Nada Debs — Centuries of Arabic Motifs Resurface in Contemporary Design

Strand console

Nada Debs, a Beirut-based furniture, home, and accessory designer uses cultural influences from at least four regions from where she has lived: Lebanon, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom — merging them into striking product lines that might seem more appropriate coming from Milan, London, Tokyo, Paris, or New York instead of Lebanon. Yet, while her work is stylish and modern, she imposes, none-too-subtly, timeless Arabic motifs that compliment her modernist approach resulting in pieces that function outside of their original Lebanese territory into a contemporary international aesthetic.


BeirutDesignWeek_2014_7stepsto#CRAFTCOOL_H15_052Arabesque modern armchairBorn in Lebanon, raised in Japan, educated at Rhode Island School of Design in the United States, working in the United Kingdom, and finally returning to Lebanon where she began, Ms. Debs has attained international recognition for producing beautiful things, all of them clearly 21st century, all of them unquestionably within the Arabic aesthetic. How does she put forth a contemporary vision influenced by centuries-old design elements?

Photo: Jim Gordon, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr.
Photo: Jim Gordon, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr.

“One of my favourite historical buildings,” says Debs, ” is the Khan As’ad Pasha, the largest khan in the Old City of Damascus. The Ottoman style architecture, with its domes and courtyard is beautifully designed. The striped stonework in basalt and limestone feels so contemporary.”

Inlaid panel detail, Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, Istanbul
Inlaid panel detail, Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, Istanbul.

Her calling Khan As’ad Pasha contemporary engages in an of an ongoing observation among global historians, artists, and designers regarding the astonishing aesthetic brought to the world by Arab artists and designers throughout the centuries and its ongoing relevance today. Arab architecture and art from centuries ago can be arguably interpreted as modern and vital today without stretching the definition of modern. Arabic patterns and motifs from the Middle Ages more directly correlate with contemporary decorative arts and even digitally produced designs, but can the same be said for much of the design produced by other parts of the globe when comparing historic time periods? Architecture and art from Europe in the Middle Ages are — also arguably — easier to identify as historic.

But if my postulation that centuries-old Islamic-Arab design sustains contemporary aesthetic equity, the question is why? The easy answer is that earlier Arab civilizations followed Quranic Sura or Sharia passages prohibiting representations of humans and nature leading Arab culture on a path toward geometric rhythmic design in the absence of representational imagery. Couple this with the emergence of the Arabic language and its graphically stunning alphabet and writing, and there appears a anthropological rationale for an overall design aesthetic that omits visual historic markers and supersedes classification by era. But this cannot be a complete picture, and in fact, it omits the huge advances in sciences, arts, and culture the Arab region accomplished long before the European Renaissance gained traction, and is often credited for fueling the Renaissance via the Silk Route. The fact is, the timeless beauty of Arab-Islamic design and architecture is a hard-won, civilization-wide, century-after-century continuum that reflects a highly sophisticated and opulent vision of public space and personal habitat, not simply a byproduct religious restrictions.

Thus, it is no wonder that Nada Deb’s use of Arabesques in contemporary design succeeds to the degree it does, and when executed with her own interpretation of what modern is results in remarkable internationally-sought furnishing products. And, having seen Beirut first hand and having witnessed its vitality and creative energy, I can fully understand why she chose it over any other global location. It is a perfect city to envision the future building on fantastic ideas from centuries of the greatest creative thinkers.

The Telegraph
Islamic Art & Architecture
Product images and developmental sketches used with the kind permission of Nada Debs and East & East.

Note: Opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, and are not necessarily held by the individuals, groups, or producers of media featured in this article.

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