Determining exactly what .PSLAB does can feel, at times, like a game of pinning the tail on the donkey.
The easiest answer is that they are purveyors of exceptional lighting fixtures, as their three newest projects, currently in their final stages - Chotto Matte, a Japanese restaurant in London, a converted church in Brussels and Noma (yes, that one) – ably attest.
For the moment, anyway. They are also makers of furniture, rescuers of found objects, partisans of craftsmanship and finders of innovative uses for traditional products. They create their own typefaces and make their own stationery and packaging. Last, but not least, they’re arch archivists who film, photograph and document absolutely everything they do and, more recently, everything that they love, too.
So maybe it isn’t surprising that talking to studio co-founder, Dmitri Saddi, doesn’t necessarily make things any more obvious.
“We provide a service,” he says, somewhat inscrutably, as we chat at the studio’s headquarters in Beirut’s Mar Mikhayel. “We create atmosphere and ambiance.”
Looking around, I get a sense of what he means. Dressed in blond wood, black leather, dark grey walls emblazoned with their distinctive typeface and divided from the work space behind by a floor-to-ceiling shelving unit that neatly stores and displays the studio’s myriad booklets, brochures and technical plans, the .PSLAB meeting room is a darker, cooler haven, a welcome respite from the coruscating day outside. It isn’t a coincidence that it also provides the perfect excuse for the studio to showcase some of its designs, amongst them a sleek u-shaped strip lamp that straddles the long table and a striking cluster of black powder-coated copper tubes, bundled a little like a Chinese tea flower, that hangs over one end of the table.
Exactly what the ‘service’ is, let alone who those ‘we’ are, can be a little complicated to pin down. Founded in 2004, .PSLAB grew out of an existing Saddi family business, which specialised in manufacturing dropped ceilings and selling imported light fixtures. Working with existing competences, the studio began to explore how it could do something similar but completely differently. Their first step was to phase-out the trade in imported fixtures in favour of creating bespoke lighting of their own design but if .PSLAB wasn’t interested in selling other manufacturers’ fixtures, it wasn’t interested in simply becoming a purveyor of its own.
So the studio proposes a more holistic approach. Regardless of the stage a project is in – and ideally, .PSLAB likes to be involved from the start – it comes in, does its own study and based on its findings, the nature and location of the project, the needs and budget of the client, devises an overall lighting scheme, which is based not only on the fixtures but also their precise placement. In short, the creation of lighting-based atmosphere.
“The process relies enormously on dialogue,” continues Saddi, who explains that some solutions require the making of bespoke items, created expressly for the project, while others adapt or repurpose previous designs. “If it is smooth and open-minded, then you really end up having wonderful results.”
Beyond the level of craftsmanship that goes into them and the striking forms many take, one of the more interesting aspects about the studio’s fixtures is the way they illuminate.
Take the extraordinary ribbed brass lights used as part of India Mahdavi’s resdesign of the Hotel Thoumieux in Paris, the linear chandeliers at Workshop in Palm Springs, with their exposed light bulbs, the delicate concoction of power-coated ‘petals’ used as sconces and overhead lights at the Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel in Monaco or indeed the lightwalls at the Barbican Foodhall, where naked bulbs glow blurrily through ranks of hand-blown glass olive jars. Casting delicate patterns that ripple across walls, ambient radiance or tightly focussed fields of light, they take a delight in the casting of light and shadow of which Junichiro Tanizake would surely have approved.
Under the sleek outer shells, though, the lights are engineered with an attention to precision and function that smacks of the anorak. Each fixture come with technical documents that detail creation and placement and however sculptural their form, fixtures are always conceived as a response to their surroundings. Form never comes at the expense of function.
Convinced that it isn’t in their interest to flood a market with too many uses of the same fixture, .PSLAB exercises strict control over where their work goes. Because it is not possible to walk into a showroom and point at a light and walk out with one, the studio is able to ensure that even if a fixture is used several times in the same city, it never appears in the same way or in the same kind of project. A light used in a restaurant in Rome might later be repurposed for a home or an office, but won’t appear again in an overtly public space.
Frequently, pieces are subtly reconfigured, an advantage bestowed by the studio being both designers and manufacturers. While looking through their archive of projects, I notice one fixture, which resembles a voluptuous typewriter key, strung across the ceiling of a bar in Beirut in irregular lines. When I come across its sibling, a little later, arranged in a tightly coiled spiral above a staircase in London, looking rather like a minimalist white octopus, it takes me a moment to realise they are iterations of the same idea.
I come across the piece once again as we tour the studio’s incredibly orderly factory in the hills north of Beirut. Machines are arranged as though part of an installation, floors are practically clean enough to eat off but it is here that .PSLAB’s team of craftsmen coax and cajole their favoured materials - brass, copper and blackened steel - into delicate shapes. Much of the making and almost all of the finishing is done by hand, erasing the line between the industrial and the handcrafted.
After a tour of the factory floor, we visit the Library, a back catalogue of a decade’s work. It is designed for in-house use - less a repository of ‘see what we can do’ than of ‘did that, what did we learn’. It’s an assortment of products, experiments and ideas, ingredients, a Lego set for lighting, ready for remixing.
In under a decade, .PSLAB has grown into an international studio –there are bureaux in Stuttgart, Singapore, Helsinki and Bologna – of 110. Not an easy feat, when based in a country as exciting but unstable as Lebanon. Tempting is it might be to ascribe this growth to an individual, .PSLAB presents itself as a collective. Not, as Saddi puts it, “in some romantic sense”, there is a clear hierarchy and an even clearer process of development but it is organised in a way that no one is its creative face.
“We think ‘designer’ is a misleading word. We offer a product and a service and a process of conceiving that product,” he continues. Shaven-headed, with a penchant for black, sporting two eye-catching tattoos that as he talks, peek occasionally from his jacket sleeves, Saddi looks so much the part that I would be tempted to wonder at that last comment, were it not for the evident sincerity with which it is made. “It’s very important for us that the brand develops as a brand, not as a name.”
There’s more to this than disdain for the cult of the Designer. By not associating itself with a single name, .PSLAB is keeping all avenues open. They may (mostly) be lighting designers and manufacturers for now but that doesn’t mean that they will be forever.
At the heart of .PSLAB, there is a hunger. Less for recognition than for acquiring new competences. Inquisitive, experimental, they are eager to expand. Possibilities are myriad. A move into furniture or publications, a focus on food, music, film, events, anything, as long as it reflects the brand and it’s this eagerness to transcend that makes it even more interesting as a practice.
There is something mildly disquieting about .PSLAB and its all-encompassing ethos. Their absolute control. Their emphasis on branding every part of your experience, from the way you get to know them, to the way you work together to the way they label and package their products, nuts, bolts, screws all neatly and individually vacuum wrapped. Theirs is the kind of determination that would be unnerving were they running a country, rather than a company.
But then you look outside at the sprawling, multi-building headquarters. The open-plan offices, the huge hangar where project interiors are recreated so lights can be properly tested, the empty corner block that may, in the near future, become an open kitchen. Here, in most urban Beirut .PSLAB has created an extravaganza of white walls, wide windows, beds of bushy lavender and rows of hefty wood planter/benches (designed in-house, of course) straining to contain massive, ancient olives. Employees sit outdoors, working, reading, relaxing, interacting. Its very Mediterranean, very much of its place. As indeed are all the studios bureaux, .PSLAB may have a singular, distinctive vision but it is also prepared, eager, to adapt that vision to the local context.
As company headquarters go, this one is beautiful. Ironic, too, for it sits in the shadow of Pierre Neema’s soaring 1966 edifice for the scandalously ineffective national electric utility, which ensures that for at least three or four hours every day, Lebanon’s lights go out.
Coincidence? Perhaps. But the more you get to know them, the way they think and work, the more you begin to wonder if, when it comes to .PSLAB, coincidence is ever a factor at all. God, as old Mies was so fond of saying, is in the detail.
Originally published in Wallpaper