Marquetry gets a fun, mod update courtesy of designer Nada Debs

The Lebanon-based, Japan-raised designer draws on her cultural eclecticism when creating her furniture and homeware pieces

26 May 2019 - 00:00 By Tracy Lynn Chemaly

Many designers work with craft concepts for a season or a collection, but you've dedicated almost 20 years to it. Why is that?
It's the DNA of what we do. When I moved back to Beirut in 2000, craft in this part of the world was completely unexplored. Coming from abroad, I had no emotional attachment to it so it was easy for me to view it as a design element, investigating whether we could change patterns and materials.
So you returned to work in Beirut after the civil war?
Yes, at the time when there was a lot of reconstruction, and people returning from abroad, giving Lebanon new hope. We needed something that related to our identity - something we could be proud of that was contemporary and not always traditional. I created that modern Arab look.
You made a name for yourself by placing machrabiya patterns in your homeware design. Last year you started experimenting with marquetry, launching your Funquetry range at Rossana Orlandi in Milan. This year you followed it up with the Marquetry Mania collection. What drew you to marquetry in the first place?
I started looking more closely at the traditional backgammon board, which I knew involved a lot of work. I found out about the marquetry strips that are applied to this, discovered craftsmen who make them and asked if we couldn't add colour, rather than neutral tones, and use unexpected patterns.
So Funquetry came about because of the fun elements added to marquetry, which we inlaid into shelves, side tables and cabinets. But those furniture forms were very linear and these marquetry strips can go around a 180-degree curve, so we designed more curvaceous products with softer forms and placed the straight graphic strips on these in a chaotic way to produce Marquetry Mania. The pieces are in colours inspired by the bright kimonos of Japan, where I grew up and where I return annually.
Last year you combined your cultural influences in pared-back tables that were made with Japanese tatami mats bordered by marquetry strips. You seem to maintain a Japanese sense of minimalism, even in your very experimental items.
My work is neither Japanese nor Arabic. It's a balance between opposing cultures, philosophies, ideas and materials. My pieces need to be just modern enough and just traditional enough. Just Japanese enough and just Arab enough. It's like me as a person, juggling between more than one identity.
One common thing that you seem to insist on is that your work is handmade and heartmade. What does heartmade mean?
Craft is a spiritual act filled with repetition. It requires a lot of attention and total focus. You can't fit a piece of mother of pearl into a hole you've carved if you're looking away and talking. So heartmade is about the passion of the craftsman. It's not enough to be handmade. People always feel the human effort and soul that's been put into a piece.
• Visit to see more of Deb's work.

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