Nelida Nassar 06.29.2014
In its third edition, Beirut Design Week has established its dynamic reputation on the Lebanese landscape. It deserves praise for existing in a country marred by political instability and fear. It offers several activities including exhibitions, competitions, films, fundraising, happy hours, lottery, open houses, magazine presentations, studios, talks, workshops, a children corner and parties in and around Beirut, all free of charge.
It draws attention and crowd for one week bringing a feeling of pseudo-euphoria to the city as well as potential business to open studios, shops and venues and to the few participating galleries. Beirut is divided into six districts. They represent areas where there are distinct concentrations of activity and events and can be traversed easily on foot. Each district is organized locally and independently. The city also witnesses the discovery of unfamiliar neighborhoods coming to life. One hopes that the general public autonomously from the designers gets attracted to these quarters beyond this week.
Succeeding in convincing foreign speakers to come to Beirut is remarkable. Each of them would discover the country, its people becoming an ambassador for Lebanon while promoting it positively. This year panel at Lebanese American University (LAU) entitled Fostering Creativity and Design hosted Mona Hatoum, Hilary Alexander, Caroline Simonelli, and Esen Karol, an artist, a fashion journalist, a fashion designer and a graphic designer. Shifting Perspectives on Design at Academie Libanaise des Beaux Arts (ALBA) was a think panel of four academics, three Lebanese and one foreign national.
Beirut Design Week attempts to get institutional credibility by being affiliated to universities presently ALBA and LAU. The noteworthy collaboration should have offered a packed program of lectures, talks, hands-on workshops – not only one two-hour panel at each institution – without much open discussions and provocative debates. American University of Beirut, pioneer in teaching design topics, Lebanese University or University Saint Joseph absence is noticeable.
Beirut Design Week solicits various design disciplines art, architecture, carpet, cinema, fashion, graphic, interior, jewelry, lighting, product and photography to participate. It’s a range of subjects that each alone is defined by many sub-texts and has a clear narrative. Combining such disparate matters requires separate and distinctive platforms. In this intensive, inspiring period, one would wish that the best of contemporary design would come ‘into conversation’ and produces exciting new ideas. Each day of talks would benefit from being themed (architecture, graphic, jewelry, photography, etc.) helping visitors and participants make the most of their time and interests during the Week. We are in a hybrid era of fluidity and diversity but we are not in pandemonium.
The appealing events are the one that grafted itself to the Beirut Design Week and were interactive. Inviting local emerging talents, to create art with food, and make something they have always wanted, but never been able to do was a guarantee of a design spread held at the restaurant Centrale. It also promoted the venue and its new interiors renovation. The challenge to produce each project in a single topic – food – was a celebration of the versatility and the variety that one targeted subject can achieve. The project was a collaborative fusion of design experience, young talent and craftsmanship, despite being ephemeral and creatively uneven.
Worth mentioning was Joan Baz and Dar Onboz: “I Went Looking For Palestine” Baz’s inquiry resulted in an installation and a souvenir shop where the viewer is invited to ask, count, and stamp the patterns, the borders, the identities that makes who we are. Dar Onboz, publisher of children book exploits its program to bring political and social consciousness to its readers. Hence it educates while changing awareness and perceptions from an early age forward.
Questions regarding Beirut Design Week modus operandi are preoccupying. Beirut
design community has been established decades prior to Beirut Design Week inception. It has been seminal in spreading design disciplines across the city and the country. Notwithstanding, for decades architects and designers have protected numerous artisans threatened by extinction and business closure. It would benefit by forging an alluring union of past and present. The registered privately owned brand would gain from being public, belonging to the city of Beirut and its designers.
The three years MENA Design Research Center has not disclosed any results pertaining to its activities, findings and archives. The vetting process of who is a designer and who is not remains unclear. The Beirut Design Week took the prerogative to speak in the names of architects and designers. Its nominated committee list is not disclosed nor its voting method. Can this committee that excluded the designers that originally suggested its formation and existence be impartial and unprejudiced?
Beirut Design Week has the status of an NGO while charging the business and design participants a fee, these same participants without whom it would not exist. Whose interests is it serving? Has a financial provision been established to help young designers just starting in the business with a great deal of talent that could not afford the participatory fee?
Sponsored by main, media and communication, business and social media partners with funds or in kind contributions, as well as with the sale of advertising and membership fee, shouldn’t Beirut Design Week act responsibly? Truth is the ultimate victim of this insane media hype. As a result, designers will favor image over substance, will nurture connections rather than accumulate knowledge, and will invest in self-promotion techniques instead of sustaining hard work and perseverance. Promoting an active design culture, being involved in inspirational experiences translated into technical precision and poetic meaning encumbered with commerce may be suggested here.
The challenge when creating the graphic identity campaign for the Beirut Design Week every year is to come up with something memorable and impactful. A concept that works within the overall brand identity (logo and brand color red), representing the sector diversity and ultimately reflecting the unique structure of the Week itself without being repetitive.
Beirut Design Week academic and intellectual positioning pales in comparison with the energy invested in parties’ frenzy and longing for entertainment. Design is a serious endeavor and deserves to be presented as such, albeit that it has also a good dose of humor and amusement. Beirut is being claimed as Lebanon’s Design Capital, the exhibitions presented at the Souks promote foreign designers not Lebanese ones. Is it not the right setting to endorse the locally made? Would the embassies have partnered with the Beirut Design Week to promote Lebanese design? Of course not, they support the design of their own nationals, why not follow in their suit? The time has come to create design competitions and exhibitions about local issues, to export Lebanese design instead of consistently importing foreign ones. Lebanese designers from each field could present a common exhibition, informing the design from within that they can exhibit together.
The frenzied efforts to make the Beirut Design Week a reality are laudable. However, its lack of clear audience, storyline, thematic, programming and transparency, its deformed and commoditified knowledge where “the era’s motto has become: You must appear knowledgeable, not be knowledgeable” and its lack of gravitas to represent design adequately is conspicuous. A design week deserving of this appellation brings together the worlds of design, business, branding, creativity and innovation to explore how design can make a distinct difference to the world we live in hence not emphasize only one or two aspects while ignoring the others. It also creates an immersive experience for its participants.
Beirut Design Week actual nomenclature and epistemology are in question. The word design should not be associated to it. It shouldn’t either be named Design Festival, Design Conference or Design Forum. A more likely designation as Beirut Open Studio Week or Beirut Sales Week would be more suitable to name the events and activities that were recently held in the city. Lebanese designers’ responsibility is to ask the difficult questions, force change, request accountability away from disingenuous marketing and promotion thus have their own voices heard. Beirut is their city not just the city of the self-appointed few.