Michelle Laurie
Last updated: 22 February, 2012

The schizophrenia of Beirut, tamed by Rana Salam

Rana Salam, a Lebanese graphic designer, celebrates the pop culture of Beirut circa 1950s with her work.

Samuel Johnson’s famous adage of being tired of London is missed on Rana Salam, who says she came to a turning point in her life.

After 20 years living in London, degrees from both art school Central St. Martin’s and the prestigious Royal College of Art, a design studio, home and children, Salam returned to her homeland in 2010 to set up a new studio with a new crop of design assistants and with new inspiration.

“I came to a specific stage in my life where London wasn’t giving me what I wanted. Obviously I was 20 years older than when I arrived. And my perspective had changed a lot too.”

Yet, it is London that Salam credits for finding her artistic voice, where she discovered her own culture. While a student, she was encouraged to look to her own background as a source of inspiration and since then, she’s never looked back.

Now back in Beirut, Salam sees inspiration all around her.

“The Middle East has changed a lot in the 20 years since I left. Now it’s on the map. Twenty years ago, nobody ever spoke about it except in a negative way.”

The Beirut of 2012 is Rana Salam’s inspiration and there’s a new crop of hot young designers and artists that she says are using her visual language to create a whole new wave of appreciation for all things Beirut.

She says her return to Beirut wasn’t without some conflict.

“The whole root of my work is here. I got a backlash, because I was exporting my culture to the west. And coming back I couldn’t do that anymore so I had to think on my feet and think how am I going to stand out here, Because things are catching up here in Beirut. That whole tradition of pop culture..it’s all being done. I didn’t really feel like I was making much of a difference.

I have to claim it all back because people thought I was the one copying everybody else.

Salam says Beirut is full of up and coming interior architects and product designers, shops and artisans developing modern products with traditional craftsmanship for example.

She collaborated with designer Nada Debs to create bespoke floating stools, imbued with Salam’s signature vivid prints.

Her style is a riot of colour, using everything for inspiration from icons from Arab culture like Om Khatoum to create brooches and huge wall art, to manipulating the pop art concepts of gum packaging printed on the back of iPhone covers. Postcards of 1950s Beirut streetscapes are converted into murals and even Arabic numerals become trendy and functional cushions.

Rana’s product website, Mishmaoul, which means ‘unbelievable’ in Arabic is her focus now, with a range of items each imbued with her sense of fun and pop art.

“The only way I appreciated my own background was to go to England and look at my own culture and to value it. And to say wait a minute – what you think is rubbish is wonderful and exotic.  And it’s got value to it.

Coming back to Beirut, Salam brings lessons on how to not only celebrate her culture but to package it for export to other countries that may only see the Middle East in terms of conservative, Islamic rulers. But the Middle East, and Beirut in particular, is so much more than that, she says.

“Everything in Beirut is all about pattern – it isn’t about everything Islamic.  It has a European twist to design.”  Salam is adamant that Lebanon is like an open gate to the west, and designers and artists must use that to their advantage.

“Beirut is very much a crossroads and it’s got the history to it of liberalism that you don’t get elsewhere in Dubai or Syria, for example.  Say I want to create some funky 1950s piece of furniture, I feel I can because I can go back to the roots of what was going on in the 1950s here, in Beirut.”

Repackaging Lebanese culture is at the heart of all of Salam’s endeavours, in particular Mishmaoul.com.

“Every ingredient of what I see is Beirut and Lebanon and I put them visually in my products. That’s the whole Idea of Mishmaoul.com – it’s a brand that exports culture.”

“It’s not about a cushion or an iPhone cover. It’s about exporting culture through commodities. The whole idea… And that’s how I try to capture positive images of the Middle East and portray them in all of my projects.”

Upmarket London cafe chain Comptoir Libanais was one of Rana’s proud moments in interior design, as she designed everything from the wall art to takeout coffee cups.

Other UK clients include Notting Hill artisan chocolatier and bakery Cocomaya, the department store Harvey Nichols and clothing designer Paul Smith.

With her range of products on Mishmaoul.com, a whole other world is opening up to Rana Salam, and it’s not going unnoticed, as she admits that doing products rather than services is a whole other way of thinking.

Salam sets her sights high, and is hoping to have products available in shops in Dubai and Jeddah shortly, and New York and London next year.

Mishmaoul, she says, is designed for the west to consume  a chunk of the middle east.

“We’ve done it for so many years – consumed the culture of the west. It’s very powerful to be constantly consuming American products and culture and it starting to turn the other way around.”

Missing London isn’t in Salam’s thinking. Beirut has all the things she needs for this stage of her life, and more. London was all about making ends meet and paying the bills, and that’s just not what life is all about.

Here in Beirut, she laughs, she has all the best things in life – light, space, and a community of friends, oh and good food and hospitality too.

Everything is inspirational for Rana Salam in Beirut, all the things she says that usually people hate – the traffic, the weather.

“It’s winter here now and it’s wonderful!” she shouts. She says it’s the schizophrenia of the city that makes her laugh, that inspires her work, the beautiful buildings and the old shell-shocked city; the fact that she can get everything from caviar to cheap bread on the street, and that steps from her home there is not only a mosque but a church.

It’s the woman in the headscarf riding a scooter, the nice smells and the horrible smells that she takes note of.

“You just don’t see that in London. Here you’re exposed to everything here..from terrible poverty to extreme wealth.

I love the the madness.  It’s all totally unexpected.”

Much like Rana Salam’s products themselves, a whole culture in one iPhone cover, a schizophrenic homage to a Beirut of yesteryear and the vibrancy of its future.

Rana Salam’s product line can be found at: www.mishmaoul.com and www.ranasalam.net