Rana Salam – Lebanon’s mistress of Pop Art

Meet the woman rewriting the rules of Middle Eastern design

Rana Salam is one of Lebanon's leading designers

Rana Salam’s studio is a maze of colors, a veritable smorgasbord of Middle Eastern trinkets, icons, logos and visuals, ranging from old movie posters to funky packaging that bursts with creativity. In her shop on Abdel Wahab al-Inglizi, Abdel Nasser’s profile features on a retro tabletop and Um Kulthum adorns button pins. What Campbell’s tomato soup was to Warhol, Chiclets chewing gum is to Salam, a great fan of pop art who masterfully celebrates and elevates local cult brands and paraphernalia.

“Lebanon today is a mix of old and new, infused with nostalgia. It’s a mishmash. I’m trying to create it all the time … In London you have the [red] bus, iconic brands such as Marmite … I adapted the same formula to our culture, and made them into products.”

Since starting out in London where she obtained degrees from Central St. Martins and the Royal College of Art, Salam is considered one of the most celebrated designers who utilize Middle Eastern popular art and culture.

Asked what she considered the source of success for Rana Salam Design, she argues passion and her determination to change the perception of the Middle East. “It was very important to me to create something from the Middle East that spoke about [our] culture in a modern way. I put myself and my own investments in this brand. It’s not work, work is being with the kids, this [the studio] is where I come and play — it’s effortless,” she adds with a hearty laugh.

Salam has worked on a great variety of projects, including branding a children’s shop (Lola et moi, Beirut). She counts Bank Med among her clients, as well as musician Natasha Atlas, chocolatier Cocomaya, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the National Museum in Beirut. She created and executed the theme for local NGO Skoun’s 2010 gala: Plastik Fantastik. She has designed various cafes (such as Laziz in Hamra), created textile designs for Nada Debs’ Floating Stools, worked for local furniture designers Bokja Design, and designed invitations and a look book for Dubai’s Boutique 1.

Window to the future

Straight out of college, she was commissioned to create windows for Harvey Nichols’ summer collection. The vibrant colors and art works she’d commissioned by Armenian cinema poster artists back in Beirut mesmerized passersby as well as Paul Smith, who in 2000 asked her to design his Spring/Summer show invitation.

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Salam has since then managed to achieve what she had set out to do, namely to change the perception of the Middle East through the power of design. Her studio in Abdel Wahab al-Inglizi specializes in art direction, design and consultation for retail, product, print, hospitality and exhibitions, besides other commercial activities.

“The Harvey Nichols windows were the beginning of my visual identity. I did not know that it was going to anchor me in that look and feel,” Salam points out. “Only 10 years later did I realize that that’s what people want. I worried I’d be stuck in this style, but people love it. I do need to let people know that I do other things, that I’m also a good designer, good at branding.”

Salam started her label Mishmaoul six years ago. It consisted of 10 items, among them cushions, puffs, tea towels, aprons, place boards and paper cups. Ambivalent about the name, she is gradually phasing it out, replacing it with her own name.

“I had zero start-up capital and experienced a lot of pitfalls, made many mistakes and cash flow disasters,” she says, recalling the early days. “I didn’t know you had to market things up — you buy something, you sell it. I hadn’t even seen an Excel sheet at school. I advise the young generation to get some business acumen, to learn the lingo and the know-how even if you are an artist or creative.”

Salam’s friend Abed Bibi advised her on her business, urging her to triple her rates. “That’s when I started to make money and was able to hire people.” Bibi was the one business consultant she could call on and still advises her now, most recently about retainers. “Thanks to him, I was taught the art of business. You have to know your value, pricing, getting rid of the cronies.”

At present Salam employs two designers and an account manager, which, in her words, has transformed everything: “I don’t have to speak money with clients all the time, she has freed me up.”

“I’m a tough task master but good at motivating,” she says of her leadership style. “I encourage them to wander outside, to put music on and I am flexible about 9-to-5.”

Salam, who recently set up a Sarl, underlines the risk her business faces when employees move on and take work with them. “Copyright infringement is an issue for small and big brands,” she says. “I set a style, a trend that’s never existed; 20 years ago, I started a visual language for the Middle East that became electric. A lot of people capitalized on it.”

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Salam’s current range includes cushions, place boards, cutting boards, paper cups, button pins, puffs, kitchen towels, iPhone 4 covers and more, available at her shop and in Jeddah, Dubai, Kuwait and Qatar.

Partying through the pain

Sales in Lebanon in 2013 amounted to 40 percent of the total, compared to sales abroad. Salam concedes that she needs to expand, particularly into the GCC, Australia, the US, and Europe, to tap into the Lebanese and Arab Diaspora.

When asked about the company’s performance in the past two years, Salam refers back to her time in London. “The show must go on, when things are bad that’s when you have to party! I threw an office party for £400 in my London office years ago. The time to be creative is when things are slow. It’s the best test for fear — you shouldn’t let it take over.” Besides a bad start to 2014, Rana Salam Design incurred a loss of 4.5 percent over the 2012/2013 year.

“The shop came out of this present situation — it’s the £400 party revisited,” she explains. “It’s our best form of marketing; instead of a billboard, the shop front is the billboard. I decided to spend the rent and use the exterior to put wild graphics and eye-catching visuals up. Then during Beirut Design Week it became a design museum and the actual space inside eventually became a permanent shop. It was an idea that grew into a real shop but first really it was just to promote the name.”

In addition, Salam makes extensive use of social media, notably Instagram but also Facebook, Twitter and her website, as well as her iconographic yellow Vespa that she uses to get through Beirut traffic. “I sell myself,” she says laughing.

With her former ties to England, she sources some materials there. “The fabric is printed there, shipped over and sewn together here. Our paper cups are done here. I’m all for using local production so when it’s possible to do it here, I will have it made here. I would love to expand but my weakness is distribution. I wish to do iPhone 5 covers but that will require an order of 10,000 … Quality and cost always are a concern.”

“We’re in an ongoing process of innovation, it’s an immediate process,” the designer explains. “I don’t really do prototypes — that requires money. You have to believe that you are spending forward, believe in slow rewards.”

The first collaboration between Bassem Fattouh and Salam has created Nostalgie d’Orient by Bassam Fattouh, to be launched in April.

She is unequivocal about her most  successful project to date: the book “The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie — Intimacy and Design.” Salam teamed up with writer  Malu Halasa with whom she co-authored the book consisting of photo-essays and interviews after having received funding from Prince Claus Foundation. Though published five years ago it still draws wide and renewed interest given the situation in Syria. “There were many hidden results, it was a huge success.”

 

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly asserted that Salam started her Mishmaoul label 20 years ago instead of six and implied that the name had already been phased out — a continuing process. It also misidentified Skoun’s 2010 gala theme as ‘Shaabi Chic’ instead of ‘Plastik Fantastik’. Finally, it incorrectly placed Salam’s studio in Furn al-Hayek; it is located in Nasra. Our apologies.

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