Expensive tastes are exclusive ones — why spend thousands on an identikit interior when your home can be one-of-a-kind? But beyond the diamond-encrusted couches and Arabic-embroidered rugs hand-woven to order by Nepalese craftsmen, the trend for tailor-made interiors opens up exciting possibilities in design and enterprise. Executive takes a tour of some of Beirut’s creative companies in the business of fulfilling dreams clients didn’t even know they had.
“I don’t like the word creativity,” says architect and designer Karim Bekdache, sounding at odds with the sun-filled furniture showroom behind him, crammed with mesmerizing concoctions in wood, glass and steel. “I think [design] should answer a real need, and then it can be completely wild and you can call it creative, or it can be completely invisible — but for me, creating something completely invisible or completely wild is the same.” Trained in France and working mostly in Lebanon and Europe, Bekdache does not worry about imposing a particular architectural signature on a project. Being at the top of your game as an architect or designer isn’t just about the ‘wow’ factor. As luxury consumers globally are cutting back on flash statements in favor of projects with personal meaning, Bekdache seeks a sort of synthesis where clients, if the process goes well, feel that they are the ones who defined the work.
Bekdache gives the example of a project in Gemmayze whose owner was making the move from the mountains to Beirut. Based on this background, Bekdache commissioned the famous French botanist Patrick Blanc to create a vertical interior ‘green wall’ inside the property, a self-sustaining structure made entirely of plants and mosses. “It’s about installing something in the house that gives meaning,” he explains. Then, “there’s an inside relation between the client and the house.” Horrified by the spectacle of so many design catalogues of endless, stultifying choices, Bekdache has learned to bypass the books and magazines predicting the latest trend. “This is the meaning of modern for me,” he concludes. “Not to imitate, but to keep on going, further than you did the last time.”
Let there be light
When it comes to local companies who can realize unconventional visions, Bekdache has high praise for lighting design and manufacture firm .PSLAB. He describes their approach as “very very courageous and daring. It’s incredible… they throw away all the catalogues of all the possible spotlights in the world, and then you come to them and say ‘I need a light for this space,’ and sometimes they really get beyond this stuff and start telling you how the architecture should be.” .PSLAB, unlike any other lighting company in the region, design and manufacture all their products in-house, giving them total control of their exclusive ‘haute couture’ approach. For them, the specifics of a given space define the lighting, rather than the lighting imposing a mood on the space. Their contemporary, industrial chic products are crafted by teams of in-house artisans and never re-used on the same market; an approach that has won them devotees as far apart as Parisian design darling India Mahdavi and Beiruti architectural rock star Bernard Khoury.
.PSLAB compare themselves to a five-star hotel, where the customer’s needs define their experiences and where each experience can be completely different. This synthesis of forward-thinking design, controlled production and sophisticated client relations is a complete service that puts .PSLAB ahead, not just of other lighting companies, but also of many other ‘bespoke’ design services.
High-end, high budget projects will often involve an unusual attention to structure and detailing. Architects like Bekdache might lower a ceiling or find a way around an awkward hallway, which ultimately will increase the value of a property that has been sculpted into its best possible form. But there are some challenges that need the expertise of master designers and craftsmen — a niche demand that Karim Chaya and his partner Raed Abillama stumbled upon in 1997 when they began the projects that led to their company Acid, specializing in architectural detailing. Chaya, who jokes that the team are “detail nerds,” explains: “We started becoming known as the ‘mission impossible’ company — whenever there was something difficult, strange, unresolved, out of a dream, they would come to us, a company that will take the headache out of [it].” From staircases, to lifts, to made-to-order wall cladding (such as in the new Downtown café, Grid, that glows pink and gold from sets of copper mesh screens imported from Turkey), Acid have built their reputation on “quality and sensibility above all,” an uncompromising stance that brooks no opposition over the amount of time it takes to do a thing properly — principles that have landed them commercial projects like Lanvin and Joseph boutiques worldwide.
The artisanal skills that Acid often relies on originate in the “back alleys in Bourj Hammoud,” of which Chaya says “the most valuable thing that I have acquired since we started is that network. Good people we can work with and who have the same ideas.” Far from throwing out the skills of generations of craftsmen, Acid is one of the companies keeping them in business, playing an intermediary role between the metal smiths, carpenters and leather workers and the off-the-wall requirements of high-end clients.
The business of bespoke
A more classical approach to customized interiors offers clients the opportunity to have total control of the design of luxury items — a methodology that is revolutionizing some local businesses. Opened a year ago in Ashrafieh, the United Kingdom’s Rug Company has developed a bespoke service that complements its already elite range of rug designs created by the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen. Existing designs can be adapted in myriad ways, while the customer controls the colors and the silk content of the weaves, which range from around $500 to $3500 per square meter. But the premium service sees clients designing their own patterns, such as their name in Arabic calligraphy, which are then tried and tested on screen before being sent to Nepal, where teams of expert weavers take up to a year to produce the finished product.
Serge Nalbandian of Nalbandian Textiles offers similar services, having personalized rugs for Elie Saab and had his Tibetan weavers produce a pop art Superman number. He has also redesigned his family business around customization, with the company abandoning its history of trading antique Persian carpets and preferring to give clients what they want — pieces for the home that are about immediate pleasure, without re-saleable value.
“What I got from my father as a heritage… we changed completely,” he says. “Instead of accumulating more stock from all over the world, we did the contrary. What the customer needs, we can provide him with.” The new year will see a giant state-of-the-art screen installed at Nalbandian for the sole purpose of giving clients a multimedia customization experience. “There is no longer a way of investing in your decoration as an heirloom,” says Nalbandian. “It fits in your house, you live with it for the time that you’re enjoying it and this is it.”
Enjoying the moment can take many forms. “I’ll be the executor of your dreams,” smiles Vick Vanlian — and he should know, being responsible for creations including a diamond-strewn sofa. Like Serge Nalbandian, he developed his family business, Galerie Vanlian, in response to customer demand for the high-end customized items that now make up 50 percent of his business. This led to Envy, his three-floor Downtown boutique — a mind-boggling collection where there isn’t one object that doesn’t glitter or gleam or clamor for attention. Vanlian is aware of his celebrity cachet as a successful and distinctive young designer; a further gloss on custom projects, which always bear his characteristic signature.
As such, Vanlian excels at realizing flamboyant visions, from a ‘famous singer’ who requested a room designed around 150 pictures of herself, to a Saudi prince’s pleasure chamber. Working through an intermediary, Vanlian received instructions for it. “[The client] called it the massage room, but it was the sex room… it had a round bed in the middle with four stages on each corner, with dancing poles and big screens and in the middle a big cage that could come up and down… nicely put together for a porn movie, basically.” There will always be mileage — and a lot of fun — in being known for making any dream come true.
Made in Lebanon
None of these dreams come cheap, of course. Maria Halios started her own furniture gallery in Mar Mikhael last year, producing limited edition and bespoke pieces, after demand for customization necessitated her own working space. She points to a pair of hoop-like metal sculptures with finely textured surfaces. “Imagine that I have to do them a centimeter smaller,” she says. “Molds are required. Each mold costs a fortune and because you cannot have the same dimensions in another house, you basically throw the mold in the garbage. So you invest in a mold that is supposed to produce a hundred pieces, just for one piece — the cost is huge.” The cost of a dining table can jump from $5,000 to $15,000 if you want to be sure no one else has it.
Yet these are the prices you have to pay to keep ahead of the neighbors — a popular pastime in a high society as small as Lebanon’s. But Lebanon is also an exciting hub of creative talent with a distinct price advantage over Europe. Halios, like most of the companies mentioned here, works with clients overseas who are happy to undercut designers offering similar services in more developed markets.
Yet aside from the business of pursuing the most exclusive clients around, a genuine commitment to originality at all costs is at the heart of these projects. Halios fingers an origami-like paper maquette, the first stage in creating an intricate table of angular interlocking pieces. “I never imagined the beauty that could come from a mock-up like this,” she says. “It’s not easy because when you have custom-made designs you have to create all the time. It’s not like you create two collections a year and then you forget about it.”
Far from a cynical exploitation of the fantasies of the super-rich, these companies are challenging themselves, and the industry as a whole, to keep evolving the practice of made to measure design.