The Gallerist HALA HANNA
Co-founder of XXe Siècle
“Beirut is a great place to collect some of the most
celebrated designers of the
1950s and ’ 60s”
“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