If wayfinding alone were any indication of architectural and industrial design prowess, then Karim Chaya would definitely top the list of Lebanon’s finest. Navigating Lebanon’s chaotic thoroughfares often requires steely resolve, and the signs guiding hapless drivers to Chaya’s Debayeh factory do more than just provide direction. They offer a first clue to his design philosophy – sophisticated simplicity, creative spontaneity, precise design, and, as Chaya puts it, consistency in the pursuit of quality.
“The most important thing that we offer is the service. From that stems design quality and our main goal to constantly deliver very high quality,” says Chaya – the managing partner and cofounder of Abillama Chaya Industrial Design (ACID), a local firm that custom builds products for a niche clientele. The firm designs and manufactures everything from furniture to staircases. You name it, ACID can make it, all in Lebanon.
The company today employs 180 people, 30 of whom are architects, engineers and designers. 10 are administrators, and the rest are technical workers splitting duties between the factory floor and onsite installation. Chaya spends much of his time as a consultant to other designers. “A lot of architects and designers come to us to study the feasibility of their design – we’re very specialized in what we do. We assemble all the knowhow that they might need under one roof.”
While the company’s financial performance remains robust, Fouad Matta, managing director of ACID, told Executive that exports over the past few years have suffered. This is largely due to regional and global trends – the fluctuation in the strength of the Euro against the US Dollar has diminished profits in the European market, their main export destination. Likewise, uncertainty surrounding Lebanon’s security situation in light of the spillover from the war in Syria has dissuaded some new potential clients, who fear the company might not be able to deliver, from contracting ACID. Syria’s civil war has also disrupted traditional trade routes, forcing ACID to turn to the sea, where shipping to the GCC markets can take a month compared to a week overland. Matta points out that this substantial increase in delivery time has cost ACID several contracts in Dubai.
Founding partner Raed Abillama has stepped back from ACID to set up his own architecture firm, Raed Abillama Architects, leaving Chaya to oversee the company by himself. Formally he is the head of sales at ACID, but he is also an accomplished furniture designer and artist. This range of experience enables him to take on the dual role of ensuring quality within the firm and engaging with clients.
But the creative vision instilled by Chaya and Abillama is still what guides the company – and the factory itself is a testament to this. From the grass covered rooftop picnic area that doubles as an open air corridor to the can of Spam, an American brand of canned meat, decorating Chaya’s office, every aspect of the company is cultivated. Chaya’s philosophy is truly reflected in the culture of the company; industrial design is architecture for objects, and seeing that unabbreviated approach applied to the physical layout of the facility could very well be the metaphorical bucket used to draw from the well of creative inspiration.