The Vi­sion­ary RANA SALAM

Harper's Bazaar (Arabia) - - The Talking Point -

“Per­haps be­cause

of Le­banon’s com­plex so­cial,

re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal his­tory, Beirut has given birth to a thriv­ing cre­ative in­dus­try”

Rana Salam

“Per­haps be­cause of Le­banon’s com­plex so­cial, re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal his­tory, Beirut has given birth to a thriv­ing cre­ative in­dus­try. To­day you can find in­cred­i­bly ta­lented de­sign­ers here who are proud of their coun­try, and they’re keen to dis­play their creativ­ity and re­silience to the larger world,” says Rana Salam, the cel­e­brated graphic de­signer and cre­ative di­rec­tor. On a sunny af­ter­noon, she’s in her kitchen mak­ing lab­neh sand­wiches sprin­kled with dried mint, in­spired by her many trips to Syria. “I don’t see a dif­fer­ence be­tween de­sign­ing and cook­ing be­cause it’s all part of the same cre­ative process,” notes the art di­rec­tor, as she makes her way to her colour­ful liv­ing room filled with an eclec­tic as­sem­blage of ob­jects that read like a di­ary of her life.

She set­tles into her din­ning room, a space dom­i­nated by a vin­tage table and chairs un­earthed at an an­tique mar­ket in Beirut’s Basta neigh­bour­hood, while be­hind her, vividly coloured win­dow blinds that she de­signed sport blown-up il­lus­tra­tions from prints she found in Da­m­as­cus. “I felt my dad’s pres­ence the mo­ment I walked into this apart­ment,” re­calls Rana of the day she viewed the space in a 1950s Mod­ernist build­ing in Achrafieh. “I met the owner later, only to find out that she was the daugh­ter of the Le­banese ar­chi­tect Ge­orge Rias, who had prac­ticed with my dad and that it was ac­tu­ally his home,” she says, of the un­ex­pected con­nec­tion to her late fa­ther, the Cam­bridge-ed­u­cated Mod­ernist ar­chi­tect Assem Salam.

Rana also re­called the day her fa­ther gave her a scooter at 15, to en­cour­age her to ex­plore the city’s streets. By do­ing so, he un­con­sciously ex­posed her to Beirut’s pop­u­lar cul­ture, which later be­came the main source of in­spi­ra­tion for her work. Hail­ing from a prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal fam­ily that in­cluded two Le­banese prime min­is­ters, she also grew up amongst the city’s com­mu­nity of artists, ar­chi­tects and de­sign­ers, who at­tended par­ties at the fam­ily’s spec­tac­u­lar Ot­toman-era house that her fa­ther had ren­o­vated. “Even though my mom passed away when I was 12, she had a pro­found im­pact on me through­out my life,” says Rana of her Pales­tinian-Jor­da­nian mother, Josephine Bisharat, whose fam­ily im­mi­grated to the United States in the 1940s. “She had an in­ter­est in Mid­dle East­ern pol­i­tics and English lit­er­a­ture, and went on to grad­u­ate with de­grees from Vas­sar in New York and Har­vard in the 1950s and ’60s, be­fore re­turn­ing to the Mid­dle East to teach at the Amer­i­can Univer­si­ties of Cairo and Beirut,” says the cre­ative di­rec­tor, while hold­ing up her mother’s vin­tage Mis­soni dress. “She en­cour­aged me to ex­plore art and to not be afraid of har­ness­ing that tal­ent,” she adds, not­ing that she got to know her mother bet­ter when she came across her par­ents’ love let­ters af­ter her fa­ther had passed away. “I could sud­denly paint a pic­ture of her and I re­alised we were very sim­i­lar. I also dis­cov­ered this in­tel­li­gent and so­phis­ti­cated Arab wo­man who had lived in New York in the 1960s, where she rubbed shoul­ders with Ed­ward Said and the fa­mous graphic de­signer Ivan Cher­may­eff.”

In 1992, Rana grad­u­ated from Lon­don’s Royal Col­lege of Art with an MA in Vis­ual Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Art Di­rec­tion, a pe­riod that was a turn­ing point in her life. “A class­mate chal­lenged me to ex­plore my cul­ture and cel­e­brate it at a time when I didn’t see any­thing there worth ex­plor­ing,” re­calls Rana, who trav­elled back to Beirut to reac­quaint her­self with the street and pop­u­lar cul­ture of her teenage years. The re­sult was her the­sis ti­tled Beirut: De­sign Un­der Civil War, which ex­plored her home­town’s vis­ual cul­ture. “There wasn’t such a thing as ‘de­sign’ in Le­banon at the time, but peo­ple were still mak­ing things as a way of find­ing so­lu­tions to their needs,” says the

Founder & art di­rec­tor of Rana Salam Stu­dio

cre­ative di­rec­tor, who doc­u­mented how Beirut’s in­hab­i­tants were pro­duc­ing new ways of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, in­clud­ing lo­gos con­ceived by mili­tia lead­ers.

“That the­sis al­lowed me to re­dis­cover that de­sign had al­ways ex­isted there un­der my nose. These peo­ple didn’t have any for­mal ed­u­ca­tion in de­sign, yet they were shap­ing the city’s vis­ual cul­ture,” says Rana, who also came across a trea­sure trove of vin­tage Egyp­tian movie posters in the base­ment of an old cin­ema. “Some of them were hand painted and I was cu­ri­ous to know who the artists were,” says the graphic de­signer, who tracked down a num­ber of them in Beirut’s Ar­me­nian quar­ter of Bourj Ham­moud. Rana’s poster col­lec­tion was later ex­hib­ited on bill­boards through­out the streets of Lon­don in a 1999 ex­hi­bi­tion or­gan­ised by the In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Vis­ual Arts.

In 1993 she landed her first ma­jor com­mis­sion to create the win­dows for Har­vey Ni­chols in Knights­bridge. To make her de­signs a real­ity, she tapped the same poster artists she had met in Bourj Ham­moud to paint large-scale back­drops fea­tur­ing Arab pop icons such as Ragheb Alama, Samira Taw­fik and Sabah. “It was im­por­tant to create some­thing from the Mid­dle East that spoke about our cul­ture in a mod­ern and pos­i­tive way,” says Rana, who opened her de­sign stu­dio in an old store­front on Lon­don’s Gol­borne Road in 2002, work­ing with clients such as Paul Smith, the V&A, Lib­erty and Comp­toir Libanais. “At some point I be­came a mother of two and I wanted my kids to grow up in an en­vi­ron­ment that gave them a spec­trum of ex­pe­ri­ences from the beau­ti­ful to the com­plex, Chris­tian and Mus­lim,” says the cre­ative di­rec­tor, who moved back to Beirut in 2010 with her fam­ily, where she set up a new de­sign stu­dio in a con­verted ware­house in Gem­mayzeh. Since her re­turn, Rana has be­come an out­spo­ken de­sign ac­tivist.

Dur­ing the sixth edi­tion of Beirut De­sign Week, Rana chal­lenged vis­i­tors to ques­tion if de­sign could be driven by need, when she dis­played trol­leys made by street kids in Beirut to col­lect garbage for re­cy­cling. “I wanted to make a state­ment that the Syr­ian chil­dren who cre­ated these carts are de­sign­ers too. Those trol­leys are the work­ing tools that en­able them to eke out a liv­ing through one of the few in­come-gen­er­at­ing ac­tiv­i­ties open to them as refugees,” says Rana, not­ing that dur­ing tur­bu­lent times, it’s nec­es­sary to re­think the role of de­sign so it’s not sim­ply seen as an elit­ist en­deav­our.

To­day, the cre­ative di­rec­tor is also on a mis­sion to in­crease de­sign lit­er­acy in the re­gion through ex­hi­bi­tions such as Iconic City: Bril­liant Beirut, which she cu­rated and de­signed for the first edi­tion of Dubai De­sign Week in 2015.

“It was a dream come true for me, be­cause there’s very lit­tle in­for­ma­tion out there on the his­tory of de­sign in Le­banon, let alone the re­gion,” says Rana, who cre­ated a sprawl­ing in­stal­la­tion chron­i­cling the evo­lu­tion of Le­banon’s de­sign scene from the 1950s to the present. En­com­pass­ing ar­chi­tec­ture as well as graphic and prod­uct de­sign, it il­lus­trated how the city, with its blend of di­verse re­li­gions and cul­tures, came to be at the fore­front of de­sign in the re­gion. “There’s a need to change the world’s per­cep­tion of the Mid­dle East in an en­gag­ing and pos­i­tive way, and what bet­ter medium to use than the power of de­sign.”

“My mother en­cour­aged me to ex­plore art and to not be afraid of har­ness­ing

that tal­ent”

Rana Salam

Rana Salam at her de­sign stu­dio, in front of a win­dow dis­play she cre­ated for Beirut’s Aishiti de­part­ment store in­spired by vin­tage Egyp­tian movie posters

➤ The de­signer at her Ber­lin stu­dio wear­ing three looks from her spring/sum­mer 2018 col­lec­tion A peek in­side Rana’s colour­ful stu­dio Since her re­turn to Beirut in 2010, Rana has be­come an out­spo­ken de­sign ac­tivist To­day Rana can be found nav­i­gat­ing Beirut’s streets on her yel­low scooter➤

In­spired by Arab pop cul­ture, Rana cre­ated a plate fea­tur­ing Egyp­tian movie star Leila Mourad

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