THE ARTISANS OF LEBANON
Facing the iconic shell of the Holiday Inn hotel in Minet el Hosn, Or ient 499 was established in 2006 by Aida Kawas and Frank Luca, both lovers of ar ts and craf ts from the Middle East. The boutique has garnered a deser ved reputation for of fer ing unique ar tisan and designer pieces, showcasing items that perfectly capture a fusion between tradition and modernity and reflect the character of the Or ient. Featur ing the work of around 200 ar tisans who work in wood, copper, mother of pearl, glass and furnishings, Kawas is proud of the fact that numerous families are able to live from Or ient 499. The boutique has helped breath life into the ar tisan work of the past, while remaining relevant for the future. Kawas settles down at a mother-of-pearl inlayed table and pours Arabic cof fee from an Or ient 499 copper cof fee pot and delicate tray, and shares her stor y.
HAS LOCAL HANDICRAFT ALWAYS BEEN A PASSION?
It’s been my interest since I was a young girl – at 18 I bought a carpet with the first money I received, which you could say was unusual at that age. I have memories of going to an ar tisan shop with my mother, in an old house by the sea; though it closed a long time ago. These are my first memories of how and why I fell in love with handicraf t. I worked in a shop in Par is, with some fr iends, called Laymoun from 1985 to 1994, selling handicraf t from Lebanon, but I moved back to Lebanon the same year.
ORIENT 499 GOES BEYOND THE T YPICAL LEBANESE ARTISANAT – HOW DID YOU REACH THE FUSION OF TRADITION AND MODERNIT Y?
I am ver y traditional in a cer tain way, but I’m also ver y young and modern in my head. Or ient 499 is a reflection of the way I live – this mixture between the two. My par tner Frank Luca, who is Belgian, also has this feeling for the Or ient, but is ver y modern. It is this mixture between Frank and me that made what you see today.
IS THE MODERNIZATION OF LOCAL CRAFTS A WAY TO PRESERVE THEIR HERITAGE?
The times have changed; we don’t live in tents anymore and the Internet and technology has transformed the world, so it would be stupid to re-do the same things we have always done. When kids see their parents living well from handicraf ts they come back to it. They see it is a better living – you are independent and are not working in an office all day. We helped many ver y small ar tisans to become big, because we believed in them.
HOW HAS ORIENT 499 EVOLVED SINCE YOU OPENED?
We cer tainly grew in size; we used to occupy just half the space; when the owners proposed to us to rent another par t of the building we took it immediately. I love the area; I can’t imagine moving from here. We are in the midst of the hotel distr ict, the sea is also close by. It’s a mixed neighborhood that I call the golden tr iangle. I love looking out on the old Holiday Inn; when they say they will destroy it my hear t aches. It’s a piece of histor y, so we work ver y well together.
WHAT DESIGNERS DO YOU WORK WITH?
Generally I work with ar tisans because their way of working is closer to my own, but there are a few designers who I always work with. We have featured the work of Karen Chekerdjian since we first opened; there is Hubert Fattal, an inter ior designer who also makes objects; the jewelr y of Nada Zeini and the work of Abdallah Hatoum, who also does the window display and decoration. I of ten collaborate with Hatoum; he is a ver y close fr iend. I love fabr ics myself and since I can’t find them in Lebanon I have brought them from Paris, India, Egypt, Turkey and Syr ia. I have designed the clothes of Or ient 499 since the beginning.
IS THERE A GROWING TREND TOWARDS RETURNING TO THE ROOTS OF LEBANON’S CULTURAL PAST?
Roots don’t have a lot of meaning in [the modern] world, where everything is open and roots have become mixed together. What’s much more important nowadays is to have the feeling that things are done with spirit. You need to be able to see that pieces have been handmade and are not just mass produced in a factory in China. We should be proud of our cultural heritage and this is why a lot of people come to Orient 499. We are proud to show people that we are maintaining our cultural heritage; the heritage of Lebanon and the region.
499 Omar Daouk Str., Hammoud bldg, Minet El Hosn, Beirut, 01 369499, 03 411624, or ient499.com
Iron calligraphy with gold leaf 1m, LL1,140,000 ($760)
We are proud to show people that we are keeping our cultural heritage
Embroidered hand-woven najaf abaya, LL1,425,000 ($950)
Handmade copper sugar bowl with spoon available in silver, LL67,500 ($45) and yellow copper, LL57,000 ($38)
Antique iron bed, LL6,450,000 ($4300) with Copper Stools from Karen Chekerdjian, LL1,950,000 ($1300)