Lebanon has been on the global radar since August of this year, after an explosion in Beirut killed at least 200 people, injured thousands of others and caused $10–15 billion in property damage. The catastrophe comes on top of the pandemic and an already-collapsing economy, and unrest continues in the city. (Read the news if you need to catch up.)
We're thankful Studio Safar made time to talk with us in the midst of all of this – the team is still orienting themselves after their office was destroyed in the blast. Here Hatem Imam, Studio Safar co-founder and creative director, speaks candidly about the situation in Beirut, the danger of reducing a city to a slogan, why women are championing the design scene in Lebanon and the renaissance of the Arabic letterform. Let's get into it.
Studio Safar is a design and art direction agency. The team includes co-founders and creative directors Maya Moumné and myself (Hatem Imam), both graphic designers by trade; senior graphic designer Lynne Zakhour; designers Giorgia Labaki and Rana Tawil; business and studio manager Ali Abdallah; and copywriter/editor Sharon Grosso.
The idea of the creating studio came about after I received a rejection letter for a full-time university teaching job. Looking back, I guess there wasn’t an existing structure that I felt I wanted to belong to, so based on Maya’s suggestion, we started one of our own. Most of our work is centered on the cultural sector and its orbit. The name Safar—Arabic for travel— evokes our interest in crossing cultural and linguistic barriers. In terms of scope of work, we do everything a graphic design and art direction agency does, in addition to publishing our own design and visual culture bi-annual magazine.
We grew up being taught this narrative of Lebanon, but honestly, what city in the world is not a "melting pot," and a "rich mix," and, and? The danger of reducing a country or a city to these broad slogans is that it washes over every nuance, specificity or relevance. It generates work that resorts to facile representations that are not well-founded. I see this a lot with students and try to remedy it with research. Thoughtful design work coming from Beirut is rare, but when done right, it can open our eyes to the historic development of the practice, the origin of design conventions and influences, and at best help us learn from these references and innovate for today’s needs.
We work with a network of creative people from a wide array of fields and backgrounds including film, literature, music, illustration, fashion and photography. Definitely our work producing Journal Safar, our magazine about graphic design and visual culture, has helped to broaden and strengthen this network. The fifth and latest issue, Migrations, for example, put the illustrations of fashion designer and illustrator Cynthia Merhej next to Myriam Boulos’ photography next to the musings of artists Sophia al-Maria and Yumna Marwan and the film stills of Elia Suleiman.
That being said, our networks and communities are very far from “like-minded.” Not only do the individuals and collectives we work with in Beirut have a wide variety of different skill sets, but their backgrounds, opinions, styles and values all vary greatly too.
American and European design history and thinking have definitely shaped our understanding of the field in Lebanon; you can see this vividly in academia. I think a more accurate term for it is colonialism rather than globalization. It starts with language and extends to all fields of cultural production, from fashion to architecture and of course design.
Of course, it is a double-edged sword: On one hand, there is something exciting and new about the assemblage of influences and references. On the other hand, there is definitely a partial erasure of local conventions. One of our missions is to shift the attention of the design narrative from its fixation on the global north, and to look inwards and backward in history. However, we insist on not doing this purely nostalgically nor nationalistically.
Environmentally conscious design is certainly an interest for designers in Beirut, as it is for designers everywhere.
For us, environmentally-conscious or sustainable design definitely doesn’t preclude the importance of print. Print is a really significant part of our work, particularly our work publishing Safar. When carrying out a print project, sustainability for us means designing something that will remain relevant, beautiful and special for a long time — something that people will treasure and hold on to. It also means printing an appropriate number of copies for a given audience (this, of course, takes some time and experience to estimate accurately).
We encourage our clients to also take the sustainability of their projects into consideration. Even if a project has no print or physical product and is fully online, we strive to create identities that are carefully thought-out and designed and, as a result, will endure for a long time.
In fact, the first “Graphic Design” program was launched at the American University of Beirut (AUB) by Leila Musfy in 1992. I put graphic design in quotes because design was taught and practiced before that date in Lebanon, but was never assigned as a university degree as such before. Print houses, ad agencies, book and magazine publishers, poster makers, calligraphers and illustrators all took part in design making predating AUB’s program. The first printing press in the Middle East is located in a monastery in the Valley of the Saints in the mountains of north Lebanon since 1585. Today there are tens of design schools all over the country that can be divided roughly to American and French programs as well as in the Lebanese (public) University.
It is a fact that there is a predominance of women in the field in Lebanon, but unfortunately, this is partly due to regressive societal misconceptions that consider design — and most liberal arts — as almost leisurely pastimes rather than “serious” careers. At AUB where I teach, both graphic design and architecture are under one school, and the numbers say it all: while in architecture you would have a roughly balanced gender ratio, in graphic design you can have 10% or fewer male students per year.
On the bright side, women are indeed championing the scene and proving the importance of graphic design in cultural production. Perhaps this is resonating more abroad than at home at the moment, but this is slowly but surely changing.
Previously, most of our clients were based in Lebanon, but as the economy has gotten worse and worse — with banks illegally restricting withdrawals and the exchange rate of the Lebanese Pound (LBP) plummeting against the value of the dollar — and now with the massive devastation of the August 4th explosion, most people simply don’t have the means to fund such projects. On top of that, and especially after the explosion, a significant portion of the population is trying to leave the country to find better work or educational opportunities abroad. That being said, a good chunk of our work comes from outside of Lebanon now.
There has been a new wave of amazing Arabic type designers in the past ten years or so. Kristyan Sarkis, Khajag Apelian, Wael Morcos and Lara Captan are just a few names of Lebanese designers we love.
The Khatt foundation established by Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès in 2004 in Amsterdam played an important role in this renaissance of the Arabic letterform. This has impacted our work tremendously. When I graduated in 2000, our selection of usable, well-drawn and bug-free fonts was limited to a handful, most of which were straightforward versions of classical calligraphic scripts. Today there are a lot more options for a designer for any usage from the most pragmatic (legible signage for a hospital), to the most expressive (experimental music festival poster). We look forward to more.
With the ongoing pandemic and the economic collapse in Lebanon, we do a lot of work for overseas clients now. Fortunately, the technology (Zoom, Slack, Google Drive, etc.) readily available to us today makes working internationally pretty simple and straightforward. We definitely do miss the immediacy of real-life meetings, especially at the onset of any project, where people’s body language can be one of the most telling communication signals.
Social media is a great tool with which to promote and share our work on one hand, but more importantly to share our values with our audience. A lot of clients have found out about us and our work through our social media pages — namely, Instagram. We also use our Journal Safar page to share regional design history material and documentation as well as accurate and relevant information about current events and issues in Lebanon.
Social media is also an incredibly powerful tool for us here in Lebanon specifically. The banks in Lebanon have imposed informal capital controls, meaning that people here can no longer withdraw their funds in USD, and they can only withdraw a limited amount in the Lebanese Pound (which has, in the last year, lost around 70% of its value).
When trying to print the most recent issue of Safar, we needed to pay for the printing in London, but the bank was restricting our access to our money. We posted about it on Instagram, and although we don’t have a massive following, the post received enough attention that the bank called us, apologized and found a “loophole” for us. They also asked us to remove the post. We didn’t because what they are doing is wrong and illegal.
Before accepting any project, we always have an in-depth conversation with the potential client in order for both parties to determine if their work and project fit well with the ethos and work process of our studio. A lot of our work depends on mutual trust between us and the client, rather than their knowing or understanding ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ design — of course, not everyone has that background, nor are these notions objective truths. In addition to trust, we try to listen closely to our clients and to make sure that our design work responds clearly and logically to the needs and problems that they present to us.
These are not all design studios but rather some Beirut-based creatives whose work we respect and support:
Mohamad Abdouni (art direction, film making, publishing)
The Council for Visual Affairs (communication and animation)
Public Works (critical design thinking and urban planning)
Ghaith and Jad (architecture)
Fabraca Studios (product design)
David/Nicolas (interior design)
Super Yaya (fashion)
Renaissance Renaissance by Cynthia Merhej (fashion and illustration)
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