Interview with Khaled Al-Mays

" a product designer, innovation needs to always be at the forefront."

SoBeirut: Can you paint a picture of your background in design?

Khaled Al-Mays (KM): I first started with architecture school at AUB. It provided a basic, formal education but afterward I still felt like there was something missing. I continued at Pratt Institute in New York, which was a life changing experience. The city impacted me and especially the education because it was a really eye-opening experience. They were very flexible and open minded about their approach to architecture and design and where these two fields mixed.

After that I came back to Beirut after four years in New York, and that’s when I started my brand. I came back in 2011 I officially launched in 2013.

SoBeirut: Was there a “light bulb” moment when you first realized you were interested in design?

KM: Well my mom was a painter, so I was always around her when she was mixing colors; I was always exposed to creativity and she was always interested in interior design. I used to live between stacks of interior design magazines. So it was always something that was around. I didn’t have to try to study them because they were always in front of me anyway.

SoBeirut: What do you try to express or incorporate in your product designs?

KM: I use and explore a lot of repetition in my work. Not just general repetition but also the repetition of behavior, the repetition of the vision, the repetition of form and of function. I dabble a lot with repetition and I think it’s obvious in my work.

SoBeirut: Would you say there’s a psychological aspect to your work that you find important?

KM: Yes of course, because as a product designer, I need to be innovative. As an interior designer, you cannot always be creative at every step in the process, but as a product designer, innovation needs to always be at the forefront. Therefore, there needs to be a lot coming from you. This is the only way to have a unique product that, lets say, reflects you as a designer.

SoBeirut: Can you give me an example of how you incorporate your personal experience or a story into a product?

KM: Well the Fishaway Project I’m presenting is a good example. The Fishawy is the famous Egyptian chair. In Lebanon they call it khyziran, but it’s the typical chair. It’s a cultural icon, but for the luxury business of today, it kind of lacked something. I decided to upgrade it and use better wood manufacturing processes. I also implemented additional brass to make it more luxurious and to fit it for contemporary homes. Then, I completed three more editions of the updated Fishawy. One is flattened out. Disks come out and it becomes a coffee table, but all the elements of the Fishawy are there. There is a Fishawy that becomes a nightstand. It was like I am intentionally ruining it but to get it another life.

SoBeirut: What do you think it takes to “make it” in the design scene in Lebanon?

KM: I think in terms of product, it’s all about innovation and how to keep people really wanting. Other than that I think also, it should be how much you are conscious of your culture and local production. Because you know, a lot of Lebanese designers manufacture outside of Lebanon, in many different countries; I am very keen and careful about keeping my productions in Lebanon, for now at least.

SoBeirut: How do you incorporate innovation in your designs and keep people interested?

KM: I try always to present a new idea. I always keep it simple. By simple, I don’t mean boring or underdeveloped. When I say simple I mean, simple to understand. I put a lot of thought into my work but I like it to be understandable from the first sighting. I don’t like to put myself in a position where I need to explain my work to you in order to for you to get what I mean.

SoBeirut: Are there buildings, venues or spaces in Lebanon that you draw inspiration from?

KM: I certainly like the historic Lebanese architecture that is influenced by the Italians and Ottomans of the 20’s and 30’s, late 1800’s. These are strong visual influences. When it comes to contemporary work, I’m a fan of Bernard Khoury’s work. He is clearly not trying to adapt to the Lebanese cityscape, which makes sense because, if you come to think about it, it’s pure chaos. So why try to adapt to something that is already not there? His projects always come out of nowhere in certain locations; I think that makes them more interesting because, adapt, to what? Half of Beirut was demolished. The 90’s were filled with crazy, illegal projects that went up left and right just because it was total chaos back then.

SoBeirut: What are some of your favorite places to hang out in Beirut?

KM: To hang out during the summer, I have to say it’s Sporting [Club]. I think it’s really understated, [and] relaxing. It is very contrasted with the super high-end luxury beach places that are popping out like popcorn from Beirut. In winter, I go a lot to Lux, a Johnny Farah restaurant. It’s the sister restaurant of Casablanca. It’s a cool bar-restaurant. I hang out there almost weekly. These are in terms of fun.

Whenever I have a chance, I like to go to Station in Jisr Al-Wati, the arts space of Nabil Canaan. When they throw a party, it’s a cool party. When they have an exhibition, it’s always good. Because you know, it’s also experimental. I like these underground arts spaces more than the formalized arts spaces. I think when you get to the formal venues, it becomes much more serious. They avoid a lot of issues and taboos of the Middle East and we cannot talk about, or exhibit, this or that. When it’s experimental or underground, basically, everything goes and that’s where you see the interesting mix of ideas and works.

SoBeirut: Do you have anything you’re excited to release during this year’s Beirut Design Week?

KM: I will be exhibiting in the main building of Beirut Design Week this year. I will be designing some seats where everybody can sit and interact within the building for Beirut design week. I didn’t design the actual pieces yet but I will be doing that, hopefully, within a couple of weeks.

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