In April 2002, when Souheil Hanna and his sister Hala opened XXè Siècle in Hamra, west Beirut, the timing wasn't quite right. "Nobody was interested in the 20th century," he remembers. "People thought that 'antique' meant 18th or 19th century." So at first it was a hard sell; they had just a few clients here and there, many of them successful, young Lebanese financiers who lived in New York or Paris - where mid-century modern was already in fashion - and a warehouse full of Jean Royère in a building around the corner from their high-ceilinged, duplex showroom. Now, however, the siblings are recognised as among the first in the region to have popularised design heroes of the last hundred years or so.
Souheil, 35, and his sister, 40, grew up in Beirut, on the top floor above the shop. Hala studied graphic design at Lebanon's fine arts academy, and Souheil left for Paris, where he studied literature and film. By 1997 the two were back in Lebanon, both working in advertising (he as a TV commercial producer and she in graphic design) and both looking for something else to do. "We worked in advertising for three years," he recalls. "And we were not convinced that selling yogurt to the masses was our life's calling. We decided we needed to start something of our own."
They discussed it further, deciding that, at the very least, "we wanted a space to hear our own footsteps. Advertising was really hectic, we were bitching day and night. And we realised that we had this building that belonged to our grandfather." The turning point was in 1999, when Souheil went to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. There, he fell in love with the work of Jean Royère. He noticed that many of the names on the explanatory cards were Lebanese; they were Royère's clients from the 1950s when he had offices all around the world, including in Beirut and Cairo.
"I had this passion - and I said why not check it out in Beirut," Souheil remembers. In 2000 he began scouring estates and antique markets, eventually amassing one of the biggest collections of Royère in the Middle East, which he sold from his warehouse while the store was being built. "He worked for 15 years in Lebanon," Souheil explains. "But when I was buying, people weren't interested. They gave most of their furniture to the concierge. And they were really wrong," he says earnestly. No kidding.
Tajan, the French auction house, emptied Souheil's own apartment, which, until November 2008, was outfitted entirely with Royère. After sending an employee to photograph the place, they phoned to tell him they'd be taking it all. Left with barely a thread of carpet to call his own, he happily refurnished it with forgotten treasures from the warehouse. "I realised that I needed a big armoire," he says happily, "and I had a beautiful one in the warehouse that was sleeping."
Apart from his enviable Royère collection, Souheil stocks pieces from all over Europe, the Middle East and Canada, with a heavy focus on French, Italian and Scandinavian designers. Recently, a pair of copper 1920s Austrian candle holders was on display for 975,000 Lebanese pounds (US$650); a 1968 first-edition Biagio monobloc marble lamp designed by Tobia Scarpa for Flos glowed on a sleek glass table, and a bright yellow Elephant chair by the pop painter and sculptor Bernard Rancillac sat in the window, impossible to ignore.
Souheil is also moving slowly into the 21st century, with specially commissioned pieces from the local design star Karen Chekerdjian. "It's the most natural extension; contemporary but limited-edition," he says. "Now that I know furniture very well I can say 'No, this should be designed like this in pieces to go up stairs, etc.' I'm very good on the practical aspect of things." Looking back to his childhood, it appears this might have always been his life's calling.
His mother told him that, as a young boy, he went to Naji Asfar, a well-known antiques dealer, and bought a little Roman head. "I was only seven. I didn't have enough pocket money so my mother paid behind my back. It seems my taste was always for antiques." Hanna Residential building, rue Makdessi, Beirut. + 961 1 742 020 www.xxesieclegalerie.com