We Design Beirut exhibition spotlights sustainable design by students

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At the first edition of We Design Beirut (WDB), a new multidisciplinary event promoting Lebanese design and creativity, sustainability and support for the next generation of designers and architects is one of their main focuses.

Founded by Mariana Wehbe, in partnership with industrial designer Samer Alameen and visual communications studio Bananamonkey, the four-day program running May 23-26 is based on the three thematic pillars: Preservation, Empowerment and Sustainability, essentially the past, present and future of design.

Aiming to reinvigorate the local creative industry – which has suffered amidst Lebanon’s colossal economic crisis and regional instability still affecting the country – the event offers exhibitions, talks and workshops in the fields of design, architecture and functional art, gathering established and emerging practitioners alike.

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“Lebanon always had design and art fairs, but with our situation in the past few years, which had an exodus of 300,000 people, this has been taken away from us,” Wehbe told Al Arabiya English. “We all have to find different ways to be an ally for the creative community to thrive.

“So many Lebanese designers have found great success abroad, but the base was always home and they still want to work and produce here. It’s time for the design community to do this again by coming together, to bring the city back to life.”

Plastic Lab’s ‘Magma Plastique Pavilion’. (Maghie Ghali/Al Arabiya English)
Plastic Lab’s ‘Magma Plastique Pavilion’. (Maghie Ghali/Al Arabiya English)

Representing the future of Lebanon’s design scene, one of their three main exhibitions “WeSearch” is dedicated to students and recent graduates, with themes of material experimentation and sustainability at its core.

The collective exhibition – curated by international design experts Federica Sala, Anne France Berthelon and Francois LeBlanc De Cecilia – presents work by over 80 participants from five Lebanese universities, as well as emerging talents under the age of 30.

All were tasked with using environmentally-friendly or recycled materials to create their products, ranging from furniture to decorative objects, while offering exposure and practical experience for aspiring talents.

Post Industrial Craft’s chandelier made from 3D printed recycled plastic water gallon bottles. (Maghie Ghali/Al Arabiya English)
Post Industrial Craft’s chandelier made from 3D printed recycled plastic water gallon bottles. (Maghie Ghali/Al Arabiya English)

“Usually design fairs are done with big brands that come in and high-end well-known designers, but we also wanted to give space to young students. This is an experimental and educational hub. We want processes, we want thinking, not just product,” Wehbe said. “We’ve had a drop of about 30 percent of students now not going on to universities since 2019’s economic crisis started. Lebanon has always prided itself no matter what on being well educated.

“Having this major drop because families could no longer financially support the education of their children is a tragedy. We went to speak with the students and visited some universities and said, ‘we’re going to give you a place,” she added. “We’re going to talk about sustainability because this is the future and we’re going to give them that exposure and not have to pay a dime for that.”

Part of WDB’s ethos is to reactivate historic and abandoned sites around Beirut to help bring them back into the public consciousness. The sustainability hub is staged at Abroyan Factory, a former cotton clothing factory from the 1940s, when Lebanon had a booming textile industry.

Exterior of Abroyan Factory. (Maghie Ghali/Al Arabiya English)
Exterior of Abroyan Factory. (Maghie Ghali/Al Arabiya English)

Serving as a reminder of Lebanon’s fabled Golden Age, the historic location sat was left abandoned for many years until Marc Hadife purchased it and opened it as a cultural and nightlife hub in 2018.

“The factory was built in three stages between the 1940s and the 1970s, and employing over 600 people in its prime, manufacturing cotton underwear and socks under the very famous BNL brand,” Hadife told Al Arabiya English. “Unable to compete with China, especially during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), it was forced to shut down in 1998 and was left abandoned till 2011.

“In 2011 I had the chance to become the new owner of the property and I renovated part of the space as soon as I bought it, but it is still empty and we only host some artistic events occasionally, like exhibitions or small concerts,” he added. “We are planning to turn it into an artist residency and offer the huge spaces for artists to work and exhibit.”

An inner window to a former workshop hall, where the exhibition is staged. (Maghie Ghali/Al Arabiya English)
An inner window to a former workshop hall, where the exhibition is staged. (Maghie Ghali/Al Arabiya English)

The factory has now had a partial restoration to make it functional, without losing its industrial charm, but its history represents old failings and the country’s situation as a whole – something which should have been a safeguarded architectural masterpiece, or part of a still-thriving textile industry, left derelict for years – serving as a poignant backdrop to the innovative showcases of fledgling designers.

Works on show include the “Game of Light” collection, created by eight students from Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts, who were each tasked with creating a lamp that used sustainable materials and three light-intensity settings, without needing extra power or electrical components.

“We gave them dimensions of 20 x 20 x 90cm to create within and asked them to play around with light, with the added challenge of having different light intensities, but only using mechanical manipulation of the lamp,” Janine Akl, who mentored the students’ project, told Al Arabiya English. “It’s intended as an energy saving approach but with creativity. The materials are all recycled or upcycled, such as wood pieces left over from workshops, broken zips from a tailor’s show and rope too worn to use.

Abroyan Factory hallway. (Maghie Ghali/Al Arabiya English)
Abroyan Factory hallway. (Maghie Ghali/Al Arabiya English)

“One made a lamp that dims by rotating wood pieces around the light shaft, another made a cabinet sort of design where you can open or close doors to change the light intensity,” she added. “One made puzzle-like design with little tabs that can be removed and one made a Jenga inspired lamp, which can be played around with.”

Alongside the main student showcase, a Materials Exhibition by a roster of sustainability experts and designers is also on show, in the hopes of promoting the use of these materials, with installations and experiments by the likes of Plastc Lab, Post Industrial Craft and Ziad Abi Chaker, also known as ‘The Garbage King of Beirut.’

A room divider titled “Banana Screen” Michele Braidy gave an overview of the different possible textures producible with banana fibers, a commonly grown plant the Middle East which produces a lot of waste. Annine Fadye – a group that reuses bottle glass – teamed up with traditional tile makers Blat El Atiq to create a new tile made from pulverized glass, resulting in sparkling geometric tiles that would be a stunning addition to any home.

Student Alexandre Abdelnour’s ‘Potify’ plant pots, made from street waste. (Maghie Ghali/Al Arabiya English)
Student Alexandre Abdelnour’s ‘Potify’ plant pots, made from street waste. (Maghie Ghali/Al Arabiya English)

This WDB exhibition celebrated the ingenuity of people who solve problems through design, in the hopes that both the next generation of designers and current industry might also be inspired to think sustainably about our future.

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