Known for her sleek, functional objects, the Belgian-Palestinian designer refuses to let her work be categorised.
Simply elegant silversmithing by Nedda El Asmar
If there is one thing the affable Nedda El Asmar can't abide, it's convenient labelling and predictable assumptions. The acclaimed Belgian-Palestinian designer makes a strong point of not being pinned to gender or roots, at least not consciously. Simple, clean and elegant design: these are the kind of descriptions she'd rather hear.
A wry look of disdain appears on her face when the press remarks on "feminine" attributes in her work. Sensual and sculptural, El Asmar's designs, such as her much admired, pewter narghile, are more a testament to her skill, attention to detail and refined aesthetic than womanhood.
Perhaps more typically, her Arabic origins keep popping up, but El Asmar, whose work spans 18 years, nips this in the bud, too. She likes to cite the narghile as an example. "I didn't design a water pipe because it was a Middle Eastern object," she says, "but because I was asked to design the piece by the Parisian company Airdiem."
It's also why the title of her recent talk at last summer's London Design Festival, "Is there a difference in designing objects for European or Middle Eastern living?" aroused curiosity in those familiar with both her stance and pure approach to design. She echoed during that talk what she has said on many occasions: "My point is that I see no difference, and I cannot say something about a project - wherever its idea originated - that isn't true."
The only point to which El Asmar might concede is that, if there is any difference at all, her few designs that have an Arabic context are far more contemporary than their traditional counterparts.
"In the end, whether there's a Western, Arabic, Asian or other client, I hope they can all view my work as modern, tasteful and functional. All else doesn't matter and that's what I'm trying to explain. "
El Asmar would rather have us focus on her open-minded yet decisive approach to design: flexible in the way she views projects and eager to try her hand at a variety of ideas, all of which have garnered great attention. Always looking at new ways of thinking, she is even joining forces with the contemporary German jewellery artist Gisbert Stach. She has scooped countless awards for her efforts, most notably Belgian Designer of the Year 2007. Whatever the task at hand, she always addresses a brief from a keen knowledge of materials, craftsmanship and rigorous sampling.
Most of all the sleekness, elegant curves or orderly lines and sheer pleasure of viewing her work are the aspects that draw clients to El Asmar. Her latest design, the stainless steel Mabkhara, or incense burner, for Zeri Crafts emerged in this way.
Laila Al Hamad, the founder of the new Kuwaiti company, grew tired of so many kitsch, uninspiring versions of this most traditional of Gulf vessels during research across countries, souqs and museums. Although it is ubiquitous, Al Hamad wanted to produce a singular paradigm, and in Nedda's work she found the qualities she sought.
"I was looking for designers in Kuwait unsuccessfully. So I began looking elsewhere for someone with a very simple aesthetic, but preferably someone who also understood the Middle East. I came across Nedda's narghile: so beautifully simple - exactly what I wanted. The object might be Middle Eastern but the design was not. What I also liked about Nedda, was the fact that she has designed mainly non-Middle Eastern products. I didn't want someone who was Orientalist in their approach - something that happens often here, even with local designers who have been educated outside. I wanted a designer to create a design from the aesthetic first rather than from the culture down. I contacted Nedda straightaway, and we launched the first stainless steel Mabkhara prototype at the Mosaic Rooms this autumn during the London Design Festival. We're on to the second prototype and, all being well, it should go into production by December."
A silversmith by training, El Asmar has extended her expertise well beyond this. Take her beautifully rendered Bartabas saddle for Hermès, which displays no visible stitching. It's visionary work. Likewise her limited-edition wooden furniture, ceramic tableware and countless experiments with glass reveal El Asmar's penchant for experimenting with diverse materials and products.
Her long list of clients extends from the silver experts Puiforcat and Villeroy & Boch to the German high-street brand Carl Mertens and Belgian companies like Eternum and Vange. Since she joined forces with the product designer Erik Indekeu in 2008, her reach continues to widen.
Her latest work includes the sleek and shapely mussel pot in stainless steel for the Belgian company Demeyere. Other inspirational items are pieces such as her Demianka tea set for Hermès, which brings to mind modern Japanese contours (although her inspiration was the simple shape of a feeding bag for horses), her sinuously curving Love Spoons for Robbe & Berking, which seem entwined in a loving embrace, and a limited-edition candlestick that extends from a rounded, softly scooping base to a slender height.
Like her Mabkhara, many of these pieces and more (over 60) were showcased at an aptly named exhibition A Passion for Simplicity at the Mosaic Rooms in London during the city's autumn design festival. The director of the centre, Omar Al Qattan, became familiar with El Asmar's work through design workshops she and Gisbert Stach ran in Palestine via his foundation, and is full of praise for El Asmar. "Her work is so beautiful and universally appealing," he says. "Whether her Murano glass items for Hermès or Love Spoons, it's very practical but exquisite, which is probably what a lot of designers aspire to achieve, while also not losing the kind of references to the traditional vernacular. The Mabkhara and narghile: lovely, updated, original and practical. She has taken traditional shapes and made them slicker plus more user-friendly. They are not overtly elaborate or ornate - the combination of simplicity and elegance - that look of slightly exotic but modern is what makes them appealing. For us, it was a great honour to have such an exquisite show."
It's not hard to see why many extol El Asmar's virtues, and why she would have us forget superfluous labelling. The highly trained silversmith-turned-product designer has more important things in mind, like consistently wowing the crowds with simple, pure and elegant silhouettes.
Nedda El Asmar's narghile for Airdiem is available from Faubourg Design, Dubai. For more information, call 04 422 7909 or email firstname.lastname@example.org