Main image, clockwise, from top left Ranya Sarakbi portrait © Joe Kesrouani; Ranya Sarakbi, Ouroboros, 2019-2020; Khaled El Mays portrait Tarek Moukaddem; Khaled El Mays, Large cabinet from the Palmea

Four Lebanese practices animating the Middle Eastern Design scene

We meet Viktor Udzenija, the curator of the design section of Christie’s online Middle Eastern Modern & Contemporary Art Sale (11-24 November), and introduce four Lebanese design practices featured in the auction

Over the past 10 years, design has flourished in the Middle East, with Lebanon a particular focus of creative energy. The work of designers there — turning upon classic Islamic idioms such as pattern, repetition and abstraction — is featured in Christie’s Middle Eastern Modern & Contemporary Art Sale, in a design section curated by Viktor Udzenija.

‘There is a certain positivity and lightness in all of the selected pieces,’ he explains. ‘They carry the message of hope and strength. I wanted that to really come across. I think the current time and what is happening around the world and in the Middle East could not have called for anything else but that.’

Viktor Udzenija

‘Throughout history the craftsmanship and artistry in Middle Eastern architecture and design was always at the very forefront’ — Viktor Udzenija. Photograph by Mariano Vivanco

‘Throughout history the craftsmanship and artistry in Middle Eastern architecture and design was always at the very forefront’ — Viktor Udzenija. Photograph by Mariano Vivanco

The Croatian architect and designer Viktor Udzenija worked for the prestigious Foster + Partners in the UK before establishing Viktor Udzenija Architecture + Design in Dubai in 2013.

Sustainability is important to him, hence his focus on minimising energy consumption. This includes his own office, which is made from reconditioned materials. ‘A big emphasis is put on using sustainable products, either from manufacturers who are following green regulations or with factories that use recycled materials,’ he explains.

Viktor Udzenija, Little Rocker, 2016, in Bianco Carra
Viktor Udzenija, Little Rocker, 2016, in Bianco Carra

Over the past seven years, Udzenija has gained recognition for the timeless quality of his work. He creates large and small-scale design pieces as well as working on residential and commercial projects. Last year he completed the Michelin-starred restaurant Marea in Dubai, which Harper’s Bazaar described as ‘transformative’, adding that it is ‘hard to think of Viktor as anything less than superhuman’.

Of his choice to establish his practice in the Middle East he says, ‘throughout history the craftsmanship and artistry in Middle Eastern architecture and design was always at the very forefront — the brave use of materials, the use of bold colours, pushing boundaries of hand craft and the development of new technologies.’

His Little Rocker (2016), above, a horse carved out of marble and inspired by his childhood, was exhibited in Dubai and sold by Carpenters Workshop Gallery in New York.

On his selection for Christie’s, Udzenija says he is struck by how skilful these designers have been in re-inventing old techniques. ‘There is a vast depth of ingenuity, innovation and sustainability in these works,’ he says.

Nada Debs

Nada Debs’ approach to design is ‘an expression, not just of form and function, but of feeling too’. Photograph by Tarek Moukaddem

Nada Debs’ approach to design is ‘an expression, not just of form and function, but of feeling too’. Photograph by Tarek Moukaddem

Born in Japan in 1962, the high-flying Lebanese designer Nada Debs studied at the Rhode Island School of Design before establishing her practice in Beirut’s Gemmayze district. Debs is best known for furniture that combines traditional craft and ergonomic design to create beautifully sleek decorative objects. 

These pieces have earned her a reputation as a formidable innovator who is deeply invested in modernist ideas. Her Imprint dining table, below, is illustrative of this: a bold geometric pattern combined with refined Arab craftsmanship.

Nada Debs (Lebanese, b. 1962), Imprint Dining Table, 2019. 29½ x 47¼ x 47¼ in (75 x 120 x 120 cm). Estimate £15,000-20,000. Offered in Middle Eastern, Modern and Contemporary Art, 11-24 November 2020, Online
Nada Debs (Lebanese, b. 1962), Imprint Dining Table, 2019. 29½ x 47¼ x 47¼ in (75 x 120 x 120 cm). Estimate: £15,000-20,000. Offered in Middle Eastern, Modern and Contemporary Art, 11-24 November 2020, Online

In 2013 Debs was shortlisted for the prestigious Jameel Prize at the V&A in London for her Concrete Carpet, a poetic meditation on Huroufiyah (Arabic script) and Japanese calligraphy. She described the work as ‘haiku-like’, with a ‘rhythmical effect’. Of her approach to design, she has said it is ‘an expression, not just of form and function, but of feeling too’.

David/Nicolas

A ‘retro-futuristic’ practice with a focus on oriental culture David Raffoul and Nicolas Moussallem. Photograph © Matt Harrington

A ‘retro-futuristic’ practice with a focus on oriental culture: David Raffoul and Nicolas Moussallem. Photograph: © Matt Harrington

Daft Punk, space travel and grandmothers — the young Lebanese design duo David Raffoul and Nicolas Moussallem, professionally known as David/Nicolas, derive their influences from a variety of surprising sources. Hailed as the breakout star of 2014 by The New York Times at Milan Design Week, the furniture-based practice has won critical acclaim for its maverick approach since it was established in 2011.

Raffoul and Moussallem first met at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts in 2007, later studying at the Scuola Politecnica di Design in Milan, and say they knew straight away that they were going to end up opening a practice together. They describe their aesthetic as ‘retro-futuristic’ but with a focus on oriental culture, explaining, ‘It’s what we grew up with.’

DavidNicolas, Constellation C060, 2018. This is a limited edition of eight plus four artist’s proofs. 23⅔ x 23⅔ x 19⅔ in (60 x 60 x 50 cm). Estimate £14,000-18,000. Offered in Middle Eastern, Modern and Contemporary Art, 11-24 November 2020, Online
David/Nicolas, Constellation C060, 2018. This is a limited edition of eight plus four artist’s proofs. 23⅔ x 23⅔ x 19⅔ in (60 x 60 x 50 cm). Estimate: £14,000-18,000. Offered in Middle Eastern, Modern and Contemporary Art, 11-24 November 2020, Online

In 2017, they had their first solo show at Carpenters Workshop Gallery in New York, which featured the Constellation series — furniture inspired by the Big Bang. Wallpaper magazine described the ambitious exhibition as ‘cosmic’, and praised the way the duo had translated scientific phenomena into three-dimensional objects.

For Udzenija, David/Nicolas designs embody the urgent creativity coming out of Lebanon: ‘Rising from the ashes like the city of Beirut, their work tells a story of a supernova bursting to create new life.’

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Khaled El Mays

‘I love the humanobject interaction and I am always fascinated by textures’ — Khaled El Mays. Photograph by Tarek Moukaddem

‘I love the human/object interaction and I am always fascinated by textures’ — Khaled El Mays. Photograph by Tarek Moukaddem

The inventive Lebanese designer Khaled El Mays gained an MFA at Pratt Institute in New York, before returning to Beirut to teach at the Lebanese University and establish his multi-disciplinary design studio. Of his practice, El Mays says, ‘I love the human/object interaction and I am always fascinated by textures.’

The son of an artist, El Mays credits his family with his love of craftsmanship and design, explaining that he enjoys finding creative ways of keeping ‘the human hand’ as the focus of his work. Not that he is against technology; it is just important to him that he continues to support the artisans from the Bekaa Valley with whom he works.

Khaled El Mays’ installation Welcome Mr Breuer at Cantiere Galli Design in Rome, 2019. Photograph by Tarek Moukaddem
Khaled El Mays’ installation Welcome Mr Breuer at Cantiere Galli Design in Rome, 2019. Photograph by Tarek Moukaddem

Using ancient Middle Eastern craft traditions, he creates furniture out of wicker and bamboo, and the results are wittily imaginative — his deconstructed Wassily chair, showcased in his exhibition Welcome Mr Breuer at Cantiere Galli Design in Rome, is a case in point.

This large cabinet from his Palmea collection, made from colourfully painted bamboo and rattan, was recently featured at the Nilufar gallery in Milan.

Ranya Sarakbi

Ranya Sarakbi is inspired by the tools of early man and how they were used for survival. Photograph © Joe Kesrouani

Ranya Sarakbi is inspired by the tools of early man and how they were used for survival. Photograph: © Joe Kesrouani

Ouroboros is just exquisite,’ says Udzenija of the 11-metre long cast bronze serpent made by Lebanese artist and designer Ranya Sarakbi. ‘I think it is the symbol of bravery, craftsmanship, of taste and of that magical aura that we all feel radiates from the Middle East.’

Born in 1973, Sarakbi studied sociology and anthropology at the American University of Beirut before moving to Milan to pursue a career as an artist. There she began creating ‘wearable sculptures’, meticulously designed objects in gold, silver and bronze that look like offerings to the gods — they have an ancient, ritualistic power about them.

This mythological aspect of her work is perhaps best represented by Diadema, an urchin-like ornament for the neck in gold–plated bronze, and the sculpted brass snake Ouroboros. ‘It is eating its own tail, which is a symbol of eternal life and rebirth,’ Udzenija explains.

While these objects look contemporary, they also embody a curious primitivism. Sarakbi has said she is inspired by the tools of early man and how they were used for survival. ‘They symbolise the past, the present and the future,’ says Udzenija.

Middle Eastern Modern & Contemporary Art Sale, 11-24 November 2020, Online