We first saw Najla El Zein’s work at Design Miami/ last year. There at Carpenters Workshop Gallery was a brush with a base made from marble and bristles made from hay. Its material makeup was unconventional, its appearance charming, and its function not altogether there.
We learned that it was part of El Zein’s “Sensorial Brushes” series, meant to evoke imagined feelings of touch on the skin. Speaking to us from her studio in Beirut, El Zein shared her aim to create objects comprised of experience, mystery, and surprise—such as a corridor of whispering windmills, a stole of toothpicks, a lamp made from spoons or a sea sponge.
Both Lebanese and French, El Zein moved with her family to Paris during the war in Lebanon when she was two. While she was growing up in Paris, she became interested in design and objects and joined her mother on regular trips to the city’s teeming flea markets. She studied at École Camondo before returning to Beirut to set up her studio.
WHITEWALL: You’re interested in creating objects that evoke an experience or that ignite the senses. Why is that?
NAJLA EL ZEIN: What I try to do with every project is, of course, to create something beautiful, but despite that, I want to create an interaction between the pieces and the users. It’s not necessarily a functional interaction. It’s more about the experience and how the piece can live within the space it occupies.
WW: The “Sensorial Brushes” incorporated surprising materials like hay and feathers, and other works of yours have been made from spoons, Himalayan salt, or even toothpicks. How did you start working with such surprising materials?
NEZ: I have an interest in the material, and the materials that I use are not necessarily wood or bronze or other metals; it can be about toothpicks, spoons, and hay. The Spoon Lamp was one of the first pieces I created. It’s not about the spoon; it’s about the reflection and the beauty of the shape. It all started with putting spoons next to each other and seeing something very beautiful was happening where it reflected its surroundings. The piece looks almost like a reptile skin and when you look at it from afar, you forget about the spoons. What you see is a piece that lives throughout the day and changes all the time with the people that are around it or the light that reflects on it.
I’m much more interested in the experience of all the pieces I create, whether interactive in terms of touching, or listening to it, or using it.
WW: The Wind Portal you created in 2013 at the V&A Museum during the London Design Festival looked quite interactive, where you created an installation of paper windmills that spun as visitors walked past. Can you tell us about that project?
NEZ: That project was not necessarily about creating windmills that turned with the wind, but designing wind. The V&A asked me to choose a space to work, and I chose one of the most beautiful places in terms of the history of the museum, because it was between the old V&A and the new extension. I was very interested in that contrast and to be able to tell that story through the transition.
I think the most interesting part of the project is the experience of being inside that transition by listening to the wind and by seeing the wind flow and dance in between the windmills. We had a very complex wind system technique that went through the rods. Each rod had microscopic holes where the wind blew into the caps of the windmills. People didn’t really understand what was happening, and it created a certain magical mysterious feel to it.
WW: How did you arrive at using toothpicks for Sitt el Sitteit, which looks like a furry stole from far away, but is made up of layers and layers of toothpicks?
NEZ: It started with a box of toothpicks that fell. A sound was created and a very sensual movement, too, out of something that is so basic. After eight months of trying to re-create that specific moment, we came up with this fur that when you caress it you have the sound of what actually happened the first time that box fell, and it’s something super-sensual. And I’d like to develop this further in a future project.
WW: What kind of feeling did you want to evoke from your not-so-functional “Sensorial Brushes”?
NEZ: I wanted to explore the different sensations of the body. There is caressing, scratching, tickling, kissing, and so on, and I presented them under a series of different objects. One of them is in hay, which was then commissioned by Carpenters Workshop Gallery. The objects can’t actually be used. They are more sculptural, let’s say, than useful. But they tell their own story, and each one of them has their own character and talks about something specific that anyone can understand.
I always like to push my design approach in terms of being able to use materials that are around us but that not necessarily conventional. It amuses me and I think amuses the user or viewer.
Each one of the objects have their own story. They have their own soul. They are all handmade products and some are very technological, but they all meet under one roof, which is about experience, mystery, and surprise. That’s what I try to work for in all the products I make.
WW: Can you tell us about the holistic approach of your studio in Beirut, where you returned after studying at École Camondo and working in Paris and Rotterdam?
NEZ: We have amazing craftsmanship here in Beirut and I think the fact that each product, even if it’s a limited edition of certain objects, each one of them is different.
I think moving back to Beirut was really a big step in my career. I discovered myself. I completely let go of so many restrictions that one may face in Europe or anywhere else in the world. It’s such an inspiring place. Everything is possible here. You don’t know what will happen tomorrow, so it creates a very interesting bubbling environment in the creative field, but not only. That’s how people live here. There are no rules; everything is so chaotic. You really feel alive in this part of the world, in Lebanon.
WW: What are you working on next?
NEZ: Most of my past projects were commissioned by a client or there was a specific space in which to tell a story. Now I want to focus on myself. I want to be able to create piece that talks about my experience in the past three years and start putting more of my personality in my projects. So, rather than being inspired by a material, it will be inspired by me. I’m a different person today. I’m a mother, my life changed, and I want to be able to talk about that. I’m really looking forward to be able to step forward into that.
This article is published in Whitewall‘s 2017 Design Issue.