Shine On, Lebanon pix
William Sawaya looks to his Mideastern roots for innovative design
Aric Chen -- Interior Design, 4/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
William Sawaya, partner at Sawaya & Moroni and curator of "Switch on Lebanese Design," at this year's Salon du Meuble in Paris.
Georges Aramouni's Slider electric concept car.
Rabih Kayrouz's Souk el Tawile silk dresses.
Pascal Tarabay's sustainable Inbox, a sofa, table, and rug that fold out of the wood crate they're shipped in.
Mohammad Arayssi's canvas-and-tubular-steel Saadah chair.
Sybille Nasrallah's Acolyte backpack.
Raed Abillama and Karim Chaya's Plywaves plywood chaise lounge that can also become two seats.
William Sawaya has always had an international perspective. Born and raised in cosmopolitan post–World War II Beirut, Lebanon, and now a naturalized Italian citizen, he is one half of Sawaya & Moroni, the Milan-based contemporary furniture company he founded with Paolo Moroni in 1984. Long known for looking both within and outside of Italy for its talent, the firm has produced works that are what Sawaya calls "haut de gamme," or high concept, by such renowned designers as Zaha Hadid, John Maeda, Jean Nouvel, and Dominique Perrault. Sawaya himself has designed projects for Baccarat, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, Heller, and Swiss International Air Lines.
When Sawaya was asked to curate an exhibition for this year's Salon du Meuble in Paris, he looked to his native country and its emerging generation of designers. "Switch on Lebanese Design," organized with Beirut architect Nayla Romanos Ilya, included some 30 young Lebanese designers, whose work ranged from furniture and lighting to fashion, jewelry, cars, and boats. Coming more than a decade after the end of a debilitating civil war, the exhibition, which has been touted as the first showing of contemporary Lebanese design outside of that country, showcased a recovering creative milieu to an international audience.
Where did the idea for "Switch on Lebanese Design" come from?
I still return to Lebanon three or four times a year to visit friends and family. Recently, I've been receiving many portfolios from young Lebanese designers, some living there and some based abroad, and I noticed that their work deals not just with basic products. It's becoming more culturally self-conscious and sophisticated. When the Salon du Meuble asked me to curate a design exhibition, it was a good opportunity to show the interests and concerns of this generation, which is trying to define its identity.
Can you still define design by nationality, or has it become so globalized that such differences have disappeared?
Eventually, we will all speak only one design language. Our needs are becoming the same, regardless of religion, nationality, or ethnicity. Only economic factors will dictate a country's ability to produce innovative or technologically sophisticated design. However, strong concepts can come from anywhere, whether an industrialized or developing country.
Is there a particular area from which young Lebanese designers take inspiration?
Many feel like they must first draw from their Mideastern culture and origins before moving on to more international design. Maybe it's a way of differentiating themselves. A lot of the designers in the exhibition used Arabic calligraphy in furniture, jewelry, and graphics. They didn't limit themselves to this, though; we also had a transformable tent, a car, a speedboat, and even a telescopic sun bed.
Do you think that the civil war in Lebanon during the late 1970's and 1980's has influenced the work of young designers there?
Since everything was destroyed, on both a material and social level, the war has indeed influenced young designers. They've had to start from zero and rely on themselves, their own initiatives, and, in many cases, their foreign education. And that has given them an independent spirit.
What was surprising to you, or others, about what the designers came up with?
I think everybody expected the designers to be stuck in a more traditional or folkloric aesthetic. But it was just the opposite. Some of them studied or currently live abroad, and all had a very broad viewpoint and a contemporary sense of duty, especially toward ecology and nature. Georges Aramouni proposed an electric concept car, and Pascal Tarabay's Inbox consists of a sofa, table, and rug that integrate the wood crate they're shipped in, reducing waste.
Do you have any favorite designs among those shown at the exhibition?
I like them all, of course, but some do stand out in my mind: I loved Sybille Nasrallah's Acolyte, a backpack that transforms into a camping tent. Janine Akl's Sur la Plage is an extendable sun bed that can be used on both its concave and convex sides. I also like Milia Maroun's minimal jersey-fabric dresses. They're all very innovative ideas that are simple yet rigorous.
Now that the exhibition is over, are any of the designs going into production?
Some of the designers were already in discussions with manufacturers and are in the process of finalizing contracts. Others are looking for retailers to whom they can sell their products directly.
How about Sawaya & Moroni?
It's too late for us to carry any of the designs for this year. But maybe in the future.