The Visionary RANA SALAM
of Lebanon’s complex social,
religious and political history, Beirut has given birth to a thriving creative industry”
“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
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