BRILLIANT, IMPERFECT BEIRUT
“It’s kind of so ugly, but so beautiful,” says designer Rana Salam, of Beirut, the city she calls home.
There was a pile of triangular Bonjus cartons arranged as part of Brilliant Beirut, an exhibition by Rana Salam showcasing Beirut design from 1950-1965. Not realizing it was art, museum goers drank them and a janitor threw the rest out.
Which might have been exactly what Rana Salam hoped would happen.
“I wanted people to feel that they’re walking in the city,” she said about the feel of her exhibition “I wanted things to be very billboard style. I didn’t want it to be this intellectual, British Museum, no.” She added, “I did something completely about the imperfection…. Because Beirut is about that. Nothing’s aligned. Nothing’s on a grid system and that’s what make it attractive. It’s kind of so ugly, but so beautiful.”
It’s a kind of intellectual embrace of the non-intellectual that was instilled in Rana from a young age. Her father, famous Lebanese architect Assam Salam, and a defender of Lebanon’s architectural heritage, frequently drew her attention to art in unexpected places. Although he himself was a Bauhaus architect — of the school of straight lines and perfection — he would encourage his children to appreciate scenery like hand-painted posters plastered along the road.
“We would be in the car for example driving,” she says, sitting in her studio in Monot. “And I would remember as a child being in the back seat and he would say, ‘Look at that mural, up there! That’s amazing — look at the naïve art, look at how they illustrate. That’s design.’ And I would think, ‘He’s right, it is design — done by amateurs who have not been trained. And they should be given as much credit as people who have gone to MIT or Central Saint Martin’s.'”
It’s interesting to note, here, that Salam herself studied at Central Saint Martin’s, one of the foremost art schools in the entire world. But studies there led her to question the delineation between “good art” and outsider art. “What qualifies as good art?” she asks me. “Is it you take something and put it in a gallery that it gets approval? Not necessarily. You find it everywhere in the streets here. For me it’s a constant self expression in Beirut.”
Brilliant Beirut, then reflects Salam’s populist sensibility — discardable items like the Ghandour biscuits share equal weight with the new Aishti Foundation building designed by David Adjaye. Burj al Murr — the ominous unfinished building that stands over West Beirut near Downtown — she compares to Beirut’s Eiffel Tower. “It’s fantastic. Where do you see that anywhere in the world? It’s like the Tour Eiffel. It’s so symbolic of the civil war. That’s why I wanted to include it.”
Asked what links everything together, Salam says she doesn’t believe there’s any single defining characteristic of Beirut architecture — which has been heavily influenced by the West. Perhaps it’s more flamboyant. The same could be said of Salam’s own design style, which sparkles with glitter.
“When I was in England [studying at Central St. Martin’s] the perception of the Middle East was so morbid, and everyone was dying. It was the civil war still and people had this stupid image,” she says. Fellow students asked if there were camels in Lebanon, and had the typical misconceptions about the region. So vibrance became a form of rebellion.
“I deliberately started extracting all this delicious imagery with the power of photoshop — shlah!” she says, with a defiant shout. “I would pump it up and make it look mouthwatering on purpose. Because really, the illusion is better than the reality. I started feeding them images. You know we’re all fed by images and we start making a story. When you close your eyes when you see ‘Beirut,’ you see a bomb. So now when you think ‘Rana Salam Beirut,’ colors come to mind, and happiness and positivity. So that’s why the colors come in and they all came from street culture,” she says. “Our culture is very colorful and lets capitalize on it.”
The exhibit ended with Dubai Design Week. But for the next step, Salam says she hopes to make a book version of the exhibit — and to bring it to other cities as well. But one thing is for certain: there will be Bonjus.