The last thing you expect to find when you step out of the lift in a shabby building to the north east of Beirut on old Seaside Road is a state-of-the-art design studio, filled with polished brass, gleaming copper, rich leather and sleek marble. Karen Chekerdjian, a trailblazer and veteran of the Beirut design scene, has never conformed to expectations. Her new showroom and studio is further evidence of that.
She moved in two years ago, but the space only opened to the public last month. She had left behind a promising career in Milan to move back to Beirut in 2001, returning to a city that three years earlier had no local design scene, and helped to transform the port from a rundown industrial zone to a small oasis of high-end fashion and furniture design.
Her new studio is housed in a 600-square-metre loft space that overlooks the industrial neighbourhood of Karantina, in a former warehouse that had been empty since the civil war. "It was a dump. It was filthy and it was totally burnt from the war. There were no windows, there was no flooring, no electricity, nothing. It was disgusting," she says.
Her friend, Youssef Tohme, an architect with offices on the same floor, convinced her to set up a studio there. Smiling, Chekerdjian admits she has never been able to resist a challenge. After intensive renovations, she marked the formal opening of the new space with an exhibition entitled Above Ground | Outer Space, which brings together two decades of her work and will run until June 30. Many of her pieces had toured the world for years, circulating from gallery, to fair, to museum, but seeing her designs under one roof has given Chekerdjian some unexpected insights into her own process.
"I realised that a lot of my work comes from the work that went before. There's a sort of continuity," she says, looking around the vast space, in which different series and sets of objects are grouped together loosely.
Asymmetrical geometric forms that are characteristic of her work are revisited in chairs and vases, benches and tables. Burnished metal and polished steel create shapes that are riffed on playfully in marble and ceramic, or are revisited in wood and woven fibres.
Chekerdjian's pieces are all handmade, mostly by Lebanese craftsmen and artisans, using traditional techniques. Most of the works are issued in limited editions of as few as 10 pieces, which has forced the designer to take an inventive approach to building on and revisiting her ideas.
A series of bright, reflective metal vases, each one made up of asymmetrical geometric panels that catch the light, proved so popular that she transformed them into a new line. "I took the drawing of them and I flattened it, and then I cut it and opened it, like origami or a fabric pattern, and then I exploded it and it became the table," she says, pointing towards four angular metal coffee tables, finished in the same polished metal, with matte panels of gunmetal grey.
Aside from a penchant for Italian marble, polished metal and asymmetric shapes, what ties Chekerdjian's work together is her intrinsically Beiruti view of the world. While she aims to create designs that straddle both oriental and occidental influences, her childhood has also had a subconscious impact on her work.
"If I stayed in Milan I wouldn't have done what I've done here. Working with industries, I would have worked very differently to how I work with craftsmen," she says. "I was born in Beirut. I used to cross from West Beirut to East Beirut to go to school every day. I lived the war with real intensity, so it's inside of me. I'm not a violent person, but you can see it in my work."
She makes her way to a sleek copper lamp, its circular shade standing on top of a delicate stem to create a shape that resembles an umbrella, or a mushroom cloud. The lamp is one of her early pieces and is called Hiroshima. Chekerdjian says she chose the name to highlight the perverse beauty of objects that inflict violence.
"When you look at the Hiroshima mushroom cloud, you are fascinated by it. You cannot stop watching it. It's attractive and at the same time it's disgusting because you know what's happening," she says. "It's the same thing with guns – they have this aesthetic of war that is so vicious because it has been developed in a way that attracts you. I grew around people with guns, with tanks, and I'm kind of fascinated by it, and I'm repulsed by it at the same time. I think in a lot of my work you can experience this brutal feeling, and at the same time you have this sophistication."
There are also echoes of war in Iqar, a low table made of a single, polished sheet of stainless steel, folded into a shape that resembles both a child's paper plane and military aircraft. A series of small tables called Totem were created as an experiment in how to combine the three basic geometric shapes: the triangle, the rectangle and the circle. But they also resemble bullets. "I never do it deliberately, but in the end, when you look at it, there's something that comes from the aesthetic of war," says Chekerdjian.
But not all of her work is linked to violence. A thick woollen rug in subtly variegated shades of green evokes a glade of lush spring grass and entices you to touch it. In the centre of the space stands Rainbow, an enormous lamp made from a single polished curve of metal.
Chekerdjian's latest design is all about hospitality and community. Entitled Inside Out it is a marble table that allows three different items to be slotted into its centre: a vase, a candle holder or a bowl. Like many of her works, it builds on earlier designs, finding ways to transform an existing idea into something new.
"It's an evolution and it's a non-stop process," she says. "There are some exceptions that are eclectic, and you don't know where they came from, but I think after a while everything takes its place and you start to understand your whole oeuvre. It's the first time in 20 years that my body of work is all in one place. Once all the work was put together it made sense. It had real meaning."
Above Ground | Outer Space will be at Chekerdjian's studio in Beirut until June 30