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Ghida El Zein Furniture Design

Although Ghida el Zein can trace the fascination she has with furniture from a very young age, she does not like to be defined as a furniture designer, nor a product designer. “I am simply a designer,” she stresses. This openness to creative possibilities, and resistance to designations can be simply evoked by the name she chose for her studio: “Blank Space,” founded in 2009. And indeed, her work is all about accommodating and filling blank spaces or an empty void with her furniture “ghida el zein,” which is the brand name for her newly launched furniture line.
 
 
She recounts to Archileb how when she was a teenager, about 15 or 16 years old, her school bus would go through the old Ouzai road, passing shops and people wearing masks, who were working on materials. This image fascinated her and intensified her curiosity. One day, she went home early and asked her mother to allow her to venture into the area. There, she discovered the metalworkers and carpenters and was in awe of how they handled objects. This led to a lasting impression on Ghida, who later specialized in interior architecture at the Lebanese American University.
 
“I always wanted to be an interior architect, and not a furniture designer,” but all that changed when her innovative shelving unit “Motion,” won an international, inter-university competition, organized by Divine Details (link) in 2005, and exhibited by gallery Farra, where the students had one semester to design a piece of furniture. Countries such as Italy, Germany, and the US were participating. And it was the process of working closely with artisans and craftspeople that Ghida enjoyed most. “I love the collaboration, the fact that you cannot work alone in this field.” The details of the practice and the process of discovering different materials and how they interact (such as plexiglass, wood, metal) were what led to her pursuit of furniture design. “I wanted to make furniture ever since and often sought solutions through my work.” For instance, “Motion” was quite challenging in its technicality; it was a modular unit that provided an inventive storage space. 
 
In Milan as a design student at Domus Academy, Ghida visited the factories of major furniture design companies, where she was taken aback by how “not one person touches the product. Even the machines wrap it up in the end; this is the essence of mass production. I prefer the artisanal element to a lot of Lebanese production and to my work in general, an infusing of products with a soul. Since my pieces are made by hand, if I redo a table, it will never turn out the same” and the result is very personalized, unique pieces. Ghida el Zein learned a lot in Milan, in her development as a furniture designer both conceptually and methodologically: “my time at Domus academy taught me how to think, how to implement, how to first locate the idea, how to put it down on paper, how to take it to the next step, always keeping in mind why you came up with the creative model in the first place.” 
 
 
Her first collection, the “Skew,” is more aesthetic than functional. It remains the most challenging collection she has worked on. Her pieces hardly embody storage spaces for instance, and the foundation is wood, but wood that has specialized finishes, adding lightness to what is often considered ‘bulky’ in essence, as well as inventive skewed angles here and there. She initiated this collection by simply drawing and then researching what was in the market.
 
Before her gallery exhibition at the Running Horse contemporary artspace in December 2010, Ghida positioned herself as “a designer and not an artist per se. You can establish yourself as an artist and not care about what is sold and merely design what you want to.” But she wanted to create a complete collection that offered a variety to her clients, responding to their needs. Subsequently, her first solo show last year comprised as many as 23 pieces. And prior to exhibiting her works, she could not sell or produce much without a physical space in which to display them. All that changed when visitors saw Ghida's pieces at the exhibition and "orders started rolling in." Although Ghida’s current aim is to have a showroom, she is not thinking in terms of a large scale since it is essential for her that her line does not grow in direction of mass production. 
 
 
It is not that she is not aiming to sell in Paris, London, and New York, because Ghida is currently working on international exposure, through Salon de Mobile and Maison d’objets and starting to ship to clients abroad. But the main goal is for her pieces to be personalized, and not “bought in a hundred or innumerable versions, but rather be reflective of the human touch/imprint by virtue of the production process I ascribe to. I want to maintain close relationships with my clients” and the intimacy that entails. “Once the collection is created, it develops a life of its own and sometimes I end up integrating custom-designed pieces into my own collections,” albeit some changes. (In her exhibition, only 15 percent of the sales were of whole collections, the rest were specially tailored, so there is a large proportion of client-based designs in her work and in the industry in general.)
 
Her signature style is based on this juxtaposition of seemingly heavy or solid materials with “lighter” ones, as textural contrasts both in terms of form and finish. The use of natural elements that are “raw” and yet have so many methods of usage, never ceases to inspire Ghida, as well as “the million and one possibilities you can explore with just one piece of wood.” And wood remains her main source of inspiration, rather than a particular person. “Wood is often perceived as thick and heavy, but I think that it is a very versatile material.” And indeed Ghida goes beyond this malleability in her creation of thin lines, fine finishes, and clean geometric forms. 
 
 
Despite the contemporary aesthetic, Ghida says she is in search for warmth in her furniture. And yet she abides by a relatively bare aesthetic, sober and precise in lines and forms, understated tones in the neutral colors of white and grey, with the occasional red, and the natural browns of wood. Ghida el Zein’s pieces often require embellishment with the accessories, precisely because of this subtle simplicity, except for the Skew collection, which she feels should stand alone, displaying itself, rather than the objects on it. “I didn’t want to create something that already existed. I wanted the pieces to be a bit grounded as well and not too futuristic."
 
When reflecting about what could be considered the “Lebanese” aspect of her design, Ghida claimed that her collections were not really representative of Lebanese design, or perhaps only in their production element because in her view, Lebanese design implies a “modern and Orientalist dual aesthetic” with Islamic geometric designs in particular, even though that should not be considered the only Arab element in design. Ghida considers Nada Debs, who she worked with, to be the epitome of a successful Lebanese designer, having found a niche market in combining the Arabesque and other patterns arising from the Arab/Islamic world with an extremely modernist aesthetic, not to mention the Oriental/Asian elements. 
 
 
 “My work is a lot about fusion,” the amalgam of materials, styles and finishes. “My interiors are often a merging of the old and the new, the modern and antique.” Due to the limitations of local production know-how, Ghida el Zein constantly finds herself discovering and working on material produced elsewhere, such as her latest fetish: French dacquer and quartz for table tops. “I like to bring elements from Europe, in their raw state, and complement them with what is available here, where they are worked on and developed.”
 
“I would advise young designers to travel as much as possible, and get acquainted with different styles in order to know what is happening around them in America, Europe, and Asia, in order to understand design and develop a kind of competence before starting to design. Only 1 or 2 % of the current generation are studying or practicing design because that is what they love to do; most do it because it is a trend.”
 
 
And so, what exactly is being Lebanese to Ghida el Zein? “Being very multi-functional, and doing several things at the same time. Lebanese can stand on their feet anywhere in the world; you are very well prepared, because of the history. We have so many dualities, whether it is architecturally, culturally, or politically. There is a mixture of European and Arab cultures and we take a lot of styles from everywhere else. It is a shame really, because we don’t have an identity of our own, but rather a hybrid of a lot of other identities.”
 
Ghida el Zein’s own search for an identity in her work means that she is constantly on the lookout for change, in materials and finishes and yet the Skew collection remains her trademark, a dominant visual language. There is something timeless about her work, which cannot be categorized “into a style of its own, whether futuristic or Art Deco. I tried to do that in my creations, come up with a style that you would keep.” In other words, a style that des not go out of style.

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Comments

  1. bianca dammous

    bravo ghida tres beau site ca m a fait plaisir de le liretu as un grand futur en architecture et design

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