Magrabi explains.
“So it’s their interpretation of the word confession or an interpretation of their own confession – so there’s a lot of storytelling.”
The confessions and works are diverse and add a conceptual element the offerings of House of Today – where a chair is not just a chair, because it was designed with underlying meaning.
Each designer piece is explained in the designer’s own words. For example, furniture designer Nada Debs would like to confess about her fixation on detail. She writes about how she obsessively taps and hammers away until she is satisfied with her finished work and has expressed this idea by creating a set of bowls, mortars and pestles all of cedar wood with decorative patterns made by nails hammered into the wood.

Among the more abstract works are two pieces by architect Makram al-Kadi and fashion designer Rabih Keyrouz, with messages confessing a desire for peace.
Kadi’s confession is an interpretation of the uncertainty we feel about life in times of war.
Quoting Kafka, “a cage went in search of a bird,” Kadi has created a hanging, birdcage constructed with 1,008 bullets found around the country jutting out aggressively – the image is contrasts with the idea of a small bird, representing peace and nature, existing inside this space.
Better known for his catwalk creations, Keyrouz has expressed his yearning for peace with a limited edition design for an ivory-colored candle in the shape of a grenade – juxtaposing a weapon-shape and a product generally associated with serenity. To produce the candles, Magrabi brought the design to two different handicapped artisans – one in Aley who created the mold and another in Beit Shabab who produced the candle-wax filling.

In a bid to reach out to new talent, Magrabi has included the work of young designers alongside the renowned designers, who she calls “houseguests.” One new talent, or “resident,” is the industrial designer Stephanie Moussallem, a petite woman whose confession is that she’s always wished to be taller. To express this, Moussallem created a collection of steps and short ladders that, rather than tucking away after you’ve reached that high shelf, can be left out as a decorative element. This also includes a colorful line for children.
The House of Today products will be on display and for sale at the Downtown Beirut location for one month, after which they will be available through the project’s website (www.house-of-today.com).
In time, Magrabi will bring together a second show with all new designers and a new theme, but any show will emphasize artisanal work and unique pieces – in a word, Magrabi wants the House of Today to embrace, “novelty.”

“Novelty: That’s the benchmark on what to include – designs that are new with the high quality standards. Each piece has to be perfect and it has to be something that doesn’t already exist anywhere else in Lebanon.”

Food items on offer include olive oil, homemade jams, baklava, zaatar and spice mixes

Olive oil is sold in hand-blown glass bottles from Sarafand

Wooden bowls mortars and pestles by Nada Debs

Kadi's birdnest sculpture uses 1,008 bullets collected from around Lebanon

Graphic designers helped to create hand-embroidered kaftans

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