Karen Chekerdjian has been busy.
Not content with designing her studio’s headquarters and expanding her range of objects to include a line of decidedly old-fashioned children’s toys and another that pays tribute to archetypal tools, she’s also the head of a small group of designers and restauranteurs who are slowly transforming the neighbourhood just behind Beirut’s booming port – the last truly industrial space in the city centre - into a creative destination.
Late last year, all that activity took its toll when a fall saddled her with a broken leg. Still, even hobbling around with the aid of a crutch – just one, because two looked ‘messy’ – her sense of resolve (and indeed, style) seemed barely compromised.
Today, she’s back on both legs and in addition to overseeing her eponymous design studio, which occupies the floor above the vaulting raw concrete and stone warehouse that Chekerdjian has transformed into her ‘rough luxury’ boutique, she’s busy arranging a block party. It’s one of series of events, like olive oil tastings and dinner book launches that she organises regularly throughout year, in part to persuade Beirutis that despite the fleets of trucks, pockmarked factories, buses bound for Syria and hyperactive shipping warehouses that surround it, the Marfa’a, as the collective have taken to calling their new neighbourhood, is the place to be.
“We’re still seen as really edgy, she says as we chat in front of a sleek black metal wall cabinet punctuated with slender wooden trays and black mesh panels (her design) filled with a selection of jams, Lebanese olive oils neatly packaged in smoky green bottles (again, her design) and other edible goodies that are promoted alongside her own creations under the monkier of ‘Things We Like’. “People do like coming down here but they aren’t quite used to it yet.”
In addition to her own boutique, Chekerdjian also designed the flagship store for her neighbour, haute couturier Rabih Kayrouz, whose meteoric rise to Paris Fashion Week (and, in the process, induction into the ranks of the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres) has been as modest and self-effacing as the designer himself. The third boutique on the street, IF, is a shared venture by Palestinian-Lebanese leather maker, Johnny Farah and his wife Cyn, who oversees a tightly collated selection of fashion from the world’s more interesting labels.
Back in Chekerdjian’s boutique, the designer’s full range is on display. There are Limited Edition objects, more conceptual in nature, like Confessional, a vanity/clothes screen set which distinctly echoes a church booth and bespoke furniture to jewellery inspired by 19th Century nails and 2nd Century stone anchors, hand-hammered brass and copper tableware (including a beautiful, if financially impractical hand-pierced tray that riffs off traditional strainers), embroidered linen ware and of course, those aforementioned ‘things’ the designer ‘likes’.
With a background in film and graphic design, Chekerdjian trained at Milan’s Domus Academy and produced items for Edra, before returning to Lebanon in 1997. In Beirut, she soon realised that she’d have to adopt a completely different approach if she was going to make design work. Stripped of access to many of the new materials and methods of production she’d relied on in Italy, she began the lengthy process of finding local artisans to help her create.
A decade and a half later, she’s assembled a coterie of craftsmen – coppersmiths, glass-blowers, carpenters, rattan-weavers, embroiderers – some of whom would no longer be working were it nor for Chekerdjian’s commissions.
The result is an aesthetic that combines the handmade with the industrial. Take Grande Vague, for example. This slender three-seat bench came about after the chance discovery of a wave-like metal rail in a factory scrapheap. Intrigued by its shape but unsure of what it could be used for, Chekerdjian finally settled on using it to make a base, upon which a seat, variously configured as a solid slab of mahogany or a trio of rattanwork panels, could be balanced. The bench is finished with pre-softened black leather cushions and channels a definite Midcentury attitude.
Hiroshima, a mushroom cloud-like lamp that explores the disturbing and unhealthily seductive aesthetic of weapons of destruction, was born of happenstance of another kind. After an early collaboration with Icelandic artist Tinna Gunnarsdóttir on Rolling Stone, a series of mobile ball-shaped storage units, left her with a number of leftover hand-milled metal spheres, she realised their potential as lampshades. Others, like Un Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe and In The Forest, both dining tables, add humour to the industrial. The former does this with a tray-like table top that can be filled with anything from water or sand to turf, for an indoor picnic with a difference, the latter with a piece of tanned but unshaped leather, which is not merely draped over the wooden surface, but is set into it, secured in place by delicate metal stitching. It’s a technique Chekerdjian uses elsewhere, notably on a series of metal pouffe/coffee tables, whose metal rattan-work tops are secured in place by giant copper frankenstitches.
While her work has taken a more practical bent in Lebanon, the conceptual hasn’t entirely been abandoned. Her Limited Edition pieces explore ideas she finds intriguing and include a series of highly-polished steel objects – stools, vases, shelves – that are designed to disappear by ‘cloaking’ themselves in reflections of their surroundings, a series of sculptural tables that look rather like cubist cityscapes, called Platform and then there’s Iqar, a table created out of a single piece of highly-polished steel, hand bent into the shape of a giant paper aeroplane, which is a meditation on the war in Iraq.
So exacting, she’s been known to make her own screws when she hasn’t been able to find any to suit, the industrial handicraft aesthetic Chekerdjian champions suits her to a tee.
“I’m idealistic, I always saw myself as a defender of justice, you know when you’re a kid and you dream of wearing a mask and fighting for a good cause,” she says, laughing a little as she hears what’s she’s just said. “I’ve always thought it’s worth fighting for things that are going to disappear and you know, here, crafts are going to disappear.”
Given her self-stated aversion to ‘earthy-crunchiness’, appreciation of the industrial and the futurism that runs through her work, quite why that should matter isn’t necessarily self-evident.
“I admit that I’m fascinated by the idea of how human beings can evolve and become closer to a machine, I’d love to invent tools that are almost inserted into our bodies but I also have this idealism, that is very fond of the beauty of the past. I’m really attached to the knowhow of crafts and we’ve already lost so much. We already don’t have the capacity to do a tenth of what we could do a century ago. I really fear that at this rate, we’ll completely lose our ability to make things with our hands. I think that’s something we’d miss. I think we’d lose a part of our soul.”
As I leave, Chekerdjian is about to welcome her sensei – she’s taking language courses with a Japanese expat in the hopes of spending some time in Japan, perhaps studying pottery making. Later, she’ll be chairing a meeting to go through the last details for December’s block party.
As I leave, walking up the short flight of polished concrete steps to reach street level, I’m faced with what was to have been a new apartment block. It stands - or rather will stand, for it’s currently not finished - where one of Beirut’s best-known architects, the late Pierre el-Khoury, used to have his offices.
For now, it’s just a giant hole in the ground, victim of the Lebanese roller coaster, where periods of intense, frenetic activity are punctuated by lulls brought on by national and regional unrest. Behind the hoardings, laundry hangs on the cramped balconies of a worker’s hostel and down the street are two restaurants. One is a hole-in-the-wall that once ‘perfumed’ the neighbourhood with the smell of fried fish and garlic (until Chekerdjian, keen that it should remain but mindful of sensitive noses, persuaded the owner to install an extractor) and Luxe, where organic greens and organic meats are served in scrupulous surroundings beneath the eponymous old cinema hoarding, all rust and splendour, to the sharply-dressed patrons who now come here to shop.
Painted grey, with huge pavement-to-ceiling windows and polished metal signs in a semi-Deco typeface, also designed by Chekerdjian, the collective’s three boutiques are an incongruous sight, sophisticated, beautiful, luxurious islands of creativity, adrift in a sea of half-finished, half-falling buildings, grime and chaotic traffic. It doesn’t get much more Beirut than that.
Originally published in Wallpaper
Photo © Sabrina Bongiovanni