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Lebanese designer straddles divide between function and aesthetic, Beirut and Milan

One of a growing number of 'returnees,' Tarabay hopes to revamp his home country's civic spaces

A carpet unrolls to reveal all the necessary elements of a cozy living space, a public bench doubles as a children's seesaw, a hotel is built into a shipping container that can be transported from one island resort to another - Beirut-born designer Pascal Tarabay invents objects that merge a social insistence on function to an aesthetic approach to form.

Like the Turkish-Cypriot fashion designer Hussein Chalayan - whose most famous collection, inspired by the plight of refugees fleeing from their homes, featured a table that turned into a hoop skirt and a dress that folded into an airmail envelope - Tarabay's work betrays a pleasure and affection for transformation. Clearly, he relishes the tricks in his designs, when a bench begets a bookcase, for instance. It makes his pieces hold one's interest a little longer than expected, and as such, they are studies in process and usefulness. Nothing is exactly what is seems, and everything has a two-fold purpose. The point, he says, is "to use design as a statement, to use the objects around you to say something."

Born in 1970, Tarabay, like many of his generation, left Lebanon to study architecture in Paris. From there, he went to the Domus Academy in Milan, the first international post-graduate school of design, cofounded in the early 1980s by Andrea Branzi, a designer and theorist who was instrumental in the Italian radical architecture movement (Tarabay cites Branzi as a major influence on his own work, especially in terms of placing design in a social and political context). After earning his master's degree in 1998, Tarabay worked as a tutor at Domus and as a project assistant at the school's research center. On his own and on a freelance basis, however, he has been creating his own pieces and doing projects for such high-profile clients as Salvatore Ferragamo for 10 years now.

Last September, Tarabay moved back to Beirut. "I still have my life and my work in Europe," he says, and he still spends a week to 10 days out of each month in Milan. But as a recent "returnee," Tarabay represents a small but crucial wave of reverse migration back into Lebanon. It is an ever-so-slight corrective to the debilitating brain drain of the civil war years, which crippled the country's economy and cultural life. And it is slowly, carefully, tentatively bringing more and more creative and entrepreneurial forces back to Beirut to see if the can work and succeed here as they have abroad.

"The interesting part of my work here in Beirut is architecture," he says. "In Italy it's industrial design. I want to do both and not be a specialist."

Tarabay made a name for himself as a product designer. "My main work is more industrial, more mass produced," he says. He has developed ideas for everything from lamps and lighting fixtures to a collection of furniture that comes in a box, inspired, says Tarabay, "by the way homeless people use space." The problem with this kind of work, however, is that while there is a huge audience of collectors who cover and pay large sums for this type of material, a designer can end up "with 20 projects in prototype and none in production."

Tarabay often works with such materials as felt, polyurethane foam, and metal. Many of his objects have a softness and malleability that play with the boundary between fashion and furniture. Not all of his pieces are serious; some are whimsical, such as the "1,000 Chair," based on the book "1,000 Chairs" published by Taschen and something of a staple among design groupies. But given the social dimension that colors much of Tarabay's work - based on a thoughtful and well-considered observation of the way people behave in, use and inhabit space - his early designs bear a strong resemblance to the work of British artist and fashion designer Lucy Orta.

Over the past decade, Orta has developed a number of collections - such as Refuge Wear and Body Architecture - that address issues of homelessness, urban survival, hunger, food waste, war, famine, and human atrocity. She is a critical superstar and is affective mainly in calling attention to such problems. But her pieces are certainly not mass-marketed. She uses them in interventionist-style performances, and they are often displayed as art in museum exhibitions and gallery shows.

Similarly, Tarabay notes that previous collections he's worked on were "suitable to artwork more so than industrial work." And again, he doesn't seek to be pigeon-holed. Tarabay's portfolio covers architecture and urban planning as well as industrial, interior, and furniture design. Last January, he took a position as design director of an Italian company called Diamantini Domeniconi. Known for constructing fine clocks, the company is a 40-year-old family business that has just been taken over by a son. Looking to revamp its image and move into furniture design, he hired Tarabay to design products as well as be responsible for all the company's graphics, catalogues, and branding imagery.

To do the Diamantini Domeniconi job, Tarabay works on weekends and evenings and travels to Milan monthly. The rest of the time, he's working on nurturing a young studio in Beirut called Flat.

"For the studio here, we've recruited people who can work on different scales, who are flexible enough to work with all kinds of material," he says. Flat presently employs nine people, all of whom are young, talented, and energetic, Tarabay adds.

Among Flat's recent projects is a complete image overhaul for DHL, the global shipping service and FedEx rival which recently changed ownership. Tarabay and Flat were responsible for all the interior work for the flagship store in downtown Beirut and another, smaller outlet in Sidon. Downtown, Flat incorporated a DIY (Do-It-Yourself) section that allows customers to tend to their packages themselves. "DHL for us is not a commercial project," says Tarabay. It has elements of fashion, and it's "extremely functional. It's the most functional retail outlet you can have. In terms of the quality of lighting and material, we had to make people feel comfortable, not only physically but psychologically, like, 'For sure may package will arrive.' Everything had to be clear, efficient, and fast."

In addition to the DHL redesign, Flat is currently working on a full-scale architectural and urban planning scheme for a residential development in Qatar and a major Beirut-based project, the details of which can't yet be made public. And then there are the more conceptual long-term projects, such as the Discovery Hotel.

"It started with a group of friends and an Italian travel agency," says Tarabay, explaining the origins of the transportable hotel, in which a series of shipping containers are kitted out as bungalows, capable of being moved from one sun-swept beach to another. Originally there was a financial partner involved but the deal fell through. Now Flat and Tarabay are doing feasibility studies and looking for another partner to execute the idea in the Middle East.

If the Discovery Hotel is high-end, more down-to-earth are Tarabay's plans for public spaces in Lebanon. He and his studio are devising different ways to reclaim vacant and abandoned lots not just in Beirut but in towns and villages throughout the country as well. The idea is to take "residual spaces" and create functional places out of them. Some would be kitschy and cheesy, some would be more somber and memorializing, but all would be done with attention paid to their context, history, and relationship to the war.

"In Lebanon's 200 year history, there's been a huge amount of attention paid to individual comfort and private space," says Tarabay. "But public space is sh-. I'm trying to work as much as possible with public spaces to inject the domestic into the public sphere. We don't have gardens. We don't have benches in the streets."

As to how he's found work in Lebanon so far, Tarabay says, "It's interesting to see a country still creating an identity. And there are things you can do here would be impossible in Europe." But overall, he suggests, Lebanon lacks a certain level of professionalism.

For the strength of so many university programs in architecture and graphic design here, Tarabay proposes that technical programs should be bolstered as well. Craftsmen, carpenters, contractors, builders, electricians, and so on. All are necessary to execute an architect's work, and all should subscribe to the same notion of a work ethic, a work ethic that is committed to quality and not reliant on cut corners and cut costs.

"There is talent," says Tarabay. "We just need people to be more rigid with rules."

When asked if he feels at all out of the loop now that he's based in Beirut as opposed to Milan, Tarabay responds: "It would be a mistake not to be open to the whole world. The world is small now. With one website you can reach everyone. There are quirky ideas specific to one culture or another but the world itself is becoming one culture now, and it's a rich one. The culture here is certainly strong enough to compete with McDonald's."

For more information, check out www.pascaltarabay.com and www.flatscape.com

Beirut,08 09 2004
Kaelen Wilson Goldie
The Daily Star
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