Interview// Nada Debs, Makings of the Hand

Makings of the Hand

Lebanese Designer Nada Debs on Contemporary Design, Culture, Aesthetics and Craftsmanship in the Middle East

Interviewed by Ruba Asi

“He whose hand does not work, does not work his mind”. Anonymous

Meticulously handcrafted to a perfection that nearly inspires a tantalizing tactility, her pieces are an incarnation of a forsaken Levantine handcrafting tradition .Playfully paying homage to the walnut mother of pearl chests of our great grandmothers, whilst re-glorifying their classic, timeless beauty and re-appropriating their place in a world where the aesthetic is a commercialistic” fast-fix /fast-fade” and the craft is a very impersonal, unspecific & machinated “made in china”.

“East and East” is the name of her company, and as the name admittedly suggests, she owes her “objets trouves” to some very well-spent childhood afternoons in Japan, infusing age-old crafting traditions of the Levant with the mellow, sober minimalism of the far-east, juxtaposing old with new, cold against warm and live against still, opaque textures; thus, creating a wondrous play of material contrast, plastic emotion and drama. And in contrast to the utterly alienating and overtly muscle-flexing design practices that are incessantly absorbed by sheer invent-ism, her design rationale draws from local waters, it up-cycles local heritage, picks up abandoned home-grown know-how and rounds it all up in new enticing and interesting cycles.

Many a classic has been deemed heavy, busy, impractical & inconvenient; and this is not, in any way exclusive to the multiplicity of design domains, it equally applies to all aspects of our two thousand-and-something lifestyles. It’s the reason why, historically celebrated perfume houses like Guerlain for example will not hesitate at watering down a so called “heavy” classic to a more agreeable, diluted version that will not intimidate the common contemporary nose of today. Reducing the valor of that musty classic intensity is one of the few sustainable ways to maintain and prolong a valid existence for it amidst the high-pitched youngness of its peers, or so it appears.

Nada Debs is an acclaimed Lebanese interior/furniture designer, who was brought up in Japan, and studied interior architecture in the Rohde Island School of design; she later worked in the UK before returning to her native Lebanon to pursue her work there. She has recently visited Dubai for the”” as a guest of honor, where she also participated in a discussion panel on the Jameel prize for the arts III, for which she was shortlisted for her entry “ The Concrete Carpet”. Hence, we were very fortunate in seizing a few opportune moments with her to chat over contemporary design culture, craftsmanship and aesthetics in the Middle East.

RA: Your take on the reinvention of crafting traditions has often involved design by reduction. Are you in any way concerned that reference to the original inspiration behind your work will historically be confused or lost in the process, that originality will be stripped away perhaps? 100 or 200 years from now?

ND: Design is an evolution and it is a reflection of what we need today, so maybe now it’s diluted, maybe after a while we are going to want more, and so the next generation would start wanting more, heavier. And I think life is about cycles. Even in interiors, when someone has a classical home, all of a sudden they want something modern, they want to clean everything, they don’t want classic lines anymore. After they achieve modern they start adding. It’s all a cycle, when we get used to something we want to move to the next thing, it’s a cycle of opposites.

RA: Less is more, one may argue that less is a bore?

ND: It’s true. Kitsch. That’s why everything kitsch has come into trend, out of the boredom. Just look at the Japanese cartoons comic ” manga” -it’s the colorful opposite, I think the young generation is rebelling against the sober rectilinear that is so characteristic of Japanese aesthetics, and they’re just going crazy. Life is about contrasts, No white without black, no black without white, the ying and yang. And this is the way we work, it’s always in contrast.

RA: Someone once said that a true artist leaves marks of how a thing was made, as in an object having a memory of its making, and upon observing your piece “The Concrete Carpet” a spectator may read the object as a stone tablet given the formal composition and material properties of stone, the employed language of inlaid letters and so on what do you have to say about that?

ND: It’s morbid isn’t it!

RA: Why did you label it as a carpet?

ND: I labeled it as a carpet because I wanted to create something that was reminiscent of the Arab world and it’s like the opposite of “The Flying Carpet” and it was also part of the famed Islamic tradition of carpets.

RA: I ask this because, for example, if you look at ancient Greek architecture they had the fluting in the marble columns, and the fluting came from their precedent use of wood as a building material, it was the way wood was translated and transfused into stone. So, how was textile and threads translated into stone?

ND: For me it was the relief technique used to carve in the letters, because you have the shadow of the calligraphy, and so when you look from far it looks like a weaving pattern, of course on a closer look you can identify the letters. And there is a repetition of the pattern, so there is this visual rhythm that’s going on. Concrete is a cold and fairly modern material, which in a way is rebelling against silk and live materials, we’ve become industrial.

RA: So do you think that industrializing an object would make it last longer?

ND: I didn’t think of it this way, but yes, it kind of solidifies it. But this also, just like a silk carpet, it will wear in one way or another, which does happen to concrete buildings, it loses color, it erodes.

RA: Your work relies a lot on craftsmanship, and in Jordan we really seem to suffer, we have a dilemma, because the designer holds high aesthetic ideals and expectations that the capacity of the local craftsman is unable to meet.

ND: That’s a problem in the Arab world.

RA: What do you think is the reason behind this mismatch? Is it because we are industrially behind?

ND: I think there was not a natural evolution of the craftsman, so the craftsman’s work stopped all of a sudden, he kept repeating the same thing over and over again, they didn’t change the way they were doing things. And then you had the young designers who were educated out of the country come in.

RA: Why is that, the redundancy?

ND: No one was commissioning him anymore.

RA: But in old times both the design and the execution were performed by one individual, the artisan craftsman.

ND:I think it must be the digital revolution and the media. On the one hand you have a generation of designers who are computer educated and use computer generated media to produce designs and on the other hand you have the craftsmen who are not computer literate. There was a split in path.

They were used to working with their hands, creating layouts and all of that, and now it’s all digitalized, everything is digital, we’ve lost that handy part.

And the designers are limited now, because not all designers know how to use technology. I think now designers follow the capacities that are made available to them by the computer.

RA: What about the relationship between designer and craftsman? Who follows the other?

ND: Designer is definitely dependent on capacities of craftsman, I mean for me, my best pieces come out when I am sitting with the craftsman, they inspire us. If I am sitting behind the computer on my desk, I don’t have any ideas.

RA: Are you limited by his capacities?

ND: No, but that’s exactly where I come in, where I actually push him to new capacities.

RA: Do you find at times that quality may be compromised?

ND: That’s exactly where I try not to let it be compromised. We do prototypes, samples, but then you give them this kind of higher goal or bar to hit. You push them.

RA: In your pieces do you depend on the dexterity and skill of the craftsman or are you inclined to depend more on hi-tech machinery for production?

ND: No, I try as much as I can, even if there might be ways to do it in machine, I try to do it mostly by hand. As much as I can, despite the fact that it may be more expensive, you feel at the end, when it’s done by hand, you feel the difference, you can’t really see why, but you feel the difference.

RA: Are you into mass produced schemes or small limited batches?

ND: Well, it depends what one considers mass production, there are some things that can be mass-produced but you still have the handcraft, so it’s limited. No matter how much mass production I want to go, it will really still be limited, it will be handcrafted.

RA: The designer has the communal duty of heightening the aesthetic sense among the common public, if one has a casual glance at things/objects made in the past you get the feeling that there was a significantly higher sense of beauty? Why do you think we don’t have that anymore?

ND: Perhaps you are fond of the past!

RA: No, but seriously, in general there tend to be more beautiful things

ND: Because they were handmade.

I think what got in the way is commercial capitalism, because they want to make it cheaper and faster, they kind of lost their vision on quality. It’s a different generation now, but we’re going back to what we were. Handcraft; handcraft everyone keeps using the word handcraft. Again it’s the opposite, after an era of machine-made objects people are getting tired.

In the past, when a ruler, emperor or king wished to gift someone, they would hold a city-wide competition of who could produce a most unique hand-crafted artifact to be gifted by the king, which contributed to raising mastery standards and led to the flowering of craft of hand. Even now, when Royalty wish to present a gift to a notable, Queen Elizabeth for example,, they gift something that is hand-crafted, no one gifts machine-made artifacts.

There is something to them; things that are made by hand, everyone can feel it.

RA: Buildings, furniture and clothing are direct extensions to our bodies, and in some parts of the world, like for example, the Indian subcontinent , traditional forms of dress are still appropriate unlike other places, like the Levant where heritage is a prisoner of museums and occasions, e.g. Palestinian embroidered dresses that are exclusively worn on occasion.

ND: But that happens also in Japan and with the Chinese, only India I think managed to keep tradition alive, and they really make beautiful, beautiful dresses, modern saris. But even in Saudi Arabia they still retain that tradition.

RA: So why do you think traditional attire was abandoned in the Levant?

ND: Maybe we’re influenced by the west, we have a little bit of the complex of the west, we want to dress up a little bit like western folks.

RA: How come other places were not influenced as much?

ND: The culture is strong, in India the culture is really strong, they weren’t so influenced by the British at the end of the day. Even the very well off Indian people who can afford the Chanels , when they wear it really doesn’t suit them, I think they look really good in their saris. But in our part of the world, the Levant lost it. It’s kind of sad when you think of it. But I would say maybe it’s the Christian influence, the Church, the missionaries they came, we were under French mandate, then British mandate. I mean just India was very powerful, the Ghandi effect maybe!

RA: A designer has a moral duty of making design accessible and affordable to all, not confining his talent to an exclusive elite, in that regard what are your thoughts on the IKEA model? Design for all?

ND: I like it, I wish I could do that.

RA: Would you buy from IKEA?

ND: Yes, I always buy from IKEA, I think it makes people feel equal, its classless it doesn’t matter from what background you are, everyone can afford it and I think that’s a beautiful thing.

RA: What about the workshops and the craftsmen you deal with on a regular basis are they based in Syria or are they Lebanese?

ND: Originally I was making my pieces in Syria, but now I have my own workshop in Lebanon, but they are more Syrian than Lebanese, the Lebanese people can’t do it.  This kind of work needs a certain DNA, it’s passed on through generations.

RA: And do you think the craft is evolving? Or is it endangered?

ND: It’s endangered. In a way I believe the new style of what I’ve done with mother of pearl, it added new work, it had a ripple effect, because people started to imitate what I do, and from that more workshops were commissioned. It is coming together but again it’s going to die again because people need to take it to the next level.

RA: Can you tell us briefly about the various stages of the design and production of any piece?

ND: Actually I like to start working with samples, making many different samples. Let’s say I have an idea of metal, how can I incorporate brass in the concrete or wood in concrete, so I make lots of different samples to see the abilities, I wouldn’t even have thought of the form yet, I would lay the samples in front of me and then I say, ok, what would be the piece or the form that would best bring out this technique.

It’s the material that inspires me for the form.

Concrete Carpet by Nada Debs, 2010 / Courtesy of Mathaf, Photo Marino Solokhov


RA: There’s been talk lately about design that is obsessed with the visual, that what is seen is only what matters, in a way forsaking the charm of hapticity and texture, what do you have to say about that?

ND: But you see that’s exactly what I’m interested in. Matching between a live material and a dead one. Creating contrast with materials and textures, creating what one would not expect. Who would have imagined that plexi glass would mix so well with mother of pearl? You know what I mean.

RA: How many designers do you have in your practice?

ND: I have a team of four designers. The less the team the better. Too many cooks would spoil the stew.

RA: What backgrounds do they pertain to?

ND: Usually interior design, sometimes, graphics and product design.

RA: So, would you describe yourself as a designer who makes numerous pieces in a given period of time or are you more of a lazy genius?

ND: Well, I used to make a lot. I was so prolific, and within the same month I’d make so many pieces, and then it got less and less, and also it became important what the pieces were, before I was experimenting, now I’ve established myself in a way, I created an identity for myself, I kind of know where I stand. So now, it’s more measured and more thought about. I need to think about every next piece I’m making.

RA: Are you planning any visits to Jordan?

ND: For now no. I used to go a lot, I used to do a lot of work for Queen Rania.

RA: One last question concerning craftsmanship in Jordan, what do you think could be done to raise the level of skill among craftsmen?

ND: I think you should maybe import craftsmen to train and teach, perhaps establish professional schools for that. That’s what they did in Turkey, at the time of the Ottoman Empire, they used to import master craftsmen from Europe and China (ceramics, glass, textiles) to skill the craft pupils.

For example Bohemian, Czechoslovakian glass making is an age old craft, at first the Ottoman Empire used to import the glassware, but then they though you know what, we’ll just have our own workshop/factory and this is how glassware evolved there.

For previous feature about Nada Debs


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