Discovering Materials, Admiring Nature, and Learning from Tragedy: Three Beirut-Based Designers on Working After Last Summer’s Explosion

published Apr 30, 2021
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Cana guesthouse designed by Carl Gerges
Credit: Courtesy of Carl Gerges

Design relies on emotion and exchange. Walking through a building or pouring water from a vase is a design experience, where a maker’s ideas come to life through interaction and activation by another. Above all though, design represents a search for pleasure in the everyday. Challenging times however, can test the designer’s quest for beauty. 

The creative community in Beirut faced this kind of dilemma after last August’s colossal explosion at the city’s historic port. One of the strongest non-nuclear blasts in history, the death toll reached over 200 and only magnified the ongoing struggles of Beirut’s designers, architects, and artists. Studios were flattened, tools lost, and works dismantled. Smoke filled the winding streets of a historic city filled with rich architectural and cultural marvels. 

With a cloud of uncertainty still in the air, the city’s design community is getting back to work, fueled by hope and perseverance. On the occasion of Arab American Heritage Month, I talked to an architect, design duo, and a ceramicist who work between Beirut and the United States about finding strength in making, rising from hardship, and creating work situated in two cultures.  

Credit: Courtesy of david/nicolas

david/nicolas, furniture designers

David Raffoul and Nicolas Moussallem started collaborating as students of interior design at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts. Moussallem used to take Raffoul’s sketches from their drawing class and retrace them. Their friendship fully blossomed though when they both attended Milan’s Scuola Polictenica di Design and teamed up on a thesis project. This bond eventually led them to open their Beirut- and Milan-based studio david/nicolas. “Our relationship is built around trust — we always push each other forward,” says the design duo. This sometimes means being blunt with one another when it comes to feedback. “We say things in the rawest, most direct possible way,” the duo says. “If one of us is not convinced, there is no way of letting it happen.” All that aside, their dynamic also relies on understanding each other’s strengths, too. Raffoul sketches his ideas, while Moussallem prefers to write his down. These different approaches help them synthesize their thoughts into furniture collections that have received international attention, including critical acclaim from “The New York Times.”

Raffoul and Moussallem consider their international presence an asset to their creativity. In Beirut, they’re immersed in a scene where designers raise questions around identity and tradition through experimentation with traditional craft. In contrast, the Milanese scene exposes them to a more industrialized sense of production, where, with the input of art directors, makers of bespoke pieces can truly become big furniture brands. Exposure to different cities around the globe continues to influence their work. When they opened their New York debut exhibition, Supernova, at the Carpenters Workshop Gallery in 2019, they felt inspired by New York’s various design periods, styles, and neighborhoods. “Everything seems bigger in New York, including the furniture!” says the duo.

Credit: Courtesy of david/nicolas

Witnessing their office’s destruction in last summer’s explosion didn’t leave them bitter about their future design plans either. “We hope new creations will not be inspired by the disaster, but it will rather be reminder of the beauty that the city has to offer,” they say. Aside from admiration, the duo sees their hometown as a source of inspiration, from its examples of geometry to its antique shops. Those cultural references live on their moodboard alongside imagery as diverse as robots, space travel, lost civilizations ,and Daft Punk. For david/nicolas, designing furniture means giving these local and celestial concepts concrete forms. “We are always looking to create a balance of textures, finishes, and colors by exploring the power of contrasts,” says the pair.

Credit: Courtesy of Mary-Lynn Massoud

Mary-Lynn Massoud, ceramicist

Artist Mary-Lynn Massoud first felt drawn to ceramics while watching the 1950’s Mexican noir, “The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz,” at age 20. The Spanish auteur Luis Buñuel’s film follows a serial killer who finds solace in making ceramics, “and after seeing the scene where he works with clay for two minutes, I was stuck on this idea,” she remembers, noting that she still wants “to try the ‘Ghost’ thing, too!” Massoud first took sculpting courses in Beirut and went on to study at the prestigious La Manufacture de Sèvres outside of Paris. “Ceramics is about patience and experience,” she says. “You only need earth, clay, air, and fire.” 

Massoud’s relationship with her craft has changed a bit recently since accepting a residency at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Aspen, Colorado. “The silence and nature here are magnificent,” she says. Silence while working has, in fact, been a welcome change for the ceramicist. In the wake of last summer’s explosion, which destroyed her Beirut studio and most of her commissioned work, she had been relying on a generator for electricity once she got back up and running, due to the constant power cuts there. “I need electricity for 12 hours nonstop, and the generator creates a huge noise,” Massoud says. She had to give up working throughout the night, adjusting her hours to reduce noise complaints from the neighbors.

Credit: Courtesy of Mary-Lynn Massoud

Massoud knew little about Aspen when she received the invitation to work there, but Colorado’s famed ski town has grown on her, with its secluded atmosphere, spacious workshops, and the freedom to make her own hours again. Working with the center’s local materials is hardly a new path for the artist, who has difficulty with access to local materials when in Beirut and regularly ships in clay from the US, Canada, and Europe. Currently, she’s experimenting with crackled glazing. “I am testing how to control the glazed finish, whether I aim for a brilliant or matte finish or I end up with a smooth or weathered surface,” she says. Another path she has taken since starting her mountain life? Creating large scale totemic sculptures, now possible because she has lots of space for making at the center. 

Massoud loves to collaborate. She works with her designer brother, Carlo, on bronze sculptures called “Autopsy,” as well as with another ceramicist, Rasha Nawam, to create colorful, abstract forms mixed with different materials such as glass or metal wire. “Confiding in another person and exchanging information while working together is very nice,” she says. Massoud’s latest venture is a series of colorful concrete furniture pieces, which she will launch with her brother soon. “We will have seats, tables, and chests in bright pink or yellow,” she says.

Credit: Courtesy of Carl Gerges

Carl Gerges, architect and musician

Carl Gerges is a rock star architect — in more than one sense. After performing at international venues with his music band Mashrou’ Leila, Gerges recently traded drum sticks for a protractor, opening Carl Gerges Architects in March 2020. Architecture also was what brought him and his band members together; they all met while studying architecture and design at the American University of Beirut. For Gerges, these two creative passions have always overlapped; touring for music exposed the 33-year-old to the world’s various cultures and architectural styles. “After concerts, I’ve always found myself back at the hotel room sketching some ideas or out on the streets to discover local buildings,” he recalls. His plan to focus on architecture professionally though took shape when “Architectural Digest Middle East” approached him for a story on his Beirut home last year. “They were unaware that I am also an architect and that I even designed my own place,” he remembers. He officially announced plans to launch his eponymous firm in the story — which eventually made it to the cover! — but this meant getting his business off the ground quickly to align with the issue’s publication. 

Between finalizing the firm’s identity with Beirut-based design firm Studio Safar and building a small staff of four, he dove into this new venture and started taking on both residential and commercial clients. These days, Gerges can be found stateside, working on a tech entrepreneur’s family home near Scarsdale, New York. He’s enjoyed exploring upstate New York’s unique landscape and has taken full advantage of the seasonal light and beauty. This kind of discovery of one’s surroundings is fitting inspiration for an architect, who describes his approach to design as, “contextual and dependent on local materials and techniques.” For example, he’s noticed (and embraced) the use of timber and bluestone on this side of the pond, “whereas back in Lebanon, we have sandstone and limestone,” he says.  

Credit: Courtesy of Carl Gerges

Looking back at last March, Gerges admits starting a business during the pandemic was a scary decision. “After taking every step with my bandmates for 13 years, I was suddenly on my own in my decision-making,” he says. Last summer’s Beirut blast not only destroyed Gergers’ own apartment, but it also affected his desire to have a true home base. “I don’t want to be limited by a place,” he explains. His latest Paris project solidifies this commitment to geographical and practical multiplicity. He’s designing an art gallery at the city’s Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) and curating its first exhibition with Lebanese art. “Adding my own vision to a Jean Nouvel building is incredibly exciting,” he says, explaining his touch on the Brutalist style iconic building as “warm and humble.”