The emergence this autumn of We Design Beirut, a new design festival in Lebanon’s embattled capital, is an indicator of the city’s continuing creative energy and vibrant cultural scene
Photography courtesy of We Design Beirut featuring LimbObject, Under Design Lebanon, Milan Design Week 2023
Words by Harriet Thorpe
This October, new design festival We Design Beirut sets out to capture and reinforce the creative energy of the Lebanese capital’s vibrant design scene. Pitched as a place for discovery and exposure for both emerging and established designers, the four-day festival takes a multi-disciplinary approach curated around three themes – empowerment, preservation and sustainability – with events taking place at some of the city’s most culturally important and historic locations.
The creative energy in Beirut is certainly unique; it has drive, purpose and continues against all odds operating under near impossible conditions. State-supplied electricity is limited to two hours a day (most rely on generators); economic crisis has drastically devalued the currency; political instability continues amid recoveries from Civil War (1975-90) and the Lebanon War (2006); then, all of this on top of physically rebuilding nearly a quarter of the city since the devastating chemical blast of August 2020, which saw over 200 people killed and 300,000 displaced.
Despite these continuing challenges, this year the Sursock Museum of modern and contemporary art reopened after post-blast reconstruction. Lebanese designers have graced global design stages; at group show Under Design Lebanon at Isola Design District at Milan Design Week; at a retrospective of contemporary Lebanese design at Mudac Lausanne; at London’s summer Serpentine Pavilion designed by Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh – all, plus far more, without any strategic or financial government support.
Photography courtesy of We Design Beirut featuring Abnormal Couch, Post Industrial Crafts, Milan Design Week 2023
‘The Lebanese nation has had more than its fair share of strife in the past years, which has only seemed to strengthen the vision and creativity of the design scene both in the city and the diaspora,’ says Mariana Wehbe, a PR specialist who founded We Design Beirut with Milan-based Beirut-born industrial designer Samer Alameen and the creative force of Beirut-based branding agency Bananamonkey.
The ‘We’ in the festival’s title is very meaningful for Wehbe. While filling a void left by Beirut Art Fair and Beirut Design Week, which closed in 2019, and the activities of Carwan Gallery, which moved from Beirut to Athens in 2020, We Design Beirut distinguishes itself from other industry events as something more wide-reaching, democratic and even disruptive by representing a whole eco-system of design.
Visitors can see the city’s very best collectible design by the likes of Karen Chekerdjian, Nada Debs, Fadi Yachoui, Georges Mohasseb, Thomas Trad and Safer Bou Rjeily – while seeing how artisans, architects, curators, heritage professionals, community leaders, educators and students provide the scene too. After all, it has taken this whole network of relationships to rebuild the city to where it is today.
Photography courtesy of We Design Beirut featuring Thomas Trad
That’s why Wehbe describes it as a ‘homecoming’. The energy of the programme is palpable, with exhibitions, talks, workshops and pop-up shops descending on the city’s diverse architectural landscape. The festival hubs at the former studio of lighting specialist PSLab in the Mar Mikhaël neighbourhood – which was damaged by the blast, but remains a bastion of the design scene – host a focus on artisanal craft, with material workshops, including the making of a rattan housing unit in collaboration between six Italian architects and local master rattan craftspeople.
At The Egg – a concrete egg-shaped theatre designed by architect Joseph Philippe Karam, built in the 1960s and previously host to events by Louis Vuitton and Saint Hoax – there’s a showcase of emerging design talent exploring sustainability, curated by Federica Sala, Anne-France Berthelon and François Le Blanc in collaboration with seven Lebanese and five Italian universities. At Villa Mokbel – an iconic 1962 cinema of Italian and Ottoman hybrid design, now a cultural centre – there’s a group show of Middle Eastern product design.
Local guides are poised to provide first-hand insight into the rebuilding of the city, opening up doors and divulging expert knowledge: lunch with interior designer Diana Ghandour at her home office; local groups such as LIFE (a network for Lebanese professionals in the diaspora) and The Ready Hand (a platform for artisans based in Lebanon) collaborate at their Smo Gallery exhibition; the Beirut Heritage Initiative, responsible for galvanising resources and expertise for rebuilding the city, offers a tour of Beirut’s heritage houses.
Photography courtesy of We Design Beirut featuring The Egg
Another tour, with architects Nicolas Fayad and Charles Kettaneh of East Architecture Studio, explores the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Rachid Karami International Fair in Tripoli – abandoned in 1975 and placed this year in 2023 on UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger List. On the site, the practice’s Minjara project, a guesthouse converted into a resource hub for local carpentry to support the historic Tripoli woodworking tradition, won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2022.
In offering this breadth of opportunities for cultural enrichment, education and networking, We Design Beirut has real ambition and purpose for Lebanon. ‘Through the programme we aim to empower highly skilled artisans that have lost a large part of their livelihoods in the past five years. This is an opportunity to showcase their work and build for them a new network to sustain their endangered businesses,’ says Wehbe.
The stakes are certainly high – the empowering of an urban community through design, the rebuilding and preserving of its heritage and the sustaining of a national history of craft – and the odds certainly stacked against. But perhaps that’s exactly what powers the unique, enviable and relentless energy of Beirut’s design scene today – exactly what this festival seeks to capture and celebrate.
We Design Beirut runs from 27-30 October 2023