When Nayef Francis tells me he’s had a passion for design for over twenty years, I am silently taken aback. To look at, the man barely seems out of his twenties – I’d have said 28 or 29 at the very most. It turns out though (for I cannot contain myself so I indiscreetly ask him how old he is) that Mr. Francis is an exceedingly well-preserved 37. Hardly ancient, I agree, but it makes that passion sound more plausible and banishes the image of some prepubescent Jasper Conran busily reimagining his sandbox the statement had conjured.
“We have very good genes,” he says with a mischievous grin before launching into a disquisition on the (dis)advantages of object design in the Middle East. Apparently, there are many. The lack of market, materials, techniques and means – Francis’ ‘Charlie’, a capacious, curving armchair that would have been folded from a single piece of metal anywhere else, is welded instead because the necessary machinery isn’t available – not to mention a talented but stubborn cadre of craftsmen who “don’t follow the design and sometimes take the initiative to modify your designs according to their whims.”
The refrain is familiar and is not restricted to Lebanon, which despite all its turmoil, still manages to turn out more interesting contemporary Arab designers (of all kinds) per capita than any other country in the region. Like his contemporaries, Francis has been forced to turn Lebanon’s shortcomings into positives – finding ways to produce industrial finishes by hand for example, or subverting traditional techniques by using them in a completely different context.
He has, in short, learned to design more cleverly. And eclectically. Walk around the all-white showroom (designed by Francis’ other pursuit, an eponymous interior decoration firm) on Armenia Street in Mar Mkhayel, Beirut’s rapidly emerging arts/alternative neighbourhood of preference, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a definitive style.
“If you look at what’s available here in the showroom, you wouldn’t imagine they come from one designer, because they’re all different,” he tells me, resplendent on a chilly Beirut day in natty blue blazer, crisp white shirt and coral red trousers. “Sometimes I use rattan, sometimes something very minimal, sleek marble with an LED light maybe. Sometimes I’m using material in its raw form, sometimes I’m even inspired by traditional hammered metal. There’s no direction for style.”
If that might strike some as a failing – the rise of social media means we are all increasingly being exhorted to ‘brand’ ourselves, to create a readily identifiable persona others can ‘like’ – Francis doesn’t see it that way.
“Take (Zaha) Hadid,” he says, casually going for the jugular, “she’s labelled by organic, sleek designs and she applies her method over and over again on all her projects. I think this is a kind of weakness. Each project has a different identity, you cannot apply the same approach to a petrol station as you would to a residential project.” Admitting that for some, the ‘one size fits all’ approach does make commercial sense, he says that one of the biggest compliments he receives is when customers enter his showroom and think it’s the work of a group of designers.
Despite the occasional nod to tradition – the use of hammered brass in tableware, or rattan in his outsize lantern-style lamps, which straddle a line between furniture and light-fitting – and the faintest trace of Orientalism – the casual Arabesques of his brass Bivalve lamps, for example – as a designer, Francis is contemporary. Resolutely so.
Not contemporary with a capital C, like a Minotti. There’s nothing in store that would, as the French are wont to say, ‘épater les bourgeois’, but it isn’t unfair to say that Francis’ designs are more ‘My First Modernism’ than ‘Making My Statement’.
To say this is not to disparage his work in any way. His objects are both exquisitely crafted and quietly beautiful. Graceful in a solid way, simple but never quite Minimal, colourful but not frivolous, they are the kinds of pieces a tasteful bachelor might furnish his first proper home with, secure in the knowledge that his partner would approve. Best of all, and quite unlike some more famous designers we could name (yes, Giorgio of the hideously uncomfortable sofas, we mean you), they are actually usable.
When pressed for a unifying description, Francis describes his work as ‘rough,’ having a more overtly masculine edge. There’s another description though, that’s just as apt, especially when it comes to his larger pieces.
Take ‘Siamese’, for example. This clever construction of swivelling bent copper tubes, planted in a startlingly vase-like concrete base, resembles an outdoor shower without the head but delivers directed beams of light not water. ‘Karma’ reworks the same concept but this time the LED light is directed, spotlight style onto the sleek marble table-top that’s attached to its base, making it as ideal for accentuating a flower arrangement or your favourite sculpture as it is to remind you where you have left your car keys.
Then there’s the ‘Derbake’, a warm walnut wood and sleek white lacquered MDF side-table, partway between a shuttlecock and the semi-anthropomorphic playing pieces used in ‘Cluedo’, the playful Weeble-esque ‘Handle Cup’, which locates its heavy polished brass ‘handle’ at its base, so that it is held in the palm and the groansomely cleverly named ‘Do-It-Yourshelf’, Francis’ take on adjustable wall-mounted shelving. With its slatted wooden uprights and brightly lacquered metal trays, which can be slotted in where desired, it’s inspired by the shelves found at Lebanese bakeries.
Stylish and ‘masculine’ in the sense that they are devoid of frill or flourish, they demonstrate a profound playfulness that runs throughout Francis’ work – a willingness to toy with not just with material and finish, but also the essence of an object. It seems as good a catchall as any. “My challenge is to re-create, come up with new ideas, concepts and when I feel out of ideas, I’ll retire,” he adds. “Hopefully, I won’t reach that point.”