Karen ­Chekerdjian’s exhibition Respiration in Paris shows Beirut through her eyes

Karen ­Chekerdjian's exhibition at Paris’s ­Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World ­Institute) shows the ambiguity of the influence of contradictions and circumstances inherent in the ­Beirut experience

Karen Chekerdjian. Courtesy Alain Sauma
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“I am not trying to say anything. But at the same time, I am trying to say everything.” So claims industrial designer Karen ­Chekerdjian, encapsulating within a single quote the ambiguity that lies at the centre of her work.

Chekerdjian, who’s arguably Lebanon’s most successful design export, is currently the subject of an exhibition at Paris’s ­Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World ­Institute). Founded in 1980, the IMA is a collaboration between 18 Arab countries and France, envisaged as a means of promoting cultural understanding of the Arab world. Chekerdjian readily admits to having been entirely shaped by the country she calls home, so it’s entirely fitting that she should be showing here.

At the heart of the exhibition is a movie that Chekerdjian has made about Beirut. “It shows my daily life, my kids, my friends. It’s an opportunity to see Beirut through my eyes. And the message is that you cannot put all Arabic countries in the same bag,” she tells me. “The movie was very important. My work has nothing to do with ­Europe, or with other countries in the region. It is very specific to Beirut.”

While it’s difficult to imagine her doing anything else, it took a while for Chekerdjian to find her calling. Her trajectory into product and furniture design was, she admits, “unsystematic”. Born in Beirut in 1970, she started her career in advertising, working in film and graphic design at Leo Burnett ­Beirut, before going on to co-found her own branding company. “I did a lot of different things, from directing movies to graphic design,” she explains. “But I felt like I needed more.”

In 1997, she moved to Milan to pursue a master’s degree in industrial design at the famed Domus Academy, under the guidance of Massimo Morozzi, one of the founders of Archizoom. There was something about the three-­dimensional nature of product design that really appealed, she explains.

After graduating, she tried to find work in Milan, but was repeatedly told that she should think about opening her own studio. She returned to Beirut in 2001, and did exactly that. “It was a tough decision,” she admits. “There was no furniture industry in Beirut at the time. I had to find a whole new way of working. I had to go towards handcrafted designs, rather than industrial.”

In essence, Chekerdjian was at the forefront of that first generation of designers who have transformed Beirut into the region’s de facto design capital and garnered international acclaim in the interim. “When I said I was an industrial designer, people used to ask if I made machines,” she remembers with a laugh. “We had to build a whole new field.”

But it wasn’t easy shaping an entire design scene from scratch. She had to work closely with local craftsmen, but imbue their work with a more contemporary edge.

As mentioned, Chekerdjian is very precise about classifying herself as a Lebanese designer, rather than Middle Eastern or Arab. The influences, contradictions and circumstances inherent in the ­Beirut experience are so specific, and have been so instrumental in shaping her aesthetic, that she can’t be termed anything else. That’s not to say that her objects are Lebanese in the traditional sense – there are no folkloric or ornamental elements, she’s quick to point out – it’s just that they’re born out of a very specific set of circumstances, in a very specific place. “I had to work with very different production techniques, which gives you a unique identity. I would have been a very different designer if I had stayed in Milan.”

There have been restraints – plenty of them – but “the restraints ­become a strength”, she says. And as any designer operating out of ­Beirut will tell you, instability breeds creativity. In Chekerdjian’s case, this has manifested itself as an ambiguity that extends across her entire portfolio. She credits the duality of the city – the fact that it’s in a constant state of flux and that its inhabitants are aware that everything can change at any time – as a driving force behind her work.

“All my work can be described in lots of different ways,” she explains. “In the beginning, it used to upset me that people were always asking: ‘What is this?’ But that triggered something in me. It’s now part of who I am. With most of my pieces, I don’t clarify what they are. You can see it how you want. I leave that choice to the people who buy or look at my work.”

So what looks like a plate could be an ashtray, and tables double as sculptures. Iqar is an excellent case in point. Polished to a mirror-­like finish and made from a single sheet of aluminium painstakingly folded by hand, the table, so beautiful in its angular simplicity, is shaped like a plane. But is it a paper plane or a war plane? “Depending on your own personal perspective, it can either be very naive, or very adult,” Chekerdjian acknowledges.

Her creations, predominantly limited-editions and fast becoming collectibles, straddle the blurry line between art and design in new, interesting ways. “The only difference between art and design is that design has a function,” she says. “But functionality is not enough. It has to say more. Design must leave a trace of our civilisation.”

Chekerdjian’s design process is more akin to “anthropological research”, and doesn’t necessarily begin with function. It can start instead with “a shape, a thought, or a search for something”.

For the exhibition at the IMA, which is called Respiration and is showing until August 28, ­Chekerdjian's products sit within the institute's permanent collection, which spans millennia of ­Arabic art, invention and design.

A red trail on the floor guides visitors through five sections. In ­Temporality, ­Chekerdjian's video homage to Beirut is displayed on four different screens and can be viewed from four different chairs: Elephant, Papillon, Grand Vague and Pouf. Each is designed by Chekerdjian and promises to offer a slightly different perspective. For Archetype, objects take their place in a room dedicated to Arab myths and history; for Transform, the works on show question the distinction between sculpture and furniture; for Transpose, pieces inspired by ancient artefacts are displayed in a hall dedicated to sacred representations; and in Transcend, objects intended as a commentary on form, gesture and social critique are spread among cultural artefacts.

There’s much room for reflection in these halls, but being given carte blanche by the IMA was an important exercise in self-­reflection for the designer herself. “For me, it was a way to rethink all my work – to look at who I am and what I am doing.”