A Lebanese interior and furniture designer, brought up in Japan, who studied interior architecture in the Rohde Island School of Design. Nada Debs later moved to the United Kingdom for work before returning to her home country to launch her own company. Here the designer tells us more about the contemporary design world, culture and craftsmanship in the Middle East.
Tell us more about your background, and why did you choose furniture design?
I had studied interior architecture but took a course in furniture design. I didn’t realize I enjoyed so much researching materials and how to put them together to create a functional object.
What would you say are your main influences when conceiving a piece of work?
The craft technique inspires me as well as trying to have clean lines showing just the essence of what I’m trying to design- that must be the Japanese influence as my upbringing has definitely affected me.
What comes first – the materials or the design idea? Walk us through the process of any piece. And what part of the process excites you the most?
The first thing I do is to create a sample of a craft idea, which reflects the new concept that I am working on. For example, I wanted to take our traditional marquetry work that is in our typical backgammon games and apply a different colour and pattern to it. I create these samples and then see where I can incorporate it. I create then other samples until I am happy with the finish. Usually the pieces I make try to highlight the craft so in this case I applied the craft to create a frame for the furniture piece. Basically my products forms are based on showing our modern updated craft in as pure and straightforward form as possible.
Describe a day in the life of Nada Debs. What sparks a new project for you?
I am quite aware of trends worldwide I ask myself what are people looking at, their needs, and what are movies
highlighting? As for my day, I arrive at the studio and start immediately discussing my projects one by one with my designers. Usually they prepare the samples materials so that I can check on the quality and work on the next steps. In general I’m quite hands-on. We are also starting to focus on interior design. I often meet my clients in the studio in our sample room that has all types of materials to work with. Of course, Fifty my Golden Retriever makes sure she attends all meetings. The day goes by very fast. I use the end of the day for me-time and to answer emails and think of next steps. Ideas come to my mind after a whole day of being surrounded by design, materials and inspirational pieces that I collect.
What would you say are your values and ethics when it comes to designing?
I need to be true to the craft although sometimes it’s very difficult because machines take over. It’s also more costly but I believe that, because my mission is to preserve our craft and heritage by making it more relevant to our time and our style, I have to stick to our philosophy. I don’t mind that our products are not perfect- that’s part of the charm. I always say we strive to celebrate imperfection in a perfect way. I also aim to create as much as possible in Lebanon and the Arab world, this keeps the tradition and pride of the industry going.
What’s your take on craftsmanship, especially in the region? What do you think could be done to raise the level of skill amongst craftsmen in Lebanon?
It’s very hard to convince craftsmen to look the future. They are usually looking to the past and feel almost guilty to play around or do this differently from what they already know. But I give them a lot of attention and they welcome my input because I explained that the old products are not so popular anymore and we need to evolve to reach the young generation. And the fact that I insist that this remain to be made by hand, they agree with me. Now they get excited when I give them new ideas. We have beautiful craftsmanship and it is part of our culture. It is part of our identity. One can recognize a Middle-Eastern design. It just needs to be updated in a way where we still retain its essence.
Why do you think the Nada Debs brand has been so universally successful?
I guess because I simply highlighted the importance of our identity. My personal identity has always been a question that had remained troubling for me. My furniture and objects actually showed me who I am a modern Arab (mixed with Japanese aesthetics). I use terms such as ‘modern Arab identity’ promoting local production, celebrating eastern craftsmanship and the
East and East (the two Easts I come from). Although I was a silent introvert when I arrived to Beirut 17 years ago, I realized that if I want to promote all the above, I needed to talk about it. My team all live this philosophy and it spread when people are happy to hear it. My best compliment is when our clients all over the region tell me ‘ You make us proud’- It actually brings tears to my eyes when they say that.
What is/are your greatest threats?
I don’t have much except that we are losing quality craftsmen and need to keep this up.
Does Lebanon as a base play a factor in your work?
Definitely, this is the base of my work- I take pride in producing in Lebanon. It is also very inspiring because it is between East and West with a lot of soul.
Would say that your practices have changed to keep up with today’s new technologies?
Yes, I am going to have to incorporate technology within our craft because we cannot deny it. It’s actually my next challenge.
What’s your favourite piece from your archive?
Sometimes I get surprised when I look back at some of my work and realize that I’ve designed them. I like several pieces- my floating stool / Arabesque chair / Pebble table / Concrete table / Geometric trays / Mosharrabieh cabinet / Bling Bling Coffee bean / Concrete bowl land of the rising sun bar cabinet. But to be honest, most of the pieces are not about the piece as much as the craft involved in it.
Do you have an inspirational teacher or a muse you look up to?
I like women designers such as Patricia Urquiola and India Mahdavi- I owe my teacher Sylvia Acosta at the Rhode Island School of Design, because she really pushed me to go beyond my comfort zone. I am also inspired by fashion brands such as Paul Smith or Bottega Venetta, who use their identity and constantly create new objects with them.
What part of creating is more important for you: The idea, the process, or the outcome?
The idea first, then the process. I am not really into the end product- I feel what I sell is not a product it is a message!
What was last piece of home-ware you bought?
One of my own! I created a new prototype, a table using steel and Tatami rolls.
What is your favourite design shop in Lebanon or in any other country?
Any shop that buys products involving old and new craft techniques- I like Mint in London.
Do you have any advice for those hoping to break into the industry?
Any tips for someone who is looking to makeover a space or a room?
Make it personal.
What’s next for Nada Debs?
As a brand, a shop-in-shop concept and moving into a lifestyle concept store with more affordable small objects for the millennials… As a designer, my aim is to incorporate technology with craft.
By Dana Mortada