The Gal­lerist HALA HANNA

Co-founder of XXe Siè­cle

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

“Beirut is a great place to col­lect some of the most

cel­e­brated de­sign­ers of the

1950s and ’ 60s”

Hala Hanna

“The past 16 years have been a real ad­ven­ture,” says Hala Hanna, re­call­ing the day she and her brother Souheil en­tered the home of Madame Laila Zoghbi, who was crowned the first Miss Le­banon in 1930. “She had re­cently passed away and her rel­a­tives didn’t know what to do with all the fur­ni­ture, so they con­tacted us. What we didn’t ex­pect to find was one of the last in­te­ri­ors in Beirut en­tirely de­signed by Jean Royère, the noted French dec­o­ra­tor and fur­ni­ture maker,” says Hala, of their first ma­jor find that would es­tab­lish their gallery, XXe Siè­cle, as the premier des­ti­na­tion in the Mid­dle East for 20th cen­tury fur­ni­ture and dec­o­ra­tive arts. “The home we grew up in was ac­tu­ally on the same spot as the build­ing where our gallery is to­day,” she adds, while walk­ing briskly to­wards XXe Siè­cle on Rue Ab­del Al in Hamra.

Push­ing open the front door to the min­i­mal­ist two­s­torey gallery space, she passes a col­lec­tion of fur­ni­ture and ob­jects that read like a ros­ter of some of the big­gest names in 20th cen­tury de­sign — Gio Ponti, Os­car Niemeyer and Achille Castiglioni have all been fea­tured at the gallery, and no­table finds in­clude a pair of fa­mous T-chairs de­signed by Wil­liam Katavo­los and Dou­glas Kelly in 1953, a lim­ited-edi­tion 1965 ro­tat­ing chair by Joe Colombo that ap­peared in a James Bond movie, and an even rarer wooden table and stools cre­ated by Char­lotte Per­riand in the ’60s for a French ski re­sort. “Per­riand had col­lab­o­rated with Le Cor­bus­ier for years. To­day she’s prob­a­bly one of the most sought-af­ter mid-cen­tury de­sign­ers,” says Hala, who, like many Le­banese of her gen­er­a­tion, grew up in the shadow of the civil war.

“In 1982, when I was eight years old, Is­rael be­gan bomb­ing Beirut. The ex­plo­sions were so in­tense that my par­ents put us in a car with­out enough time to pack, and we drove off to a chalet by the sea in the coastal town of Tabarja,” she re­calls, not­ing that by the time they re­turned to Beirut, it had been di­vided by an in­vis­i­ble line into Chris­tian east and Mus­lim west. “Dur­ing the war we trav­elled and moved around quite a bit. Our first stop was Brighton, be­cause my grand­fa­ther had been the agent for Parker pens, which at the time had its man­u­fac­tur­ing base in the UK,” she says, not­ing that the fam­ily re­turned to Beirut for a short time be­fore mov­ing again to Nice in the South of France, where they lived for five years, fol­lowed by Paris, where Hala and her brother com­pleted high school.

By the end of the war, she’d moved back to Beirut to study ad­ver­tis­ing and graphic de­sign at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts, while her brother Souheil stud­ied film­mak­ing in Paris. “My fa­ther was one of the pi­o­neers of ad­ver­tis­ing in Le­banon. Dur­ing the 1950s he trav­elled to New York to learn about this emerg­ing field and re­turned to Beirut to es­tab­lish his own agency,” says Hala, not­ing that both she and her brother felt un­ful­filled by their jobs in ad­ver­tis­ing af­ter work­ing for three years at their fa­ther’s firm. “I couldn’t see my­self spend­ing the rest of my life be­hind a com­puter screen cre­at­ing lo­gos. I’d al­ways loved work­ing with my hands, and one day I found an in­ten­sive six-month fur­ni­ture restora­tion course in Paris,” says the gal­lerist, who ap­pren­ticed with crafts­men that taught her a va­ri­ety of tech­niques, from ap­ply­ing gold leaf to cre­at­ing aged pati­nas.

By the mid-’90s Souheil was also back in Paris study­ing French lit­er­a­ture at the Sor­bonne. On week­ends the sib­lings would spend their days vis­it­ing an­tique mar­kets and the Musée des Arts Dé­co­rat­ifs. Re­turn­ing to Beirut, Hala forged a new ca­reer within the city’s in­te­rior de­sign com­mu­nity as a sought-af­ter dec­o­ra­tive painter who was of­ten com­mis­sioned to create mar­bled walls and re­store fres­coes. In 1999 her brother at­tended an ex­hi­bi­tion in

Paris fea­tur­ing the work of Jean Royère, where he not only fell in love with the de­signer’s work but also no­ticed that many of the names on the ex­hi­bi­tion la­bels be­longed to Le­banese clients of Royère’s.

“Beirut is a great place to col­lect the work of some of the most cel­e­brated de­sign­ers of the ’50s and ’60s. Dur­ing that time, beau­ti­ful fur­ni­ture was not only be­ing im­ported from Italy and France, but was also made here be­cause of the ease of sourc­ing ma­te­ri­als and find­ing ar­ti­sans,” says Hala, not­ing that she also over­sees the metic­u­lous restora­tion of each piece that comes into the gallery. “When we first started, we met an ar­ti­san in his seven­ties who used to work with Royère in Le­banon when he was 15. He helped us re­store many of the pieces we found in Beirut be­fore he passed away,” says Hala, whose brother pro­posed they open a gallery to­gether, spe­cial­is­ing in the dec­o­ra­tive arts of the pe­riod. “At that time, the space on the ground floor of our fam­ily’s build­ing be­came avail­able, so Souheil and I de­cided to open the gallery there,” says Hala, not­ing that by 2000, the sib­lings had be­gun scour­ing es­tates and an­tique mar­kets, even­tu­ally amass­ing one of the largest col­lec­tions of Royère in the Mid­dle East.

“We knew that Royère ran a thriv­ing stu­dio in Beirut for 15 years with the Le­banese ar­chi­tect Nadim Ma­j­dalani. They de­signed in­te­ri­ors for the St Ge­orge ho­tel as well as the Shah of Iran and the Saudi royal fam­ily. So we set about find­ing more pieces,” she says, not­ing that it wasn’t dif­fi­cult to ac­quire 20th cen­tury gems in Beirut at a time when the Le­banese cap­i­tal was busy re­build­ing it­self af­ter the war. In­te­ri­ors un­touched since 1975 were stripped with­out a thought, and fur­ni­ture dis­carded into dump­sters. “Peo­ple weren’t in­ter­ested in these things. To them an an­tique was some­thing dat­ing back to the 18th or 19th cen­tury, so we were able to get pieces at a rea­son­able price,” says Hala, not­ing that as word spread of XXe Siè­cle, they were ap­proached by in­di­vid­u­als in­ter­ested in sell­ing them items.

“We once re­ceived a call from a dealer who had orig­i­nally im­ported car­pets to Beirut in 1968, but never sold them. Most were de­signed by the artist Vic­tor Vasarely and kept in stor­age for over 30 years in pris­tine con­di­tion and still wrapped in plas­tic,” says Hala, not­ing that to­day it’s got­ten harder for them to find vin­tage pieces in Beirut. For the past seven years they’ve trav­elled through­out Europe in search of works rep­re­sent­ing Scan­di­na­vian, French, Ital­ian and Brazil­ian de­sign, as well as in­ter­est­ing pieces pro­duced by uniden­ti­fied crafts­men in Beirut from the ’50s to the ’70s. In ad­di­tion, the gallery now or­gan­ises reg­u­lar ex­hi­bi­tions of works by 20th cen­tury artists and ar­ti­sans such as the French ce­ramist Guy Bar­eff.

Down­stairs in the gallery’s base­ment, Hala is ea­ger to point out their lat­est ven­ture, a cus­tom line of fur­ni­ture that’s found its way into the el­e­gant homes of young Kuwaiti and Saudi clients. “We felt it was a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion for us to pro­pose our own line, not only in­spired by iconic 20th cen­tury de­sign, but also us­ing the same ma­te­ri­als, tech­niques and crafts­man­ship to create new col­lectibles,” says XXe Siè­cle’s co-founder, point­ing to a boomerang table, as well as a sofa whose er­gonomic form is main­tained us­ing springs and nails sim­i­lar to those em­ployed some 60 years ago. “This gallery isn’t sim­ply about pre­serv­ing the past. Like Beirut, it’s con­stantly evolv­ing, and we’re look­ing for­ward to con­tribut­ing to the con­ver­sa­tion sur­round­ing the fu­ture of de­sign in this city and the re­gion.”

Trained by crafts­men in Paris, Hala over­sees the restora­tion of each piece that en­ters the gallery

Hala at XXe Siè­cle, the gallery she co-founded with her brother in 2002

The gallery is hometo some of the big­gest names in 20th cen­tury de­sign

XXe Siè­cle is the premier des­ti­na­tion in the Mid­dle East for 20th cen­tury fur­ni­ture and dec­o­ra­tive arts

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