Sharing Lebanon’s artisanal treasures with the world

UNIDO’s ambitious plan to link up Lebanese designers with markets in the West

Challenging economic times have left Lebanon’s smaller manufacturers in a precarious situation, with few potential customers in the local market and a lack of government support beyond a few free zones and tax breaks for exports, meaning foreign markets are difficult to reach. Enter UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization), which has launched a pilot program to support manufacturers in Lebanon’s creative industries. Taken as a whole, UNIDO says these industries contributed five percent to Lebanon’s gross domestic product in 2010 – the latest comparison available, and accounted for four percent of the national workforce that year. But there is potential for more.

Design, UNIDO says, is a useful tool for further economic development and job creation. Their plan is to build a system of support, starting with artisanal jewelry makers in the Beirut suburb of Bourj Hammoud and furniture makers in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city. “They both are suffering – Tripoli is suffering very much, but also Bourj Hammoud – because of the lack of tourists, especially Gulf tourists,” says Giulio Vinaccia, an industrial design consultant leading UNIDO’s program. Matched with Lebanese celebrity designers, UNIDO will instill business prowess among artisans and, with buyers already in place, facilitate access to European markets.

Melting pot of creativity

Harnessing Lebanon’s creativity requires a structured approach; “Creativity now is a science, it has a methodology and has a logic to follow,” says Vinaccia. As part of a larger program amongst countries of the Southern Mediterranean, UNIDO’s initiative for Lebanon is to scale up artisanal production, starting first with the jewelry and furniture makers.

There is no shortage of creativity amongst Lebanese jewelry and furniture designers. “Lebanese are born with hundreds of different stories. They know the traditions of Mohammed and of Armenian design. All that is fantastic for being creative, and that’s why it’s so good in Lebanon – it’s a melting pot. This is the perfect environment for creativity,” he says.

Other creative industry clusters have not achieved the success touted [see overview on page 28] in part because those producers did not have markets prearranged to sell their products. Seeing this, UNIDO considers it a priority to establish a market for designers to sell their goods. Vinaccia tells Executive that Tripoli’s furniture makers will be sending tables to Habitat, a French retailer of household furnishings. “We went to Paris, we made the deal. They said build us some prototypes, check the quality, send them to us, and we’ll put them in stock. This was the first homework I gave to them [furniture makers]. For them it’s so easy, no? But they need to understand how to arrive at mass production and how to maintain the quality.”

Vinaccia points out the need to professionalize Lebanon’s designers. “You need to be a mix of manager and designer with a toolbox of organization, business development, and marketing skills,” he says. “To that end, UNIDO includes a capacity building phase to its program which includes matching amateur designers with celebrity mentors in the field.” Being linked to big Lebanese names – designers like Nada Debs, Vinaccia says – will help open doors for the artisans, particularly once their products reach the market.

Finally, to maintain the technical knowhow of artisanal craft and to introduce new design approaches and technologies, UNIDO has hooked up with Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (ALBA), a local design school. This, Vinaccia says, brings UNIDO’s program full circle by linking students from the academic environment with designers in the workshop.

National identity

“You need to understand that design is no longer the dress of the products – it is the soul,” says Vinaccia. Products nowadays, he says, need to be as aesthetically pleasing as they are functional. But they also need to tell a story that impresses the buyer with a unique image of the country that produced it.

In the heat of the United States’ global trade negotiations, geographic indicators (GIs) – names for products that correspond specifically to location of origin – stand out as a point of contention. GIs appeal to national identity and the Europeans, in negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the Americans, argue that regional foods like Greek feta or French champagne should be legally protected as intellectual property. The idea makes sense – in many cases GIs can be identified with historic connotations to their nation of origin. This means that wine produced in Napa Valley, for example, has brand name power and is thus quite lucrative for farmers and producers.

UNIDO’s idea to nurture Lebanese jewelry and furniture is similar. Tying national identity to the products would develop brand name recognition – ‘made in Lebanon’ is a powerful sell, particularly to the expatriate community yearning for a piece of home. But it is premature to think they could be considered geographic indicators, and UNIDO does not anticipate branding protection as part of their strategy.

The history of producing jewelry in Bourj Hammoud and furniture in Tripoli, however, is real, and for some in UNIDO’s program, like Hadidian Jewelry, the business stretches back generations. The jewelry and furniture trades are symbolic of their respective neighborhoods, which Vinaccia says is a selling point.

Like Lebanon’s previous clusters, the UNIDO program is only possible through external funding – the European Union in this case. In the past, once funding dried up similar programs were discontinued and participants were left to soldier on with no one facilitating access to buyers in foreign markets. The UNIDO cluster project is still in its infancy, but if the model for the jewelry and furniture makers proves successful, the plan is to expand the program to other clusters, Cristiano Pasini, UNIDO’s country representative tells Executive. “We are doing something very meaningful for these two clusters – I’m sure we’re going to scale up.”

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