Lucy Knight

Keeping Lebanese artistic traditions alive

Two Lebanese designers are up for the V&A Museum’s Jameel Prize

Nada Debs’ concrete carpet.

Famous for being a one-stop shop for all things furniture-related, it’s not surprising that designer Nada Debs houses her workshops just off the main drag of Southern Beirut’s Ouzai area. “When I first came to Jammal, I wanted him to inlay some mother of pearl into acrylic,” says Debs of her Egyptian craftsman. “He said give me three days.” Skeptical and not knowing what to expect, Debs hesitantly returned three days later to find the request completed. 


After a life spent abroad (she grew up in Japan and trained in the States), it was coming back to Lebanon that caused Debs to find her niche in the furniture design business. Now known the world over for Arabic design with a Japanese minimalist twist, Debs still feels honored when her design efforts are noted by others. This year she has found herself one of 10 nominees for the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum’s Jameel Prize. The bi-annual competition, brought together by the V&A and Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives (ALJCI), awards £25,000 ($40,400) to a contemporary artist or designer who has been inspired by Islamic traditions of art, craft, and design.


Debs has always displayed the merging of Japanese style and her Arab identity in functional items – all of her creations have been for the home – but the “Concrete Poetry on Concrete Carpet” from 2010 is somewhat of a departure. Commissioned for “The future of tradition – The tradition of future” exhibition at the Haus Der Kunst in Munich, with this piece she has taken her style to the next level, again merging the cultures into a “carpet” with haiku-like text throughout.


“It was a challenge and at the same time an opportunity for me,” Debs says. “There are like five things that people associate with Arabic culture. One is the flying carpet of a thousand and one nights, the other is calligraphy.” Not wanting to stray too far from her love of the functional, Debs decided to change the opulent imagery of the Arab carpet and take a man-made and heavy material as a symbol of “these dark days:” “I don’t want to sound depressing, but things are different now.” Like Japanese tatami mats, the 9x3m piece contains 28 panels with a cut-out font, a Japanese Kanji, and the Arabic Sufi script combination, each one inlayed with mother-of-pearl. Every piece features one letter of the Arabic alphabet, displaying words beginning with that character.


The unique font of Debs’ work is the creation of another Jameel Prize nominee, the typographer Pascal Zoghbi. Not chosen because of one specific work, he is nominated instead for his constant contribution to the field of Arabic typography and design over the last seven years. Through his design studio 29LT Fonts, Zoghbi has been working with clients throughout the region to develop new styles for lettering using traditional Arabic calligraphy and contemporary styles. With type design increasingly in demand, Zoghbi’s work extends to teaching typography and type design at AUB and LAU. “This recognition is good,” says Zoghbi, “not just for designers but for the overall design community in the Arab region.”


As Zoghbi is not nominated for one particular piece, he will display a collage of 150 pages as part of the exhibition of nominees, each with a letter or sample of text that he has created over the years. But even with a growing demand for his type of work, Zoghbi was surprised to be nominated. “I don’t consider myself an artist,” he says. “My aim was always to produce good work, and hopefully it would speak for itself.”


For Debs, the appreciation doesn’t just come from the clients: “Jammal later told me,” says Debs, “that my designs were the work he had been waiting all his life for.”


The prize, which began in 2009 with architect Zaha Hadid as patron, looks to “raise awareness of the thriving interaction between contemporary practice and Islamic traditions of craft, art, and design.” Alongside Debs and Zoghbi are artists and designers from Pakistan, France, Azerbaijan, and Morocco. Previous winners have been Algerian Rachid Koraïchi and Iranian Afruz Amighi.


The winner of the Jameel Prize 3 will be announced on December 10. All nominees’ work will be on display at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum from December 11, 2013 – April 21, 2014.

Nada Debs’ concrete carpet. (Image courtesy of Nada Debs)

"'I don’t consider myself an artist,' he says. 'My aim was always to produce good work, and hopefully it would speak for itself.'”