Design in Lebanon
The artisan devotee
Sitting in seaside café Al-rawda overlooking the Mediterranean, Zeina Klat takes in her surroundings with the same sort of wonder and appreciation you would expect from a first-time visitor to Beirut’s shore. “I love this place,” she says with characteristic brio. “It’s empty now but in the past this café was filled with artists and writers who would come here to relax and talk about their work.”
It seems quite fitting then, that this is the location where we sit down to discuss the vision behind her company, Comptoir des Artisans, which promotes traditional handmade products created by local craftspeople from all over Lebanon.
A connoisseur of eclectic taste, Klat is a cosmopolitan, forward-thinking businesswoman who is fiercely passionate about promoting Lebanon’s rich cultural heritage. “We have so much expertise here, so many amazing artists from the older generation. It’s a shame that most people don’t even know about them,” she says.
With Comptoir des Artisans she is trying to change that, and while she is passionate about preserving past traditions, her brand is not simply about nostalgia. On the contrary, the products she sells – a potpourri of offerings in steel, rattan, Sarafand glass and leather – are very of-themoment; modern but informed by traditional craftsmanship.
Indeed, the company defies easy categorization and that suits Klat just fine. “I like to be involved in many different things; I don’t like to be put in a box.” Comptoir des Artisans sells everything from leather bags, hats and jewelry to cutlery, candles, and home accessories. “Everyone around me advised to focus on just one thing, but that bores me. I like to bring different things together, to introduce people to new products,” she explains.
She says that finding expert craftspeople to work with her is often half the fun and that most of her discoveries often rely on a good dose of serendipity. “I just look at a map, pick a region, visit it and see who I can find,” she explains, laughing. She prefers traveling solo in order to be open to unexpected possibilities.
She has a showroom in Ain Aar, which she opens on request, but the majority of her clients contact her through social media. Her popular Instagram page features photos and clips of Comptoir des Artisans products, the stories behind them and a glimpse into the lives of those who make them. “I especially love introducing the younger generation to these amazing artisans so that they can gain a greater appreciation,” she says. “I have been receiving such positive feedback and it gives me an added boost to continue doing what I am doing.”
An unforeseen consequence of her venture has been the organic growth of a network of like-minded people who all believe in the importance of supporting local artisans. As her network grows, so does her ambition. “I want to ultimately export our Lebanese designs.”
While she doesn’t have extensive formal training, Klat has a natural eye and an innate understanding of design which she brings to the table in her collaborations with artisans. “We have built strong relationships and they are very open to trying new things. We brainstorm together and all the ideas are born in the moment,” she explains.
The venture is not purely commercial for Klat. She considers Comptoir des Artisans to be, to a certain degree, a cultural catalyst, a platform where local expertise can be celebrated. Since opening a year-and-a-half ago, she has grown increasingly concerned that in the near future there won’t be any artisans left in Lebanon.
“Many craftspeople have told me that after they pass [away] they don’t want their children taking over the trade because the market just isn’t there anymore,” she explains, ruefully. “But, we can change that by exposing consumers and cultivating a certain taste for these products. This is the future. This is the new luxury.”
Words by Mehrnoush Shafiei
Ain Aar showroom, open every Wed, 10am2pm, 70 170636, Comptoirdesartisans