With a few Lebanese names solidified on the regional stage of furniture design, Lebanon is becoming more aware of furniture as an art form and investment. Executive spoke with some of the country’s biggest players in the field to discover where Lebanese designers are in the maturing world of Arab furniture design.
Art that you sit on
American University of Beirut graduate and London-based designer, Zaha Hadid, made a series of 24 chairs for international architecture and design firm Sawaya & Moroni, the prices for which start at $150,000. This price tag may come as a shock, but Gregory Gatserelia, founder of Beirut-based Gatserelia Design, urges customers to look at the pieces as assets.
“It’s not money paid, it’s money invested,” he says. “So I tell my clients that art is money well invested if you have a good consultant.” Gatserelia just opened SMO Gallery in Beirut to showcase his favorite collections, which include a couch and table of his own design.
Gatserelia says that the creative Lebanese crowd is becoming more and more interested in attending art galleries and shows and they are more aware of certain “collector pieces” or newly available pieces at galleries and showrooms. He works on behalf of clients to acquire those items. Gatserelia’s main business remains interior and architecture design, mostly of Middle East and North African residential and commercial projects, and he is now commissioned to work on the architecture and interiors of the 200 villas in the upcoming Nikki Resorts in Croatia.
“We just commissioned Ross Lovegrove to design a set of suspension lights and a dining room table that is molded into one unique piece, to be installed in a client’s Sursock residence. It’s molded in fiber-carbon through a technology we can’t master here in Lebanon,” he says.
The exclusivity of the piece (only two were made alongside the original) will allow the owner to ask “three or four times” the piece’s original cost, if and when he sells it.
Despite investment considerations, Gatserelia is careful to keep ‘passion’ as a main ingredient in the art collection process, even though anything that’s properly marketed can be made into an investment item.
“If I see that [someone] is not interested [in the quality of the art], [I will] never get rid of a piece to a person who doesn’t appreciate it, just because [they] have the money.”
A particular soft spot shows for his favorite pieces: “I have pieces [a set of stools] designed by Bernard Khoury that I consider more valuable than all my pieces combined.”
It’s all about the name
With few competitors in the field of Lebanese furniture design, Nada Debs, chief executive officer of design company East & East, has carved out a profitable niche for herself after originally starting out as an interior designer.
Debs’s uniquely Middle Eastern outlook makes her pieces instantly recognizable — a plus that has helped her build her brand since she returned to Lebanon from London. Debs is most known for the “arabesque modern Arabic style” throughout her hand-made furniture lines.
Her company’s name represents the combination of Far Eastern sensibility and Middle Eastern details. The popular mix allows for shipments all over the world, with 40 percent of her products sold abroad, mostly in the Gulf.
“Our customers from the West see our pieces as exotic and authentic, whereas our Middle Eastern customers like the craftsmanship element and handmade detail, which reflect our culture and emotional belonging to the region. Even in the [Gulf Cooperation Council], people who originally liked the whole contemporary Italian look now prefer more subtle furniture and warm colors,” said Debs.
Her limited edition series, ‘Middle East Bling Bling’, included pieces, such as an arabesque chair and a chrome pebble table, infused with mother of pearl. Price-tags for tables in this line begin at $60,000.
Though she admits that many people think her work is overpriced, rising costs of labor and materials leave her with little room to maneuver.
“In the Arab world, labor isn’t cheap like in China. Import taxes make the price 30 percent more, as pieces are made with imported wood, brass and chrome,” she says.
But customers still save on local brands when compared to importing European-made products, which are more expensive, even if they are machine-made. But that won’t be the case for long, it seems. “Definitely, people are more interested in local craftsmanship, not commercial pieces,” says Debs. The proof is in the numbers, as revenues for Debs have grown about 10 times since she started a decade ago, she says.
But it is the corporate deals and special orders that keep her name rapidly circulating in a region that has a sweet tooth for known, often foreign, brands.
As an example of her growing regional prominence, 700 small pieces, such as vases and candleholders, were shipped off to a Middle Eastern royal family last year, and similar bulk orders are popular among Middle Eastern companies who distribute the items among employees as end-of-year gifts.
Recently the Museum of Modern Art in Qatar purchased a “concrete carpet,” which will be exhibited as an art installation and will be part of their permanent collection.
Entrepreneurship organization Endeavor Lebanon, whose London International Selection panel of six judges chose Nada Debs (and another Lebanese business) out of companies from 8 countries, sees potential in Debs and plans to make her company a globally recognizable brand.