Whenever a designer has been influenced by a convergence of cultures, a fabulous fusion of styles is the result. Nada Debs is of Lebanese origin and was brought up in Japan before studying interior architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design in the US. She then moved across the Atlantic to start her own company in the UK, designing and producing custom furniture. A return to her roots in Beirut marked a new chapter in Nada’s career, with the emergence of her signature style that celebrates the magical blend between Eastern aesthetics and the Western love of contemporary design.
You began your career designing children’s furniture. How did that happen?
Design is really about resolving a need, and when I was living in England, expecting my first son, I was looking for furniture that was simple, contemporary and pure, but most things I found were too traditional and fussy. Then I thought, what if I design a very contemporary line using marquetry work that was evident in antique furniture, but in modern colours? I started to get a name for doing children’s furniture, but I didn’t want to just have this speciality. I thought at some point I’m going to have to do grown-up furniture, so I did.
How does your background in architecture affect your design style?
I studied at Rhode Island School of Design and they taught me about the importance of conceptual design. You have to have a strong concept before you start the piece. It is all about structuring and cleaning up the spaces. It all flows. The design principles are the same whether you are doing architecture, interiors or furniture, you just follow it to a smaller scale.
Unlike many designers who have a background rooted in one or two cultures at the most, you have Japanese, Arabic and European heritage. How has this affected your sense of style?
I am a global citizen and have picked up design features and visual elements from each area. I didn’t really realise how much impact each culture had on me. The Japanese culture has influenced my preference for straight lines, and I love Arab heritage and modern European design. I decided I wanted to focus on emotional design – not just touching and seeing, but also how it makes people feel.
What is it about your style that appeals to all nationalities?
Just as I was searching for my own identity, trying to find the compromise between the Middle East and the Far East, I found a lot of people were like me, coming back to Beirut after years abroad, and they too were trying to find an identity. They saw this fusion of many different cultural influences and it appealed to them. They saw furniture that satisfied their emotional needs, with Middle Eastern touches, like the patterning or the mother of pearl, and yet at the same time, it has clean lines. I say it’s the same as we dress. I’m an Arab inside, but I’m dressed in modern clothing and my furniture is like that too.
Much of your recent work has a very vintage feel. Why is that?
Last year we launched a line called Vintage Meets Arabesque, and it’s inspired by vintage forms, while incorporating some kind of craft. The important thing is for each piece to have some human element. I seem to have a thing for vintage style, and thankfully people are loving that.
How does a design become iconic?
I think maybe it’s timing – what people are looking for at that particular time. Flexibility appeals to people too. My Pebble table is a design that I hope stands the test of time – you can adapt the colours, we have a fun, bright version using the colours of Smarties, yet this design works with more classical pastel shades too.
One of my favourite pieces is the floating footstool…
Me too. For the floating stools, it’s about the transparency, but it’s what you put inside that completely changes the look. I saw the fashion designer Essa’s home in InsideOut recently; we used really bright colours for his floating footstools, and this is what’s great about them, the same product can work in any surrounding. His style is very modern, yet I recently made some stools with brocade fabric and that worked too. I love that about them.
Do you have your own designs in your home?
I have mostly prototypes – the things that worked and the things that didn’t. I live with them for a while, see how I like them and see how they work. When people come over I don’t ask them about the pieces, but see if I can get a reaction from them. So I use my home as a kind of guinea pig!
What is your own home like?
People tell me it’s very warm. I don’t know if there’s a certain style, but I have things that I like to collect and somehow when I put them all together it works. My apartment is very rectilinear, so I used rugs as a base to create the space and then I placed the furniture around it. There are little Arabesque touches here and there. It has a warm mid-century feel, with vintage, modern and Arabesque bits thrown in.
What are you working on next?
My new collection is more urban and edgy. It uses concrete with mother-of-pearl inlay. I’m very excited because I’ve just been shortlisted for the prestigious Jameel Prize 3 in London’s V&A Museum for my Concrete Carpet, which is an installation I decorated with calligraphy and inlaid mother of pearl. I really love the contrast between the industrial concrete with the luminescent mother of pearl. I’m also playing with making patterns from acid-etched metal. So I’m heading into a real industrial feel, but there’s definitely still a natural element to it as well.
Your style is always evolving. What inspires you?
We’re all human – we all have eyes, ears and a nose – but each of us is different and unique. Being brought up in Japan and going to an international school, I had Indian, Chinese, Japanese, American, British, French and German friends. You have the tall people and short people, you have the Catholics and the Buddhists, and for me I always thought there has to be something in common between all of us, and I was always searching for something – this link that bound us together – and I found it through furniture.