When two Palestinian brothers building a music school in Bethlehem ran out of funds to furnish it, they made their own furniture
Elias and Yousef Anastas: the artisans mastering musical chairs
In 2011, Palestinian architects Elias and Yousef Anastas were nearing the end of their most prestigious and high-profile project to date, a new home for The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Beit Sahour, Bethlehem, when they received the news that all designers dread.
Fluctuations in the value of the dollar and the usual vagaries associated with a complex architectural project had blown a hole in their client’s budget. With just months to go before the completion, the founders of the Bethlehem and Paris-based architectural practice AAU Anastas found themselves in a situation where there were insufficient funds to purchase the basic items of furniture – music stools, chairs and tables – that had been specified to meet the needs of the school’s aspiring young musicians.
Choosing to see the lack of funds as an opportunity rather than a constraint, the brothers decided to embark upon an ambitious experiment. Instead of resorting to cheap off-the-peg furniture as a stopgap solution, they designed and manufactured the necessary furniture themselves with what was left of the budget, using the knowledge and skills of the builders and tradesmen who were already working on the project.
“At the beginning, we started working with the artisans who were involved in the construction of the building: blacksmiths, carpenters and even bricklayers,” explains Elias. “But then, as the network started to evolve, we started to work with artisans who specialised in furniture.”
The resulting ranges were not only bespoke, they were also local and made in the backstreet workshops and refugee camps of northern Bethlehem – the product of a form of community collaboration that the brothers soon began to see as a source of architectural inspiration. “It was at that point that we decided to continue with the experiment, because it began to have an impact on the way we perceived and designed space,” Elias explains. “So we decided to create the network of artisans that we now call Local Industries.”
Thanks to a series of experimental installations and pavilions, such as 2012’s Stonesourcing Space and last year’s Stone Matters and While We Wait, which was exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue before being permanently erected in Palestine in January. Their firm has built an international reputation predicated on its use of stone as a gravity-defying structural material.
But Local Industries points to several other key concerns that also define the brothers’ practice, most notably a desire to combine different scales of design and to investigate the ways that this can also build relationships, not just between architecture and furniture, but also between buildings and the towns and cities they serve.
The duo has just started building a new 20,000- square-metre courthouse complex in Hebron, for example, a large building by West Bank construction standards, but they are working with local craftspeople to see how their input can not only help to provide the building with a unique sense of identity, but also to forge material links with surrounding communities.
Such an approach combines architectural and artisanal production to generate employment and entrepreneurial opportunities, while producing buildings and designs that are both modern and inherently local at the same time. They are more like craft objects in the manner of their construction than industrialised, mass-produced commodities.
“The contemporary architectural scene is moving in a direction that is completely opposed to this perspective,” Elias insists. “Today, with all of the regulations relating to environmental issues, we are losing a sense of architecture because we are more concerned with adhering to rules than to creating a common sense of research and exchange between different disciplines connected to construction.”
While the collections of Local Industries are the product of a network of tradesmen and manufacturers whose premises are distributed throughout Bethlehem, the focus of the operation is an all-but-abandoned furniture factory building that has stood in the shadow of Israel’s West Bank Barrier since 2004. “Because Local Industries is essentially a network, different elements of each chair are produced by various artisans across the city. Some come and collaborate in the factory, but others work from their own workshops,” Elias explains. “This means that some of the chairs have to travel across Bethlehem before they can be finished and upholstered. Welding may happen in the factory, but galvanisation, painting and upholstery occur elsewhere, before they return to the factory for final assembly and packing.”
Built in 1958 as the former headquarters of the Bandak’s Furniture Company, the factory initially manufactured steel beds for the Jordanian army, then turned to making school equipment after 1967. Now, its ageing machines are being used in the fabrication of chairs such as the Mike by Local Industries.
“The Mike collection is made entirely out of 19 millimetre steel tubes and it’s made that way because we use the tube-bending machine that was once used to manufacture the [army] beds. Each one of our collections bears the name of one of the artisans we are working with. Mike is best at working with the steel-bending machine, so we decided to use his name for the chair,” says Elias.
As well as the Mike collection, which is produced as both a dining and lounge chair, as well as a rocking chair and bench, Local Industries also produces upholstered ranges called Tutu and Jamil, multicoloured versions of which have already been specified for the charitable MMAG Foundation in Amman and the new Jameel Arts Centre on Dubai Creek, which is scheduled to open this November.
The collections of Local Industries have previously been exhibited at events in Beirut and Amman, but from late September, the furniture will be on permanent sale for the first time in the UAE. Available exclusively from The Third Line Library, a new shop space that’s being launched by the eponymous gallery in Alserkal Avenue, the Mike, Tutu and Jamil chairs will be on sale and available to order alongside limited-edition prints and works by other architects and designers from the region.
While the production model adopted by this network means that mass production will never be a realistic option, the Anastas brothers say they are determined to pursue their project while keeping the furniture as accessible as possible. Prices for a Tutu lounge chair without upholstery, for example, start at US$360 (Dh1,322).
“The idea of Local Industries is not to be something that is mass-produced and not to be exclusive. We want to offer an option that sits between the Ikea market and the more exclusive design world,” Elias suggests.
“We’re trying to create something that is designed by architects and produced in collaboration with makers, piece by piece, but that is also affordable,” he concludes.