x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Beirut's 2B Design turns discarded building parts into fabulous furnishings

The company founder Benedicte Moubarak is helping to preserve Lebanon's culture and architectural heritage – and meeting a vital social need.

Benedicte Moubarak with one of the company's creations. Courtesy of 2b Design
Benedicte Moubarak with one of the company's creations. Courtesy of 2b Design

When she moved to Lebanon in 1994, Benedicte Moubarak's first impression of Beirut was that it was "a jungle". Electricity was badly distributed and infrastructure was poor. The central district was ravaged by construction work and the whole city felt like a building site.

Eighteen years on and, in this regard at least, not much has changed. "In 2012 I have the impression that the construction site is still active," says Benedicte, the founder of 2b Design.

A by-product of this extended, if somewhat haphazard, development curve is that much of the city's architectural integrity is being lost, says Benedicte. Old buildings are being destroyed and little is being done to preserve the country's unique architectural identity.

Many of Benedicte's favourite buildings - the Sursock Palace museum, the Albergo Hotel and the Porter House restaurant - celebrate Beirut's distinct architectural style. But structures like this are becoming increasingly rare, she says.

"The traditional buildings of the city are disappearing fast and the character of the city is changing. Other than the central district, where traditional buildings have been preserved, urban development is not planned and responds to economic considerations on the part of real estate developers who stand to gain considerable profits.

"The weakness of the Lebanese state is one important factor that prevents the preservation of the architectural integrity as it is unable to enforce laws. In addition, the corruption that exists in the country and the seeming lack of concern of citizens for their own heritage are factors that are not helping."

In response, Benedicte has come up with a novel way to try to preserve even just a small part of this heritage. She founded 2b Design, which aims to "restore the unseen beauty of the broken" by seeking out discarded architectural elements from old buildings and converting them into accessories for the home.

The company collects wrought iron balustrades, balconies and bay windows, juniper window frames, and "cemento" tiles from traditional houses and transforms them into lamps, candle holders, tables, consoles and hangers. 2b also creates products out of traditional copper implements and has a line of cushions and lampshades made out of old Indian wedding saris and traditional fabrics from Uzbekistan. Most importantly, 2b's products are handcrafted by underprivileged members of society, making it a social as well as environmental enterprise.

Benedicte was born into a large family in France. From early on, her parents encouraged her and her siblings to become involved in helping others, she recalls. "After my graduation from high school and my enrolment in law school my desire to discover the world took me to different countries. I worked with Mother Teresa for a few months in Calcutta caring for the poorest of the poor, I travelled to Africa and to Brazil, where I got involved in social work in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, and I trekked the Himalayas. After getting married to Raja, who was an executive in multinational companies, we lived in Cyprus, Lebanon, Saudi and Tunisia."

It was while in Saudi, where she was unable to get "a normal job", that she decided to start a small handicraft business. She found a talented carpenter in Al Khobar and started to design small pieces of furniture that she sold on to expatriates. When she moved to Tunisia, she continued the business, working with local blacksmiths to create a collection made out of wrought iron.

When she moved back to Lebanon in 2003, she continued working with wrought iron before deciding to focus on recycling architectural elements taken from old buildings. "I realised that design, social action and respecting the environment could go nicely hand in hand. Lebanon's traditional heritage was disappearing, there were immense social needs, particularly a lack of opportunities among marginalised and handicapped members of society, and the environment was badly damaged. So I started combining these elements into one social enterprise concept."

2b was born. It was called 2b because, coincidentally, both Benedicte's first name and her married name, Moubarak, translate to mean "blessed". The company's first piece was a lamp stand made out of a 150-year-old piece of balcony. The colour and rust marks were entirely unique, says Benedicte, and you could "read the history through it".

Benedicte continues to design most of the company's pieces, but also works with independent designers, who create their own collections that 2b promotes and sells. She has also partnered with Arc en Ciel, one of the largest NGOs in Lebanon.

"Arc en Ciel started years ago making wheelchairs and they have a large workshop with the appropriate equipment. Because they employ people with disabilities it seemed like a natural fit. So we work with a team of blacksmiths who spend about a third to half their time producing items for us. We not only pay them an additional wage for their work but also try to improve their lives in different ways. For example, we are partnering with Habitat for Humanity to refurbish the homes of the poorest employees."

Working with these people presents a unique set of challenges, says Benedicte. "You have to be aware of their constant struggles and therefore you need to produce and be reactive to the market. Paying them above the market average to allow them to respond to their basic needs is also a challenge. Another challenge is to be able to relay the social message through our retailers and clients."

Nonetheless, in spite of these obstacles, 2b is enjoying considerable success. Its biggest markets are Europe, Japan and the US, which shows particular promise, says Benedicte. Raja now works full-time developing the company internationally, and 2b recently joined forces with designers in Bahrain. They are not yet represented in the UAE, but are open to the idea. "We would love to make our creations available in the UAE but we have not found the right partners yet. We look for partners who not only like our products but also share our values."

All the while, Benedicte remains a vocal advocate of Lebanon's rapidly disappearing architectural heritage. "The character of the city has already been severely altered and it takes a holistic approach and the right conditions to prevent further damage," she says.

Laws preserving old buildings need to be enforced and awareness needs to be raised in schools so that younger generations appreciate the value of the existing urban fabric, she says.

Economic measures may also help, she suggests. "Owners of old buildings in the city stand to gain from selling their building as the value of their property can be worth millions. Providing incentives to the owners not to sell could be explored. However, it is not a realistic option given the weak finances of the Lebanese government."

In spite of this, Benedicte remains hopeful. "There are associations that fight for the preservation of old buildings and I respect them for their resilience despite the setbacks. When I see the effect of the Arab Spring in changing the status quo, I believe there is still room for hope in Lebanon."