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Houses are precious commodities in Beirut. Since Lebanon’s civil war ended two decades ago, the city has been rebuilt and revitalized into a place of soaring glass condominium towers, upstart art galleries, chic restaurants and cocktail lounges, and—risen from the rubble of the old souk—a pristine shopping mall filled with luxe fashion brands such as Yves Saint Laurent, Stella McCartney, and Louis Vuitton. But sadly, you can count on your fingers the traditional dwellings in the downtown area and the façades of several are scarred from smoke and shelling.
So when interior designer May Daouk moved back here from New York with her sons ten years ago, she was exceptionally lucky to find a charming single-story late-19th-century villa, belonging to one of Beirut’s leading families. Situated in the smart Achrafieh district and featuring a sea view and a tree-shaded terrace, it has a tranquillity rare in this frenetic city.
Vivacious and strongly independent, Daouk has clients in New York, Paris, and London as well as Lebanon. Her international outlook reflects the society in which she moves. Brought up in Beirut by an English nanny, she was educated in Switzerland and Boston before taking a job in New York with decorator Bunny Williams. “I learned so much from Bunny,” she says. “Above all, design is not about theory—it doesn’t matter whether pink and green go together. What matters are objects. They’re what give soul to a house. My home is a sanctuary where I’m surrounded by things I like.”
In this cosmopolitan city, it is no surprise to find a tradition of interiors infused with Western influences. Daouk takes that approach further by freely mixing old and new, adding adventurous colors, and giving a contemporary twist to Middle Eastern elements: Drum-shaped garden seats are finished in a fuchsia glaze; a brass table is sculpted to look as if it’s draped with gleaming fabric.
The entrance hall is a foretaste of the eclectic style within. A pair of Louis XVI–style settees are enlivened by bright ikat pillows, and a 19th-century Italian mirror complements an enormous star-shaped zinc ceiling pendant. What the entry doesn’t prepare you for, however, is the scale of the living room beyond. High-ceilinged and stretching the length of the house, it could easily accommodate 200 people. “You walk in and think, How can she live here?” says Daouk. “But it’s not scary, because it’s broken down into little spaces.”
The separation is accomplished partly by a triple arch (a traditional feature of Lebanese houses) that divides a quarter of the room from the rest, creating an enclave complete with a splendid Italian chimney-piece. Here Daouk has placed a daybed, a brass-edged campaign desk, and violet-lacquer bookshelves. “The desk is English. This is an Adnet bed done with Hermès leather. These cushions are Syrian,” the designer explains. “It’s not about whether this matches that—it’s about making it personal.” She is no more restrained by period than by ethnicity; nearby, a mid-20th-century tubular-metal garden seat rubs shoulders with two Victorian armchairs. (Even in the most contemporary room—the kitchen—stainless-steel surfaces are offset by rush-seat bentwood chairs.)
Another island of comfort lies at the opposite end of the living room, where three elegant fretwork windows echo the internal archway and a plump chaise longue is positioned for maximum reading light. The middle of the space, meanwhile, is more sociable, with an inviting cluster of seating and side tables. What unifies this expansive and varied interior is Daouk’s love of vibrant colors—specifically the striking lilac she selected for the walls. The shade also serves to balance the household’s strong masculine bias. “Everything in my house is boys,” she says, referring to her three sons. “So I painted the walls purple and put a pink rug on the floor.”
As in many Lebanese residences, the main room is also the principal thoroughfare. It gives onto the dining room, the master bedroom, and the boys’ den (which, in turn, leads to their bedrooms). In the light-filled master suite, a custom-made striped kilim attests to Daouk’s gift for discovering local suppliers. Her bath is hung with exquisite lace curtains made in the Chouf Mountains, to the southeast of Beirut.
The dining room is an inspired creation that effectively melds two spaces. At one end, a rectangular table for formal dinners is centered against a wall hung with architectural prints of Lebanon’s ancient city of Baalbek; at the other, a smaller, octagonal table for casual family meals has a backdrop that is bare save for a single Syrian calligraphic panel above the door. Rugs of contrasting hues emphasize the demarcation. Here, again, the furniture is spectacularly diverse: Arabic chairs inlaid with mother-of-pearl; an antique double bergère; a red-lacquer sideboard; an Arts and Crafts table of English oak.
Although Daouk loves the objects that surround her, she’s not fussy about them. “I use antique fabrics, but if they get damaged I just replace them,” she says. “The black sofa in the dining room? It’s used mainly by the dog, who likes to be able to see what she might get for dinner.” A house should be as comfortable as it is beautiful—that’s the message from this stylish designer. “Because I don’t want to live in a showcase,” Daouk says. “I want to live in a home.”