Lebanese designer Nada Debs grew up in Japan and considers herself Far Eastern by nature. In her interior and furniture design, she merges the two worlds.
In 1917, just as the ravages of World War One were tearing through Europe, a young man named Ezzat Debs picked up his threads and followed the Silk Route to Yokohama in Japan. The son of a textile merchant and cotton mill owner, he began exporting Japanese silks and cottons and eventually established a lucrative family business. Eighty years later Nada Debs – Ezzat’s great niece – retraced her relative’s steps and set up an eponymous design company back home in Beirut. Today, Debs fuses the influence of her two homes – the Middle and Far Easts – in furniture and interiors using distinctive patterns and materials from the region.
‘Because I’m from the Far East [my work] is all about minimalism,’ she explains. ‘But I use Middle Eastern crafts. How interesting is it, that we have two Easts, at the extremes, you know?’
The East and East concept is an extension of her own dual experience: brought up in an Arabic household, she lived in Japan from the age of one and is fluent in both languages. As a result, her personality is ‘quite Japanese,’ noting a certain introversion and humility. ‘We are quiet and we like to listen,’ she tells us. ‘That’s my essence. I ended up having this collection because I was quietly observing the collective needs of people in this part of the world.’
Her collection is equally something of a cultural cross-pollination. ‘I brought in something that was very Japanese – a minimalist design philosophy where everything is pared down to the essence of things – and then I brought that craft into the Arab world.’
Debs is most celebrated for her household furniture using inlaid panels of mother-of-pearl – taking a traditional aspect of Levantine design and turning it into something very contemporary. While it is now met with enthusiasm, Debs stumbled upon many obstacles when she first started to sell her work. ‘Nobody wanted local designs,’ she remembers. ‘They only wanted imported goods.’ Wondering why people were not proud of their heritage, Debs relates how she set out to change this attitude. Through trial, error and many discarded prototypes, she eventually began to make contemporary furniture out of her house.
It took five visits to Damascus before Debs was able to locate the craftspeople producing intricate mother-of-pearl-inlays, who were fiercely secretive about their trade. Upon finally visiting these hidden workshops, she marvels, ‘people were so proud and they were working so patiently. And I thought, how beautiful! We don’t have that anymore; everyone’s thinking commercially, all speed and fast pace.’ Still, Debs found the end result to be ostentatiously maximalist. It was ‘nothing we can put in our homes – it was very gaudy, very more is more. Too much,’ she says.
In keeping with her minimalist aesthetic, she asked the bemused craftspeople to produce very pared down inlaid panels – a spare line of triangles; a simple cluster of diamonds. ‘All of a sudden, friends were seeing this Middle Eastern touch, but very modern. Their eyes were lighting up, like “oh my God that’s something we would put in our own home!”’ she relates. She parlayed this excitement into a thriving business and fast-growing workshop of 22 people. It has become something of a training ground for the younger generation; an attempt to preserve the dying craft of inlay work. She has even introduced new materials such as concrete and resin, where the craftsperson lays the work the traditional way – except on plexiglass – before resin or concrete are poured. The results are strikingly contemporary: ‘Exactly what we like, and what people like to put in their homes,’ she explains.
Debs’ newest collection, Vintage Meets Arabesque, takes its inspiration from Beiruti living rooms. She relates how, upon visiting many local homes, you will find a heady melange of furniture – ‘you will have this classical sofa, then all of a sudden this nice vintage chair from the ’70s or ’60s. I would say that is very Lebanese.’ As such, the new collection retains the vintage Franco-Belgian feel of these flea market finds, but updates them with handcarved Arabesque elements.
In this way, Debs looks to constantly explore traditional crafts and refashion them in modern ways. And why does she not use machines? ‘There’s an energy that you feel when it’s done by hand, and I’m a big believer in that kind of human energy.’ Her focus on people can also be seen in her interior design work, where she eschews a top-down approach and instead begins with the person’s personality and builds up from a single piece. ‘I don’t start with the larger space and move down to the furniture.’
Even as she addresses the needs of the end users, then, she adds a special regional touch, and believes that this explains her popularity with government and official buildings, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Abu Dhabi. She observes, ‘I feel that for them, I’m reflecting the modern Arab identity in design; it’s this emotional kind of pride that they’re feeling from things made in the Arab world.’
In carving out this modern design identity, Debs has in turn inspired a slew of other local designers. Two of her employees have even started their own furniture lines. ‘People are beginning to accept buying locally manufactured stuff now,’ she reflects. ‘I feel that is one big effort I made: to promote local production and give pride to the people here.’
Photographer: Karen & Josette