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Inside the Rana Salam Design Studio

During a recent trip to Beirut, Rana Salam welcomed our features editor into her home and studio to talk about the inspiration behind her cheeky designs and ingenious space.

I first met Rana Salam at a dinner party last October. You see, as luck would have it, I was offered a last minute invitation to join a friend of a friend for dinner. Little did I know that this invitation would serendipitously usher me to the front door of one of the most celebrated graphic designers in the Middle East: Rana Salam.

As I followed delicious smells of makloubet djeij into what I would soon find out was Rana Salam’s apartment, I marveled at a space brimming over with color and life. There were blinds saturated with purples, fiery oranges, and electric blues, motifs of the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum in a sassy Dolce & Gabbana leopard-print dress, a mountain of Art Deco pillows atop a monster plush sofa, a cactus, a hula-hoop, an unending assortment of books, including Salam’s The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie, mismatched china, vintage Coca-Cola crates, two life-sized Vespa figurines, and even a golden palm tree.

Rana Salam’s apartment, which also serves as her work studio, is a place that I can only describe as a mix between a Middle Eastern pop-art museum, Marni, and an uber-chic thrift shop. Each corner reads like a diary of Salam’s travels and adventures, and yet the space comes together like a happy accident – a tribute to art, fashion, and history, as well as a homage to the unexpected treasures in life.

I recently had the pleasure of revisiting Salam’s studio and sat down with the artist, designer, published author, and online entrepreneur to uncover the inspiration behind her cheeky designs and ingenious space. Click through our gallery above to explore her studio – a space where each object reveals a captivating story.

What is your core design aesthetic?
You can tell that the essence of the inspiration is Middle Eastern street culture. That started 25 years ago when I left for England and became really homesick. The way I would capture my home culture was through visual communication. That started with collecting things in the streets. I was exporting without thinking. In London, people had a distorted image in the media of the Lebanese being all bombed out and of Lebanon being this kind of fanatic and politically messed up country. I was very tired of that image, so the only way I felt I could change that was through visual communication, and that came through graphics. I wasn’t doing this mentally; it was just completely out of instinct.

Ten years after that, I guess that the brain connected with the heart and I started to understand what I was doing and thought I must be on to something, so I decided to capitalize on that. I realized the power of design; it could really change people’s perceptions. If it has that much power, one should take responsibility of that power. You need to understand your own value. Even subconsciously, when you come in here, you have a very positive image. You are absorbing. This happens through the unexpected, the things that have been discarded. People come in and they remember that they threw something away a long time ago and think, “Why did I do that?”

Tell us a bit about your studio?
When I came into this space, it was completely empty. This flat chose me. I walked in and thought, “My gosh! What an amazing space compared to London.” It had a lot of charm. The light was key. I started to fill it with objects that I collected throughout my travels that tell stories of my life. It came together like a diary or a collage of my being. Having studied design, I was able to look at things and use them in a different context, in a sort of juxtaposition. My flat has this celebration feel; it’s a space to celebrate.

It’s like being a cook; you put two things together and you don’t know what’s going to come out of it, but something delicious does. It’s not a recipe. There’s no recipe that I follow. It’s completely heart and soul. The recipe is to embrace what you love. It’s a cross of both countries: the United Kingdom and Lebanon. It’s also a mix of religions, which is what you see right in front of you everywhere in Beirut. On my street, there’s a church and a mosque, and that’s the beauty of being here.

What kind of work did you put into the studio?
I collect so much… junk. It becomes art after I collect it. My blinds are from a little print I found in Damascus. My dining room table is from Basta. I modernized it by taking off all the paint. It’s all stumbled upon. I was in Basta and these chairs were waiting for me. There’s also a table that was made by my father in the 50s that I re-launched. When I find something, I don’t know where it’s going to fit, but I always find a place; it’s very spontaneous.

Give us a verbal tour of your studio. What can visitors expect to see?
They will see my Egyptian cinema posters that I started collecting 25 years ago. I noticed a theme of hearts present in all of the posters, so I decided to exhibit them in London. The next Egyptian poster exhibition will be on the theme of belly dancers. Love and belly dancing were major themes in Egypt in the 1950s. In fact, pop culture started in Egypt. Arabic cinema started there. I used to spend a lot of time there when I was doing my thesis. I was young and I was mad. I was a risk-taker. I would go on adventures, and have so much fun, to the point where I would forget to go back home.

They can also expect to see my shirt cabinet, which is very Paul Smith. It came from London and it has all my little treasures in it. I call the Vespas my children because so many people have wanted to buy them but I refuse to give them up. I bought them at Portobello Market. I’m obsessed with scooters. I own a bright-yellow Vespa and I owned one when I was 15. My father gave me one, and along with the scooter came freedom. I think that’s the biggest influence on my whole being. When you have a scooter at 15, you have freedom, and I got much more connected with the street culture. I was a bit naughty and I would see all types of things and meet all types of weird people. It stayed in my blood, and, when I came back to this country after 25 years, I still thought I was 15. I was craving a Vespa.

What’s you favorite feature in your studio?
My new palm tree because it’s so kitsch. I got it in Basta for a hundred dollars. It’s my new find. But, of course, I love my creative space inside; it’s where all the ‘cooking’ happens. I also love the piano corner. It’s like a little style element and totally non-functional. I found the SEPT 3 letters, which now sit on top of the piano, lying around in a shop, and that date happens to be my birthday. That’s an example of how things find you.

Can you tell us about your website, Mishmaoul.com?
I was waiting for someone to say that they wanted to setup a company that produces Middle Eastern products, and that I would be responsible for the design. That was my vision. I was waiting and waiting, and the company never came through. It’s like marriage. You’re waiting and waiting and if the other person doesn’t come through, you marry yourself. I married myself.

My team and I started putting together a wish list: aprons, kitchen towels, tote bags, and so on. We started to see something growing. The only weakness was distribution and marketing. After two years of investing, it was failing. I was splitting myself between Rana Salam the designer and Mishmaoul.com, and, every time I tried to give up, something would come up, like a big sale coming through. I kept getting pulled back in. It’s hard, but maybe not as hard as I think it is.

How did you come up with the name Mishmaoul, which means unbelievable?
Every time someone would see my stuff, they would say, “Mishamoul!” It’s a bit of a mouthful for a westerner.

What are some of your career highlights?
Having my designs featured in the windows of Harvey Nichols was a turning point. It was exporting the culture to a western setting. Another highlight was my book. I collected lingerie that I was fascinated by. Not even the Syrians knew that it existed in their own country. It was fascinating. I would bring them back to Beirut and, one day, my father said I should do something with hem. It only happened when I met my co-editor. That’s how life is; you meet someone and there’s a connection. She said, “Rana, you have to do a book.” So, we did it. The result was amazing. Better than anything I’d done.

What is your advice for emerging Middle Eastern artists?
Play, play, and play! It’s very important. A lot of people get stuck behind a screen. Even yesterday, when I was consulting, I said, “Let’s get out of here. Let’s go outside and get inspired.” Free your soul. Trust what you love; always bring in what you love. Don’t be intimidated.

Lastly, what does Savoir Flair mean to you?
Sophistication, fun, and sexiness. I think Savoir Flair is a wonderful platform to celebrate contemporary women.

Rana Salam designs can be purchased at Mishmaoul.com


-May 9, 2013

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