A business card says a lot about a person. Take Nada Debs' new card, for example. It's a light grey and off-white affair, embossed with a highly tactile geometric pattern. Her name, written in a custom-designed typeface based on a surprisingly successful marriage of Kufic script and Japanese Kanji, is angular and flowing at the same time.
Understated, yet stylish, it is the perfect introduction to the understated yet stylish woman who operates two eponymous design stores on opposite sides of the street in central Beirut's Saifi Village. The original store, which opened a couple of years ago, will soon become dedicated to Debs' delectable line in modern Middle Eastern accessories: inlaid wood trays, Plexiglas stools, transparent mushrabiya screens, clever C-shaped side tables and mother-of-pearl and Plexiglas mirrors.
The new store, one wall of which is decorated with the same pattern that graces her business card, is devoted to Debs' larger items; the modern mother-of-pearl inlaid tables, sofas and commodes that make up her East Is East collection, as well as now-classic creations like Pebbles, an interconnected cluster of brass tables and Coffee Bean, a low, ring-shaped oval table available in a variety of finishes, including a dramatic Imperial Red lacquer.
I tell Debs that her beautifully laid-out new store could almost be an art gallery. She smiles. "Of course, [furniture] has to look good, but it has to feel good too and not only to sit with emotionally but also to sit on physically," she says. "This trend of art as furniture, I like the idea but I think for me it's more important that furniture is functional." Somewhere between the two poles lies Debs' latest armchair, Arabesque Moderne. As any successful object should, Moderne evokes a variety of responses but does so not by projecting the smooth, characterless identity favoured by so many contemporary designers but, instead, by deft references to multiple places and times.
The geometric pattern carved into its low, curved back, for example, could easily have been etched on some Alhambran wall, while its slender and gently angled legs are immediately reminiscent of the kind of furniture your forward-thinking relatives used to own in the 1950s. The dark wood finish, which ought to be heavy and austere, is lifted with almost tropical élan by the cushion, upholstered in a bright, cheerful yellow fabric.
The result is the kind of chair that would look as natural placed next to a Minotti sofa as it would in room full of Damascene antiques and that could as easily have graced the lobby of Muscat's Al Bustan Palace as the Kahala in Honolulu, where it would surely have caught Elizabeth Taylor's eye. Born and brought up in Japan, Debs is on a continuous quest to marry the two aesthetic cultures to which she is heir: the geometric but highly decorative Middle Eastern school and the pure forms and more austere style of Japan. Moderne's cosmopolitan everywhere and every-when feel is a particularly striking result.
"Sometimes, I don't know where I am. I'm lost in translation," she says with typically self-deprecating humour. "Well, maybe not lost, more like I'm in the process of evolution." Moderne is a neat encapsulation of that "evolution" for, alongside the deft mix of contemporary form and traditional decoration for which Debs is already known, it expresses her increasing, though somewhat ambivalent, attraction to ornamentation and her pursuit of what she refers to as "emotional" design.
"I started with really pure forms, pure shapes and then I moved (to Lebanon), a country that's full of ornament. Now I'm trying to fuse the two but the longer I live here….," she trails off. "We need to feel the human element, that's why we're here on earth, and this reminds you that someone was there at the moment it was created, it was someone's hand that did this." The "this" to which Debs is referring is the delicate mother-of-pearl pattern set into the tabletop around which we are sitting, an abstract representation of the ubiquitous Japanese cherry blossom - but she could just as easily be talking of the delicate metal inlay in her wood trays or for that matter, the intricate arabesques on her armchair, all of them reminders of the hand of man in her designs.
"I'm fighting industry with handicraft, I'm fighting modernity with tradition. I want a mass market, I want to appeal to the world but I also want to appeal to the emotions, for my designs to remain human. To me, that's what is really precious."