Najla El Zein Interview

Simple pleasures stand out in the work of Lebanese designer Najla El Zein, who animates all things ordinary.

Located on the ground floor of a mid-20th-century building near the buzzing creative district of Mar Mkhayel in Beirut, the Najla El Zein Workspace is, like many a hidden treasure, a world within a world. Spread across three rooms, wooden worktables and brimming shelves are bathed in the tungsten glow of three woolly yarn-dripping clouds overhead. A whitewashed birdcage holds a pair of silver shoes, and curved wooden panels sandwich rings of light. Occupying every surface are materializations – some more developed than others – of ideas by the studio’s founder and namesake: Najla El Zein. Among objects awaiting lessons in theatricality, plasticity or transmutation is a strikingly fantastical creature, Sitt el Sitteit, described by Najla as 'a strong character with a mind of her own, ravishing when things are going her way but violent when not stroked right'. Composed of tens of thousands of toothpicks, Sitt el Sitteit ('a woman of utmost refinement') is a seemingly furry beast casually draped over a chair. Each sharp sliver of wood swims individually within a spiky sea of spines. 'What began as a personal fascination with the way in which toothpicks spill out on the table when you drop the box became a desire to imitate the effect – to multiply and transform an object so simple and banal into a layered, complex and sensuous landscape.' To achieve the final result, which was exhibited in November at the Singapore Art Fair, Najla and her team spent months experimenting and doing 'manual engineering'. The labour that led to Sitt el Sitteit is a good example of the hard work that goes into all their endeavours.

Najla's work focuses on the universal language of the senses. Although painstakingly intricate when inspected at close range, her projects urge the observer to get involved in the bigger picture, which evokes earthly delights and simple pleasures. Invited to participate in the second edition of House of Today, an exhibition organized by the eponymous design platform, which supports and showcases local and international talent, she contributed Sensorial Brushes, a five-piece set of 'pleasure tools' that addressed the theme of the show: Nude. The brushes examined different types of bodily sensations often felt in an intimate setting. Najla contemplated all sorts of words used to describe such feelings and came up with names for her tools: Stroke, Blink, Tickle, Scratch and Sweep. The next step was to associate each verb with a material and, ultimately, to create personalities for the objects based on bodily sensation, language and the material used to make each brush. Although the materials destined to interact with skin varied from an ostrich feather to brass pins, all handles were fashioned from marble: 'a material we worked with for the first time – amazingly versatile in terms of colour, shape and texture'.

Resting on a gleaming brass support is Blink, a Pentelic-marble wand tipped with artificial eyelashes. Najla says the design, particularly the length of the wand, 'allows you to understand its function immediately' and 'calls for you to be flirty and gentle'. Like the other four brushes, Blink is theatrical, indulgent, playful and ironic. Even the whisper of a butterfly kiss demands a distance between giver and receiver. After seeing Sensorial Brushes, Carpenters Workshop Gallery collaborated with Najla El Zein Workspace on a 20-piece limited edition of Sweep, which has been renamed Hay for the occasion.

Beirut, city of irony and paradox, is an apt backdrop for Najla’s activities, which refer – perhaps deliberately, perhaps not – to an urban environment of clashes and contradictions. After living and working in France and the Netherlands, the designer moved to Beirut in 2010, a city that ‘has taught me to let go. I have never felt more alive than I’ve felt here, where the vibrant, bubbling atmosphere opens my eyes to things in a natural way.’ She’s forged close relationships with local artisans and enthuses about the hospitality she finds in workshops where ‘they still welcome the day’s tenth visitor with coffee’. Beirut provides her with the social support she needs to continue her work – and to flourish.

Portraits Ieva Saudargaitė

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