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EXHIBITIONS

Khaled El Mays’ Jungle Paradise Celebrates Craft At Milan Design Week

Kieron Marchese | 15 Oct 2021

       

A slightly altered Nilufar Gallery housed the Lebanese designer’s 12-piece collection inspired by nature and the finesse of the maker’s hand.


After a global pandemic affirming a fundamental human need to connect with nature, a tropical setting at this year's Milan Design Week not only felt appropriate but poetic. It was also entirely befitting the 12 new pieces by Khaled El Mays it was staged to unveil. Presenting an array of flora and fauna visions, the unique installation—aptly titled Jungle—transformed the basement of Milan’s style-setting gallery Nilufar, inviting visitors to explore the designer’s latest iteration of contemporary craftsmanship through unlikely forms.

Installation view of Jungle at Nilufar Gallery 
Credit: Nilufar Gallery- Photographer: Mattia Iotti

Textile frescoes by Swiss Artist Federica Perazzoli served as the backdrop for assemblages identifiable as both old and new, at times ancient and others futuristic, but always suggestive of the makers’ hands. The makers in question are local artisans based in the Bekaa Valley, a  diverse patchwork of Mediterranean-lapped coast just outside Beirut where several workshops, each one an expert in their craft, worked in close collaboration with El Mays.

‘Cha-Cha Lounge Chair’ (2021) 
Credit: Nilufar Gallery - Photographer: Mattia Iotti

Their techniques demonstrate the designer’s predilection for raw materials: wood and wicker are bound together in imaginative pieces encapsulating the form, colour and texture of untamed landscapes and wild animals. At the conceptual level, the objects are trying to recreate nature, to freeze moments of natural beauty and morph them into usable objects. The Flora Armchair somehow resembles rolling hills and at the same time, with its velvety upholstery and wooden base, is evocative of a blossoming flower rooted in the ground. 


“I like to combine materials in my work to illustrate the story,” he says. “I do not think much about how refined or not the material being used is, but I think of how the mixes are perceived and their added value to the narrative being executed.”

Installation view of Jungle at Nilufar Gallery 
Credit: Nilufar Gallery- Photographer: Mattia Iotti

Where the narrative isn’t tied to nature’s everlasting stores, it is surprisingly macabre. The Nomad Bench is wrapped in patchwork vachetta leather, the impressions of which feel like marks on skin; elsewhere, a delicate wicker framework cages the Skeleton and Flesh Cabinet; and the fluidity between the two parallels is represented by a pair of mirrors set against shapeless rattan screens, modernising an age-old Middle Eastern tradition of weaving rattan.


Leather—or as El Mays describes it, leather fur—also seems to be something of a leitmotif. Created from thin strips of recycled hide, it decorates the Cha-Cha Lounge Chair and Coffee Table with a look and feel reminiscent of raffia textiles. It also brushes the twisted tale of the designer’s first ever light the Snake Door, which presents itself as a spectacular hybrid of nature and artifice.

‘Tropic Flora Sofa’ (2021)
Credit: Nilufar Gallery - Photographer: Mattia Iotti

‘Flora Wicker Chair’ (2020)
Credit: Nilufar Gallery - Photographer: Mattia Iotti

Looking at the work of Khaled El Mays, it’s easy to reference primitive forms, especially given their origins. What is less obvious, however, is the thread of contemporaneity that runs through each piece. Consider the Welcome Mr Breuer Club Chair, for example, a deconstructed Wassily liberated from its 20th century constrictions. Given new authorship, the design icon is rendered unfamiliar thanks to a new dialogue between different cultures and geographies, the past and the present.

This curious dichotomy makes perfect sense when you look at Khaled El Mays’ background. He started his career by studying architecture at one of the Middle East’s top universities, the American University of Beirut. After that, he went on to study fine arts at Pratt Institute in New York, splitting his time between the US and the Middle East where his formative childhood years were nourished by his mother’s love for art.


 

Installation view of Jungle at Nilufar Gallery 
Credit: Nilufar Gallery- Photographer: Mattia Iotti

“She was always painting and using as many colors as she could,” he recalls. “I would be sitting next to her watching and regarding her love of interior design. There were always stacks and stacks of design magazines that I would flip through randomly without intention.”


After graduating from Pratt, El Mays returned to his native Beirut to establish his multidisciplinary design studio with a commitment to creating furniture with soul. What that means exactly isn’t hard to deduce. Of course, more often than not it involves experimentation with processes and materials by the hands of expert craftspeople but it's also intrinsically linked with his homeland and handicraft. Several of the designer’s other collections, namely his studio’s first ever furniture line, Rhizomes, were also made in close partnership with Lebanese workshops. “The ordered chaos of Beirut is always an inspiration,” he admits.

‘Snake Floor Lamp’ (2021) / ‘Welcome Mr Breuer Club Chair’ (2021)
Credit: Nilufar Gallery - Photographer: Mattia Iotti

It’s not that El Mays is against technology, it is just that he enjoys finding creative ways of showcasing traditional craftsmanship, which in Lebanon has been in danger of disappearing because of several reasons: production pricing, a lack of government funding and little to no showcases to name just a few. So, it’s even more important that El Mays is spearheading a design scene in the Middle East to relieve these losses by turning upon ancient artistry and capturing the tactile beauty of natural materials and the skillful hands that master them. 

‘Cha-Cha Coffee Table’ (2021) and ‘Flora Sofa’ (2020)
Credit: Nilufar Gallery - Photographer: Mattia Iotti

‘Drawer Unit’ (2020)
Credit: Nilufar Gallery - Photographer: Mattia Iotti

“I don’t mind using modern technologies when needed,” he says. “There is always somehow a machine involved in the work I do, however, it is not the main production means and by the end of the process the impact of the machine is so minimal on the work that it becomes somehow irrelevant.”

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