A traditional Lebanese residence, restored and re-imagined, is now home to a brilliant collection of art and design pieces.
In the ancient Mediterranean city of Beirut a classical home with a chequered history glories in a glamorous remake.
This page A sculpture by Erwin Wurm sits under the branches of a potted tree in the airy living room. Large artwork by Georg Baselitz; small work by Yayoi Kusama. Opposite page The original part of the house dates from the 18th century. Stone arches and columns are typical of Lebanese architecture. A sculpture by Thomas Houseago stands in the garden with the sea in the distance.
These pages The terrace o the living room looks out to the glittering Mediterranean. Twin sofas by Axel Vervoordt face an artwork by Georg Baselitz on the left and one by Alberto Burri on the opposite wall. The pair of Giò Ponti armchairs date from the 1950s, and the ‘PK80’ daybed by Poul Kjærholm is a similar vintage. Opposite page, top Owners Karim and Magda Abillama. ‘Tulip’ side table by Eero Saarinen with ceramic bowl by Israeli artist Michal Fargo.
Ask Karim Abillama what he likes best about his house situated a few kilometres from the centre of Beirut and he’ll tell you it’s the direct view of the sea. “As a Mediterranean, having contact with the water is very important, especially being able to see the horizon,” he declares. Yet, it’s not the only attraction. The structure is also one of the rare traditional Lebanese residences still in existence. “It’s somewhat a link to the past and I’m very attached to heritage,” says Karim, whose ancestors played a prominent role in the country’s history. They are said to have arrived in Lebanon in the 9th century, fought against the Franks during the Crusades, then in 1616 were appointed governors of the Metn region east of Beirut.
Built in several stages, the house he shares with his wife Magda (owner of ultra-trendy concept store Ginette in the Gemmayzeh district) and their three children, dates from the 18th century. During the civil war that tore Lebanon apart between 1975 and 1990, the structure was used as a squat by two families and damaged in the hostilities. One of the external columns still bears the scars of being hit by an artillery shell. When Karim rst saw it, the house was in a sad state: part of the facade had been covered in an ochre-coloured plaster, oors were on the verge of collapsing and ceilings decorated with crude paintings representing boats and the sea.
Both the restoration work and the task of extending the house were entrusted to his architect brother Raëd, whose other projects have included the Beirut Art Center and a series of international stores for the fashion brand, Joseph. Here, Raëd’s main concern was to respect the classical architecture. He favoured local materials, such as large blocks of ‘spuma’, a limestone quarried in the north of Lebanon, and also decided to revive the tradition of terrazzo ooring.
These pages Karim’s architect brother, Raëd, designed the new extension. Top right A Carsten Höller sculpture in the entry. Bottom Vintage armchair by Finn Juhl. Artwork above the sofa by Richard Prince. Lamps by ceramicist Jos Devriendt. Sculpture on the terrace by François-Xavier Lalanne.
This page Bronze and lava dining table by Massimiliano Locatelli with ’611’ chairs by Alvar Aalto. ‘Starbrick’ pendant lights by Olafur Eliasson for Zumtobel. Large three-dimensional archival print by John Baldessari and between the windows is a work by Wade Guyton. Opposite page Above the marble replace in the small sitting room is a work by Enrico Castellani above a sculpture by Antony Gormley. To its left is a small George Condo work.
“More than anything, art allows me to dream,” explains Karim. “It’s something that transports me to other horizons.”
“We had great dif culty nding craftspeople still acquainted with the technique,” the architect recalls. “We ended up working with a gentleman who was 80, who arrived at the crack of dawn and clocked off at 10 in the morning.” For the railing of the balcony, Raëd copied a historic design he discovered at a blacksmith’s. He also left a 15-centimetre gap between the original structure and his sober yet strongly geometric extension “in order to state in no uncertain manner that I’m not trying to enter into competition with what’s from the past”.
Initially, Karim decorated the interiors in a relatively classical style. There were frescoes above the doors, 18th-century paintings, a refectory table from Axel Vervoordt and 19th-century Swedish chairs in painted wood. Then, in 2010, he had what can only be termed an aesthetic revelation during a visit to an exhibition of the American artist Ed Ruscha at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.
“The strength and graphic qualities of his work really made a big impression on me,” he recalls. It also gave rise to what has become an overriding passion for contemporary art, which today translates into a collection featuring works by the likes of John Baldessari, Richard Prince, Alberto Burri and Georg Baselitz.
Two of his favourite acquisitions are sculptures − the large monkey on the terrace by François-Xavier Lalanne (“I love it because its expression is almost human”) and a headless human gure by the pool by Thomas Houseago, which he discovered on his very rst trip to the Galerie Xavier Hufkens in Brussels. “It was standing outside with its arms crossed, as if it were waiting for me,” he remembers.
In order to accommodate all these pieces, Karim decided to change the interior quite radically. “I removed anything decorative,” he explains. “I wanted everything to be white and became allergic to having furniture xed to the walls.” In its place, he brought in pieces by 20th-century architects, such as two serving trolleys by Alvar Aalto and a pair of armchairs by GiO Ponti, and adopted a rather abstract approach for the dining room. With its sculptural Massimiliano Locatelli table, rare Alvar Aalto stacking chairs and strikingly angular Olafur Eliasson ceiling lights, it is both slightly austere and quasi-conceptual.
Much of the artwork is in the same vein. “My tastes are rather minimalistic,” admits Karim. “In general, there are not lots of colours.” That does not, however, prevent him from adding a few fun touches, such as the small Antony Gormley sculpture of a man with his hands pressed against the wall or the oversized mushroom by Carsten Höller in the entry hall.
“More than anything, art allows me to dream,” he rejoices. “It’s something that transports me to other horizons.” Certainly way beyond the one he can see out of his windows!
“I removed anything decorative,” he says. “I wanted everything to be white and became allergic to having furniture xed to the walls.” This page The artwork above the bed is by Roni Horn and the large painting by John Armleder. ‘OW150’ bench by Ole Wanscher. Chair and ottoman by Charles and Ray Eames. Opposite page, top Modular sofa in the main bedroom by Piero Lissoni for Living Divani. Artwork by Indian artist Prabhavathi Meppayil. Bottom Poul Kjærholm’s iconic ‘PK9’ chairs in the study. The storage unit is from USM. Gelatine silver print by Hiroshi Sugimoto.
» Lebanese entrepreneur Karim Abillama and wife Magda bought one of the rare traditional Lebanese residences still in existence in Beirut. » Built in the 18th century, the structure was war damaged and in a state of near collapse in parts. » Karim’s architect brother Raëd undertook a respectful restoration of the building and its original features and carefully executed a modern extension. » After rst favouring a classical decor, Karim later radically changed the interiors to white and added pieces by 20th-century architects. » Karim’s passion for contemporary art translates into a collection including works by John Baldessari, Richard Prince, Alberto Burri and Georg Baselitz.