It would not be an overstatement to say that Nada Debs has revolutionised Middle Eastern design. Returning to Lebanon in 2000 after a 40-year absence, Debs discovered a dearth of contemporary Arabic furniture on the market, and steadily set about filling the gap.
She established East & East, which designs, manufactures and sells homeware items in two retail outlets in Beirut, and is represented in New York, Geneva, Cairo, Amman and Dubai. In the UAE, Debs's profile is set to grow even further when the local furniture retailer Aati begins stocking her products in its Dubai showroom later this month.
Much is made of Nada Debs's multicultural background - and rightly so. Her creations are a direct manifestation of her colourful journey or as she calls it, her "personal Silk Route", which has taken her from Lebanon, where she was born, to Japan, where she was raised, to the US, where she studied interior architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, and then on to the UK, where she lived and worked before coming full circle and returning to Lebanon.
Each of these experiences has left an indelible mark, and shapes her designs in unique ways, Debs says. "I realised that it is what I picked up in my subconscious throughout my upbringing that made me come up with my designs. The simplicity and the minimalist approach come from my upbringing in Japan; the fact that I design functional objects comes from the back-to-basics 'form and function' philosophy of design from the US; the appreciation of craft from the UK, and the use of ornament from the Middle East. All of these seem to apply to my work."
Debs produces two main furniture collections, featuring everything from tables, consoles and seats to beds, mirrors and lamps. The East & East line fuses the traditional craftsmanship of the Middle East with the minimalism of the Far East, striking a skilful balance between the "less is more" aesthetic of Asia and the "more is more" approach that is characteristic of this part of the world. Debs' other line, East & West, celebrates the simple lines of modernist design, blending elements of Arabesque and Western design. There is also a home accessories collection that is showcased in two Nada Debs Boutique outlets in Beirut.
Next on the agenda is a line called Vintage Meets Arabesque, Debs reveals. "I am inspired by midcentury furniture and incorporating craft into it. The look will be very different from what I have exposed before."
And beyond that? Debs says there are "lots and lots of things" that she would like to design but hasn't had a chance to, yet. Among them, a hotel. "A hotel using the East & East concept is one of my dreams," she says.
When it comes to the modernisation of Middle Eastern design, Debs focuses on two main features: the use of craft and the use of ornament. She looks closely at Islamic geometry, which "gives a sense of order and repetition, reflects the concept of infinity and gives us an emotional reaction", she explains.
"In terms of craft, the Middle East has been well-known for producing exquisite furniture and objects for the sultans in the Ottoman Empire but as time has passed, the style of production has not changed. I tried to introduce a different twist by showing the craftsmen that we can use the same craft using different materials and different forms."
Of course, changing such an established mindset comes with its own share of challenges. "Working in Lebanon or in the Arab world where the craft industry is still 'family-owned' has been a challenge," says Debs. "I have my own workshop now, which is expanding, and we hope to create a school to teach the craft. It is important for the craftsmen to feel that they are appreciated and I am challenged to professionalise the industry to work with larger quantities but with the same quality of work."
Some of the products that Debs is most proud of include her Arabian Nights mirror and other objects that combine mother-of-pearl inlay and resin. But her favourite is the Pebble Table, because "it has a mechanism for movement and I like the simplicity and the flexibility of the piece," she says. "It can go in classical homes and in modern homes and seems to be a popular piece as well."
Debs' designs are so intuitive, and the modern and the traditional sit together so comfortably, that one wonders why it took so long for someone to come up with them. Apparently, this was a common reaction when she was presenting her first pieces, she says. "It was a funny reaction, as most people would look at the designs and say, 'It was such a natural evolution, how come no one had done it before?'"
One reason it hadn't really been done before, she suspects, is that "the craft itself had become sacred for the craftsmen as well as for Arabs, so people were hesitant to change what was considered as classical Middle Eastern design."
Because of her multifaceted background, Debs was not held back by the same sentimentality. In fact, designing furniture became a way for her to explore her own identity as a modern expatriate Arab returning to the Middle East.
"Despite the fact that I am an Arab, I had come from a different background, being brought up in Japan, so I didn't feel I was breaking any rules when I took the craft and changed the form of the furniture. I feel that a lot of us Arabs who have lived abroad have come back to the Middle East searching for our identity and part of my answer was to create furniture that fit our lifestyle."
This quest for identity is a recurring theme with Debs, and a major driving force in her work. "I suppose that I was able to bridge the gap between our heritage and modern times and when I see that people of all ages are responding to this, it makes me want to create more," she says. "But what really drives me is that it is through my work that I am able to identify who I am. I am always in search of my identity."
Nada Debs products are available in the UAE from Bloomingdales, O'de Rose and, from this month, Aati, as well as through her website, www.nadadebs.com