BEIRUT: Internationally acclaimed conceptual designer Nada Debs certainly needs no introduction. Her work, which at its best is a reflection of the global fusion of cultures, has spanned two decades and three continents, rendering her a globe-trotting free spirit whose roots lie in the cosmopolitan city of Beirut.
“The aesthetics of every country I’ve lived in has influenced what I do today,” Debs said. “There’s the minimalism of Japan, where everything is pared down to its essence, the futurism of the US, where every piece has a function and practicality to it, and England’s reverence for the past through collecting antique vintage pieces. And of course, there’s also Lebanon, my home country.”
Debs grew up in Japan and was educated in the US where she received her Bachelor’s from the Rhode Island School of Design. She then moved to the UK after getting married before settling down in Lebanon for good.
Her journey is strongly mirrored in her artistic output, which flows with emotional resonance and exquisite craftsmanship. In fact, she’s credited with the revival of marquetry, the ancient woodcraft, which became the hallmark of her creations and continues to be an important influence in her work.
“I remember when I got pregnant with my first child I was looking for contemporary furniture for nurseries, but I couldn’t find any, so I came up with my own collection using marquetry. This happened when I was in the UK,” Debs recalls.
Using her imagination along with stained veneer, Debs collaborated with a British designer and used children’s stories as themes for her first collection. The result was a resounding success. People from her social circle started commissioning her for their own nursery rooms.
But the artist’s search for identity can be a peculiar route, and Debs found herself attracted to Beirut in search of her own identity and roots.
“It was a very difficult time for me in Beirut because I didn’t know anyone and that was isolating,” she said. “I wondered what would make me happy. When you’re a creative you want to express this creativity of yours.” The answer, she says, came to her in a dream in which she saw herself touring the globe and showing her work to clients. “I woke up and I knew that that was what I wanted to do,” she says.
One can call it fate, but less than a week later, Debs was contacted by the royal family of Jordan and commissioned to design nursery rooms for children; soon enough, people in Beirut started to notice. Debs started designing her own collections, which included new concepts such as the “floating stools” that are made of fabric supported by transparent plexiglass in a manner that makes it appear as though it were floating on air. She also “discovered” the oriental craftsmanship while on a trip to Damascus.
“I saw beautiful intricate workmanship that just doesn’t fit into today’s world. It was beautiful but just not practical. I wanted to incorporate what they do into contemporary art, ” she said.
Determined to find a way to incorporate these designs into contemporary art, she collaborated with a craftsman who made a small intricately designed wooden panel, which she was able to use to create a bedside table. “That was the beginning of me bringing my Japanese sensibility into this Middle Eastern craft,” Debs explained.
She has since collaborated with craftsmen for multiple pieces, some of them for limited editions. This duality of identity in Debs’ designs reflected her own personal duality. “I’ve always struggled with my identity,” she said. “I would ask myself: ‘Am I Japanese or am I Arab?’ This is why I called my company East and East. It’s really about celebrating the Middle Eastern craft with the minimalism of Japanese tradition.”
Her most prominent works include the playful Funquentry collection, the Tatamim collection of trays and boxes, the mirror-clustered Refraction collection and the You and I rug collection, which were all exhibited at Debs’ first solo show at the Milan Design Week 2018.
Her work also includes the Vintage Meets Arabesque collection which was issued in 2012, the Marquetry Mania collection, which is adequately named and explores the handcrafted technique of marquetry with a colorful twist, and the Now and Zen collection inspired by the vibrant colors found in the anime culture and in modern day Japan.
“I like to think that each geometric piece has a message designed, so when people ask me what I design I tell them I design messages, not products,” Debs told Annahar.
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