Nada Debs has earned the reputation of the urban-chic interior designer who revels in her Arab roots while catering to a sophisticated global clientele. This well-earned status marks not only Debs’ evolution as a leading contemporary designer of the Middle East, but also her personal evolution as the modern Arab.
Debs grew up in Japan, and attended an American curriculum school with international classmates. In this context, Debs’ had many influences shape her aesthetic, most pointedly the Japanese minimalist approach to architecture and interiors. The traditional Arab aesthetic and culture was a constant in Debs’ home, but in true expat-brat fashion, her native culture was for the moment ignored. In its glaring otherworldliness, it seemed cause for chagrin rather than celebration.
Debs went on to university in the US, at the esteemed Rhode Island School of Design. She studied Interior Architecture and her fascination with Japanese minimalism was now bolstered by an appreciation for modern and contemporary design. A move to the UK in 1992 gave her reason to put her education to the test: London in those days was hardly the thriving design scene it is now, and Debs was not settling for Georgian antiques. So, she went about filling her flat with her own creations, in the process discovering which of the local craftsmen were talented enough to perfectly execute the cabinetry and marquetry to her taste, yet pliable enough to take instruction from an American-educated Lebanese woman about the correct dimensions of a suitably modern bed-side table. Her home became her marketing machine, for it inspired many orders from visitors, and became the raison d’etre behind a successful design company.
The children’s range was especially popular, with its clean, stylish lines. Debs discovered a local artisan who used motifs from Claris Cliff pottery for her marquetry, depicting colourful landscapes executed in bright beech veneers. Seeing the wit this would bring to the children’s line, Debs collaborated with her with great effect. It was this line that first got Debs noticed in the Middle East, for a Jordanian royal, after having seen some work in London, had Debs design the children’s rooms. The style-setting Queen Rania followed suit, commissioning Debs to do the children’s wings of the palaces in Amman, and soon the brand ‘Nada Debs’ became recognized in the region. All this coincided, quite by chance, with a move back to Beirut, around 1999.
By now, Debs’ philosophy had everything to do with a commitment to modern design while using traditional (albeit, at the time, English) craftsmanship, and more importantly, to creating contemporary versions of heritage pieces, to be cherished and passed on. Back in Beirut, she visited the handful of local boutiques that sold furniture by contemporary designers. When she asked the owners if they wouldn’t be interested in stocking a few of Debs’ own pieces, they all declined, universally stating that the Lebanese were simply not interested in local designers. Debs was forced to confront, for the first time, the self-doubts evidenced in this attitude. In truth, she shared this sentiment with her compatriots, for when had she looked to her culture for inspiration?
Serendipitously, she was just then commissioned to help overhaul the Lebanese restaurant Fakhreldine, in London. A friend was reviving the space, and wanted Debs to provide her trademark modern, but artisanal style. There could hardly have been better opportunity to turn to her roots for providing both handicraft and meaning to the project. The renovation of the restaurant, replete with modern interpretation of the traditionally Arab mother of pearl inlay, has been much lauded. Personally for Debs, it was the start of a new creative direction, using her roots as inspiration.
Debs became ever more determined to prove that a successful international designer could very well be located, both physically and culturally, in Lebanon. As the long Civil War came to a close, and peace seemed imminent, many urbane and successful Lebanese expats began returning to Beirut. To Debs, it became clear that the cosmopolitan, well-travelled Arab, so like herself, would be her client base. She needed to revive the local handicrafts in way that would culturally resonate with her contemporaries.
And so was borne the Nada Debs ‘East and East’ line of home furnishings. The multiple Easts represent the cool minimalism and restraint of Japanese aesthetic combined with the lavish warmth of Arab ornamentation. Debs’ commitment to quality workmanship ensured that each piece exuded the air of an instant classic. She also remained at the cutting edge of the international design scene, using materials very much in vogue, such as acrylic and brushed concrete. Validation from the west came in the form of warm receptions at design shows in Paris and London. She built up a faithful clientele spanning the continents. However, she counts as her biggest success the reputation she enjoys in Beirut as the darling of interior design. Her iconic floating stools can be found in almost every chic Beiruti home, and have even been the subject of contemporary artists’ work.
Enjoying this success also means that Debs’ work is often imitated. For Debs, this is just another reason to keep innovating. It seems that there is an endless pool of ideas and creativity flowing from the Beiruti designer. Her latest designs have begun to incorporate other points of the “East,” including some Persian and Indian influences. Also, as a green mindset becomes globally essential, nature as inspiration begins to be of great interest. One idea remains steadfast and strong, an idea that is at the heart of all her work: the preservation of her cultural roots, while forging the identity, for herself, for her compatriots, and for the world, of the modern, sophisticated Arab.