Modernizing tradition

Nada Debs: A contemporary twist to traditional craftsmanship

|Greg Demarque|

Nada Debs is famed for her luxury line of furniture and home accessories which blends the minimalist and modern design styles of Japan and the West with traditional Middle Eastern craftsmanship.

This successful combination did not come easy for Debs, who views her career path as the culmination of her quest to mix the many cultures she was exposed to in her life. It was also a personal challenge to herself to prove that a thing of beauty could come out of this region.

A move back to Beirut

“I decided to change the stereotype the West had about us … I wanted to show them a side of the Arab world that is really positive”

Debs was brought up in Japan, studied interior architecture at the Rhode Island School for Design in the United States and worked first at an architectural firm in the US before opening her own design company in London. In 1999, personal circumstances brought her back to Beirut. In her life outside of Lebanon, Debs encountered the negative perceptions and stereotypes surrounding people from the Middle East and had internalized those sentiments herself. This is why a move to Lebanon was not something she would have chosen.

In Beirut, Debs questioned her own stereotypes of the country and says she found the reality here positively surprising: “I decided to change the stereotype the West had about us through functional objects like furniture. I wanted to show them a side of the Arab world that is really positive,” she says. 

Debs then approached several furniture boutiques in Lebanon asking them if they would carry a line by a Lebanese designer but they refused, reasoning that their customers prefer to pay thousands of dollars for imported furniture rather than buying something local. “It became a challenge for me to see if I could make furniture in this country and sell it,” she says, musing over the lack of confidence the Lebanese have in their local productions and their admiration of European products, adding this was also the case in Japan.

Displaying designs at home

“I had to choose something unique which cannot be copied, and this is where I started considering doing something with crafts in a modern way”

Debs first began making contemporary furniture such as the ‘floating stool’ — a clear plastic ottoman with the bright fabric cushion placed almost in the middle, giving it the appearance of floating within the stool. After some experimenting, as it was the first time she was designing from her own imagination and with no reference, she created a series of these stools, and buyers began lining up.

However, when people asked her for the ottomans’ price, she realized that she wouldn’t be able to be competitive in this line of design. To cover costs and make profits, Debs realized she’d have to charge a high price that could not compete with cheaper, similar designs made in China.

“This is why I had to choose something unique which cannot be copied, and this is where I started considering doing something with crafts in a modern way,” says Debs. She explains that since she was working with craft — which by definition is artisanal and takes time to be of good quality — she decided to price her pieces high and go into luxury furniture design.

On a trip to Syria shortly before 2004, Debs met with craftsmen who work with mother of pearl inlay designs for furniture. She decided to use their traditional designs in a modern and minimalist way that would highlight their beauty while also being functional.

So in 2004 Debs began a modest business collecting the mother of pearl inlay pieces from Syria and manufacturing them in Lebanon, displaying the finished pieces of furniture in her home. Four years on, with a thriving furniture production operation becoming too big for her home, Debs decided to open a design studio in Saifi Village. “At the time, I thought it would be a design studio but it quickly and organically grew into a retail store where I was designing, manufacturing and selling my own brand of furniture,” she says.

From the beginning, Debs took part in shows in London, New York and Paris, because, according to her, it would give her luxury designs more credibility in the eyes of Lebanese clients. “Had I just produced and sold here, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” says Debs.

Today, 65 percent of Debs’ sales come from exporting while only 35 percent come from the local market, a figure she blames on the bad economy, the dwindling number of tourists from the Gulf region and the slow footfall in Saifi Village as compared to the Beirut Souks or ABC.

Outsourcing craftsmanship

“The ease, accessibility and loyalty of craftsmen to us here in Lebanon are much better”

When she first started, Debs had her own atelier of 25 artisans but today, upon the advice of her newly hired chief of operations, she is outsourcing craftsmanship to a specialized workshop. “Outsourcing ensures that each person takes responsibility for their part. Because of the situation we are in, sometimes we don’t have a lot of work and outsourcing means we don’t have to pay a monthly salary when we don’t need to,” she says. This change will allow her to focus only on designing and selling.

Comparing America and Europe to Lebanon, Debs sees that craftsmanship is more expensive in the West and also more bureaucratic. For instance, if she had wanted to fix a little mistake in a piece of furniture when she was in London, it would have been a long procedure of shipping and paperwork, whereas in Lebanon, this could be done within the day. “The ease, accessibility and loyalty of craftsmen to us here in Lebanon are much better,” she explains.

An advantage furniture makers abroad have over their Lebanese counterparts is that they learn furniture making in design schools while in Lebanon the craft is typically learned through apprenticeship. The main challenge is that artisans do not have the proper training when it comes to using modern technologies and techniques.

To help furniture makers acquire these skills, Debs hopes to establish a furniture making and design school in Lebanon where students would learn to ply their craft. “Designing is not enough when you don’t have production, and a lot of time you design based on how things are made. So if you are a furniture maker, it will really help you design,” she says.

For the time being, Debs is considering getting foreign expertise to help the furniture makers she works with develop their skills and learn new techniques. She believes this is something that should be done on the national level to support the country’s craftspeople in modernizing their skills and help Lebanon compete as a luxury producing country. “We need quality control according to the standards of luxury, and this is why we need to bring international expertise to identify these standards and elevate the benchmark of our craftsmanship,” says Debs.

When it comes to luxury designers, Debs feels that despite having a handful of well known designers, Lebanon is still not at the international level but is getting there. She feels that the authorities could extend their support in promoting Lebanon as a luxury design hub and exposing the designers’ work to the world through booking national stands in international trade shows. She gives the examples of Egypt and Japan, both of which wanted to encourage manufacturing and design in their countries, and took national pavilions in international trade shows, with stands for individual designers. “Lebanon has no money to do this. I had to take care of myself as do many other luxury designers in the country, but we are all managing,” she says.

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut.

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